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Looking back on a golden age in PR

11 Sep

I have been a member of the Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR) since early 1998. That’s almost 20 years – and long before it achieved the Royal Charter in 2005. A Fellow since 2013, I am attending the Fellows’ lunch in the House of Lords this week. So now is a good time for a moment’s reflection.

The rules have since changed but when I became a member I did so the basis of having worked in the business for ten years. So my twenty year anniversary also marks a thirty year association with public relations (longer than the lifespan of many of the people I teach).

I’m not claiming wisdom simply based on longevity, but I do hope to have achieved some perspective. I am not alone: I see that Cambridge-based consultant Roger Darashah has noted the twentieth anniversary of his business by charting what has and hasn’t changed in that time.

Twenty years ago I was chief press officer within the corporate affairs team of a stock market listed British technology firm. Originally the scientific research arm of the UK government’s Atomic Energy Authority, it had been the last privatisation of that long period of Conservative government that started with Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was surprisingly extended by John Major in 1992, and ended with Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997.

Two thoughts on this. One is that chief press officer was an important job commanding a good salary back then. It now sounds marginal and old-fashioned. We had email and the internet in 1997 – but we didn’t have Google, Facebook or Twitter. Media relations meant print and broadcast, not digital or social media.

British innovations in technology were sufficiently rare to merit reports in national newspapers and on BBC national radio and television channels and a firm with projects and personnel from Dorset to Dounreay was guaranteed lots of local media attention.

While my work as an educator defines my career, I can see in retrospect that I had reached a career high in my early to mid 30s – and suspect that’s true of many people in public relations.

The other reflection is that though my expertise was very much the media relations subset of public relations – and I was having to learn quickly the other aspects of corporate communication – context and timing are key to public relations jobs. This was a newly-privatised business complete with a stock market listing and a need for investor relations advice and competitor and market analysis, but most of my colleagues had been there when it was a public sector organisation and worked to different principles and timescales. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act on joining (and subsequently delved into the archives to learn some chilling and heroic Cold War stories).

I learnt that it’s easier to discuss innovation than to effect change. That people, culture and organisations are more complex than machines. That’s why internal communication is so important and so challenging.

I learnt that the future is unpredictable. The share price was soaring in 1997 and there were parliamentary questions claiming that state assets had been sold off too cheaply. Yet that market sentiment later evaporated, the share price stagnated and the firm no longer exists as an independent business. I had chosen to leave by the end of that year, another case of good timing.

In retrospect, I had been living through a golden age for public relations work. The wave of innovation introduced by the personal computer in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s led to a booming technology PR sector. Privatisations and market liberalisation meant this was a good time for entrepreneurs. Startups tended to follow the Microsoft model of a PR-led strategy (Apple, a marketing success story, did not reach its dominant position until much more recently).

In this sector and at that time, public relations was distinctive and it was valued. Media relations was a well regarded specialism (and British technology journalists were notoriously challenging so there was no room for complacency).

PR looks less special and less distinctive today. Fewer people will build a career based on their media contacts and I’d advise graduates to look more broadly for roles from ‘content marketing’ to ‘corporate communication’. Today when people talk about working with influencers they rarely mean journalists.

That said, media relations is still an asset in the world of inbound or digital marketing since Google has been quick to penalise other SEO tactics. In these circles, media relations is shaking off its reputation for spam and returning to the idea that it’s about relationships.

One more change. When I joined the Institute of Public Relations, it was the only professional body representing individual practitioners. I felt this was an important professional step – and am still proud to profess my membership. The PRCA was then a trade association representing large consultancies and had been my natural network in earlier consultancy roles.

Today, I’m also an individual member of the PRCA – now renamed as the Public Relations and Communications Association. It used to be easy to explain the difference between the two organisations, but it’s much less clearcut today.

I have dedicated thirty years to public relations and tend to hold to the ‘stronger together’ argument. But others prefer to define their role as internal communication or public affairs or analyst relations – anything but public relations, it seems. Can the union hold?

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Review: Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management

11 Feb

Crisis, Issues and Reputation ManagementThe CIPR defines public relations as being ‘about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

So it’s surprising that the very first book in the 15-strong CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series to even mention reputation in its title was published only last year. It’s been worth the wait.

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of Regester Larkin has built on Mike Regester and Judy Larkin’s classic crisis management text and refocused it on reputation – or more specifically risk to reputation.

To Griffin, ‘what identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organization – and the immediacy of the threat.’

He views risks as either issue-led or incident-led. But he several times distinguishes between crisis management, a strategic matter that demands the attention of senior executives, and emergency response to incidents, a more operational process. Clearly he has fought this battle many times and has learnt the need to talk up the strategic nature of reputation risk.

He discusses the scenario of product development or a joint venture. At what point should the proposed development be subjected to (reputation) risk assessment: early on or at the point of announcement? The idea that a corporate affairs team could have this power within an organisation is an intriguing counter to the literature that presents marketing as an all-encompassing function and public relations a tactical promotional activity.

So this is a grown-up book, born out of experience, that reads like a management consultant’s text – complete with many two-by-two grids.

In an aside, Griffin mounts a powerful critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. Subscribing to this concept is to accept the framing of business as instinctively self-interested, even irresponsible. Yet he argues that ‘the best way to prevent issue-driven reputation risks is to have exemplary financial, corporate, environmental and social performance.’

Much better, he argues, is the more neutral concept of corporate citizenship.

Classic crisis management cases are supplemented by more recent examples, notably BP Deepwater Horizon which has already cost the once-admired business over $42 billion (a rare occasion where reputation damage can be calculated in monetary terms).

Each situation is distinctive, though the risks and patterns may be predictable. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, BP’s Britishness  became a spur for the White House and US public opinion to escalate the war of words. Corporate manslaughter, massive environmental destruction in America blamed on a Hollywood British baddie.

The book is full of models and practical approaches, though it avoids simple checklists and formulaic approaches. The author completely ignores the academic literature on issues and crisis management – whether because he’s never consulted them or because he feels they add no value, I’m not sure.

Students and less experienced practitioners can benefit from Griffin’s evident expertise, but could also have been helped even more if there had been a further reading section. But this is a challenging and sophisticated addition to the PR in Practice series, so I can hardly fault it for not being an academic textbook.

CIPR Fellows’ lunch

4 Aug
Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Jolly? Good? Fellow!

15 May

So, after fifteen years as a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (MCIPR), I have today been awarded a fellowship (FCIPR).

The CIPR’s letter tells me it’s their ‘highest membership grade’ and that it’s been awarded for ‘the outstanding contribution [I] have made to the CIPR and the PR industry’.

Both claims are open to question.

Chartered Practitioner status is much more deserving of praise because it’s based on attainment, not just longevity (when I first joined as a member, a fellowship would have become mine by right after a mere ten years).

I’ve avoided joining things, so have not gained this recognition through years of dedicated committee work. Others are in a better position than me to judge my contribution to the PR industry, but it’s where I’ve worked and it’s what I’ve taught for some 25 years (so I should have contributed something).

I’ve also been rather a ‘critical friend’ of the CIPR during this time, but have belatedly come to the view that our industry/profession does need a strong body to champion professional standards and to speak up for practitioners and educators. So I have always encouraged students and practitioners to join.

I also feel that one representative body would be better for us than two – or twenty (I’m concerned that there will soon be bodies representing eg internal communicators, public affairs practitioners, those in analyst relations, marcoms etc). We’re a surprisingly fissiparous bunch for people known for their skills in relationship building and practical problem solving.

But that’s for another discussion. Today, I’ll pause to mark another milestone on my journey. Jolly? Rarely. Good? Not always. Fellow? Finally.

Let me also note that I did not seek or pursue this recognition. Had it not been for the persistence of a friend in the business I’d have carried on as before. We can all benefit from some objective public relations advice.

CIPR election

13 May

I’m still sitting on the fence, undecided where to cast my vote – but certain that I should vote in the election for CIPR president. Perhaps this post will clarify my thinking.

There are two strong candidates, yet a vote is a binary choice. By voting for one candidate, you’re in effect voting against another.

Stephen Waddington is the frontrunner (besides which, I’m sure he’s never topped an alphabetical list before this election). Wadds is energetic, likeable and he’s set out a vision that provides clear leadership for the profession. My first instinct was to vote for Wadds. He is well connected and very active online, and will gain overwhelming support from the younger, socially-networked crowd.

Jon White is the outlier. He has been providing a thoughtful challenge to the profession for many decades as a scholar (he was the UK researcher involved in James Grunig’s excellence project) and practitioner. He’s a visionary, and the recent 2020 study of PR’s future was a useful contribution to the debates on PR’s standing. His perspective that public relations is a branch of management consultancy is challenging to all (and perhaps will antagonise some). Though a lower profile candidate, the demography of the electorate (CIPR members are older than typical PR practitioners) may favour Jon White who will be known to many older members. My instinct to vote for White is that he may not stand again (Wadds is younger, and could be persuaded to run again).

While I mull over my personal (and private) choice – here’s my prediction of the outcome. I expect Wadds to win, but by a narrower margin that some would expect (55%-45% of those voting). Whoever you choose, do please vote if you’re eligible as it will give the winning candidate a mandate to provide much-needed leadership.

 

CIPR 1 v 0 PRCA

4 Oct

Today's news that the PRCA now welcomes individual members is not a surprise. The PRCA's competitive moves onto the CIPR's territory have been clear for some time.

The CIPR has responded with a statement:

"We support healthy competition and we believe – as we have said repeatedly – that there is a role for a trade body representing consultancies and a Chartered body representing individual members. We have consistently maintained that it is in the interest of the profession to work together to promote professionalism, standards and public understanding of what  we do. It is for this reason that we believe the PRCA’s announcement does not represent a step taken in the best interests of the profession."

I also support competition, but recognise that in some fields representation is better served by a single voice. Would workers be better served by joining two trades unions claiming to represent their interests, or one? Would one or two be a more powerful lobbying/negotiating force?

There are some 60,000 people in UK public relations roles. Scarcely a quarter of these are members of either the CIPR or the PRCA today. The professional project demands more members and a clear voice for the profession.

We had one body from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (the then Institute of Public Relations). The PRCA broke away in 1969 when consultancies felt they needed stronger representation. For four decades we have had a professional body representing individual practitioners (now the CIPR) and a trade association representing PR consultancies (the PRCA).

Equally, there used to be trades unions representing boilermakers among many other specialist trades. Now there are general unions like GMB and Unison.

I would prefer to see one PR representative body in the UK – and still predict it will have to happen by negotiation. If need be, it will happen by the choices of thousands of members.

I already pay my subscription to the CIPR. I'm publicly supportive (but willing to air my criticisms of the body in private). I'm going to keep this membership, so the question for me is should I pay an additional £100 to join the PRCA. My answer today is no. If everyone makes a positive decision one way or another, the outcome will be one of these bodies emerging stronger than the other.

It will take longer than a negotated outcome – and will be more expensive – but it will lead to the same result. Vote with your wallet.

A week in the life

27 Jan

Increasingly it seems that education never sleeps. Particularly if there's an educational aspect to one's presence on social media.

I'm not complaining: it's a privilege to teach and I'm fortunate to be busy. Here are some things I'm looking forward to over the next seven days:

  • Teaching on a CIPR Diploma course in Bulgaria (Saturday and Sunday)
  • Teaching public relations to second year business, marketing and journalism students (Monday)
  • Moderating a batch of Diploma scripts and some MA PR Writing assignments (Tuesday)
  • Starting delivery of a new, experimental Public Relations and New Media module (Wednesday)
  • Giving positive feedback to returning CIPR Diploma students and first year PR students (Thursday)
  • Planning a paper for the International History of Public Relations conference
  • Discussing a proposed chapter for a textbook
  • Designing new social media modules for a revamped Sport Marketing course
  • Giving feedback to dissertation students
  • Hunting out more stories for our subject group blog
  • Attending the CIPR networking event on Thursday
  • Editing new stories for Behind the Spin
  • Keeping up with RSS, Twitter, blogs, news, email and books (last, not least)

We all fall short of our highest expectations, and I'm sure I'll slip up and forget some things I should be doing, but I like to keep my eye on the goal. If I can put it in one word, I aim to be encouraging.