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14 Mar

Drew Benvie PR WeekDrew Benvie has resigned from Hotwire, launched a new consultancy business Battenhall and used his Huffington Post column to explain why the Comms Agency model is ripe for disruption.

So what does the future hold? I firmly believe a new kind of agency that is built for the social media economy can thrive, where everything starts with social, but the experience backing that up in each individual adds another dimension. Disruption of the agency model as we know it.

He’s not alone. Jed Hallam (author of The Social Media Manifesto) writes that PR isn’t dying, but PR agencies might…

It used to be that public relations was the pipeline to the public, but now that’s no longer true. So the role of PR now has to become more strategic. It has to evolve and has to take centre stage at a more strategic, and senior level.

Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington probably share this thinking. Last year they resigned from leadership roles within a mid-sized consultancy and are now in senior roles in different international consultancies.

To me, this suggests that boutique public relations businesses can thrive if they find their niche, but mid-sized businesses might be squeezed between the specialists and the large international networks.

I’m sure I’ll return to this theme because it interests me – but my blog’s theme is public relations education. For many of the same reasons, education is also ripe for disruption. That’s what I want to explore here.

Why I teach: it’s the biggest communication challenge

25 Feb

Teaching in Bulgaria Looking back on almost thirty years in the workplace, I think I can spot the twin peaks of my career.

Twenty years ago I was a public relations consultant with an outstanding list of clients in the fast-growing technology sector. Working life was hectic, and we were building and developing a great team of colleagues.

I'm now in full-time public relations education. Working life is hectic, but I'm helping develop some talented young people.

I've made one rather banal link between the two roles. Much better is this from Maister et al's The Trusted Advisor, a book about consultancy skills in business:

In many ways, advisory skills are similar to those of great teaching. A teacher's task is to help a student get from point A (what they know, understand, and believe now) to point B (an advanced state of deeper understanding and knowledge). It is poor teaching for the professor to stand at the front of the class and say "B is the right answer!" (As the old joke goes, a lecture is the fastest means known for getting ideas from the notes of the teacher into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.)

Maister et al 2000: 33

The one obvious difference between my two peaks is that the technology sector was fast-growing then, and has remained so ever since. Higher education has had a twenty year growth spurt in the UK (it was in 1992 that former polytechnics became universities), but the brakes are on right now.

We're still in business and our skills are still in demand, but it's a tougher world to enter now. That said, I'm always willing to talk to practitioners about the journey from PR practice to PR education, a journey that often starts when you give a guest lecture and discover it to be a very worthwhile communication challenge. Perhaps you too will come to find it the biggest communication challenge of your career.

Photograph from Apeiron Academy's photostream on Flickr

First find the problem

27 Aug

Medicine is often used to make comparisons, most often in the context of ethics and professionalism.

I'm drawing from medicine to make a simple point that many miss about the public relations planning process. It's about the diagnosis, not just the prescription.

You can't prescribe a dose of social media activity, or a course of media relations, or the surgery of an event, until you've first found the problem your prescription is designed to solve. So, find the problem, then recommend the appropriate solution.

You wouldn't be too impressed if a doctor wrote a prescription whilst admitting they didn't know what's wrong with you.

Easy? Of course, but I'm surprised how many practitioners begin with the prescription, preferring detailed Gantt charts (prescription) to persuasive executive summaries (diagnosis).

New? Not at all. Decades ago, Grunig and Hunt wrote: 'Typically, organizations develop a formal communication subsystem when the organization or its publics behave in a way that has consequences upon the other.' They argued that these consequences create a public relations problem.

To turn this around, if PR originates when there's a problem to be solved, the absence of a problem logically means no need for PR. So first find your problem! No diagnosis, no prescription.

Natural selection of PR consultants

6 May

Yesterday's announcement from Hill & Knowlton UK that it is reorganising by industry sector rather than by PR practice area suggests one way forward for large PR consultancies.

The benefits of this approach are obvious. It focuses on clients and their problems. It plays to the trend towards integration (which major campaign does not have an internal or a digital dimension?). It plays to the strengths of a large, international, WPP-owned consultancy network.

But there are risks, too. There's the complaint I sometimes hear from general practitioners in medicine. It's not about their pay or status, it's that it can become boring dealing with the same routine problems day after day.

The trend in consultancies has appeared to be towards global and integrated services. But there's a contradictory trend towards smaller specialists in areas like social media, internal and international communication. It's possible that the brightest and most ambitious practitioners will realise that their careers will be more secure gaining a transferable specialism rather than operating in a generalist environment. It's the process of natural selection observed by Darwin.

Pan-European PR

20 Apr

Bolognablog I'm researching some case studies and inviting expert opinions for a class I'm teaching this summer.

One of the assignments – which can't be researched in any textbook – involves proposing a suitable PR and comms network for a US technology startup newly arrived in Europe.

  • Where to place the headquarters?
  • Where else to locate team members?
  • Which languages are essential?
  • What combination of in-house and consultancy expertise would you recommend?
  • Which PR and comms specialisms are vital at the outset?

I'll be approaching some of the larger PR consultancy networks to hear what advice they can offer, but I'm happy to listen to a range of opinions on the topic – and would welcome your input (in public or in private) via:

  • Documents or slides
  • Video or audio interviews
  • Hyperlinks to online content

I'm also recording contributions from country and regional PR experts (practitioners and academics) and am collecting the thoughts of some European thought leaders in public relations research.

How PR works (continued)

18 Aug

So you want some publicity for your product or company (or to boost the vanity of your boss)? Then think up a controversial news angle and support it with the semblance of research. (Think of the headline and work backwards from there. Be sure to build in some searchable keywords). Here's a masterclass:

    76% Of Businesses Do Not Understand What PR Is

The owner of pr2go, the online PR business has criticised practitioners for failing to communicate what the discipline entailed after discovering that 76 per cent of businesses didn’t understand what public relations was.

James Hobday, CEO of pr2go, said that the statistics had come to light as part of ongoing marketing activity for the business. The online service stripped back the PR discipline to its most basic form, offering businesses and agencies the opportunity to access affordable PR.

The service, which sees a team of journalists with experience across a broad range of sectors prepare press information and distribute it on behalf of our clients for a flat fee, has proved a big success, both with businesses wanting localised PR but also with marketing agencies wanting to add value and offer the service to their clients.

“We’ve implemented a fairly aggressive marketing campaign to raise awareness and generate business, and the thing that has appalled me is the lack of understanding of what PR really is,” said James.

“To date, 76 per cent of people we’ve spoken to have not understood what PR is. We’re not talking your average man in the street here, we’re talking marketing managers and directors of large businesses with multiple regional sites needing localised PR.

“We spoke to more than 500 business people seeking to raise the profile of their company across the UK, and their definition of PR varied from telesales to mail-shots. Very few of them understood that it involved the use of online, broadcast and print media to get their key messages and stories across,” he said.

“It concerns me as it is such a massive industry and for those incorporating PR into their communications strategies to have such a weak understanding of what it means suggests that PR practitioners are missing the mark significantly when it comes to actually demonstrating and justifying their product,” he added.

Via Fresh Business Thinking

That's how to do it. But wait a minute: the people who don't know what PR is thought that it involved telesales and mailshots. The expert assures them it involves the use of 'online, broadcast and print media to get their key messages and stories across'.

Well, up to a point. The use of ex-journalists to create media publicity is, I would have thought, the readily understood part of PR, the tip of the iceberg.

Below the water, you need to know what you're hoping to achieve with the publicity (a strategy); you need to know when to use – and when not to use the media; when to prioritise internal over external communications; how one message aimed at a customer can mean something very different to an employee or a shareholder. You need to know when to listen rather than shout.

In principle, if the legal process involved in buying a house (conveyancing) can be turned into a routine online business, then so can publicity and PR. But just as you most need lawyers in the bad times, so you might need public relations advisers to help you when you really don't want the news out there. That seems to me to be the limiting factor on PR2GO's proposition, not the lack of understanding of PR in business.

You only spin when you’re winning

12 Jun

It's a potent criticism of public relations. That we shout loud when there's good news to tell, but go very quiet when there's nothing new to say. Kevin Moloney calls it 'hemispheric communications' because the PR sun only shines on one side of the globe.

There are new updates to Behind the Spin, focused around the themes of consultancy and technology (as well as the usual advice for students and graduates).

Consultancyissue Our cover picture illustrates a PR consultancy in Second Life.

That was something worth shouting about in 2006; but what's happening now?

I can't blame the consultants for treating Second Life (and other social spaces) as a playground – nor even for shouting about this – since how else can they attract and advise clients?

But I'm left wondering what happened next.

The bad-on-paper problem

18 May

You know about good-on-paper people? They tick all the boxes – on paper. In person, they can be disappointing to meet: there's just no chemistry.

Many public relations consultants are good-on-paper, I feel – perhaps because dating is such a good metaphor for the competitive pursuit of client relationships.

Most undergraduate students are the reverse of this. They're confident presenters and persuasive and personable individuals. It's just that they're bad-on-paper. When you come to read their essays you realise that inside that confident exterior lurk the thought processes and writing skills of a child.

Of course, it's easier to fix the bad-on-paper problem than the good-on-paper problem. Students have time on their side and need to be told when and why their written words let them down. The obvious fix for a good-on-paper consultant who's not winning new business is to be more modest – advice they're unlikely to heed in a recession.

Still growing, just

6 Mar

WPP's results are closely watched as they say so much about the relative performance of various marketing services including public relations. They also give a global view. There's a straw to cling on to, but worse is expected from 2009:

Public relations and public affairs was the fastest growing communications services sector on a like-for-like basis. New technologies and new media have, once again, demonstrated the power of editorial publicity through fast-growing new applications such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Wikipedia… In addition, public relations and public affairs have benefitted [sic] from the impact of polling techniques, which have provided a more scientific basis for the industry.

Turning shares into stakes

5 Feb

I've enjoyed a sporadic virtual presence at Davos thanks to many media reports and online commentary. My highlight? This phrase stands out in Richard Edelman's summary:

“You cannot think about shareholder value without considering stakeholders. Any business that wants to endure must have trust and agreement of society for legitimacy." Ian Davis, McKinsey.

It's interesting to note that management consultants are focusing on more than the bottom line (perhaps it's inevitable). But it poses a challenge to PR consultants, because this should be our natural territory. What's the purpose of public relations? To help establish and maintain the social legitimacy of organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. We've recommended and conducted communications audits for many years; who's going to be first to conduct a legitimacy audit?

Welcome to the age of legitimacy. Prepare to move on from the age of marketing and branding.