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Rules are there to be broken

18 Feb

It’s a conventional saying. What made it memorable was when it was used by one of my school teachers.

I may have misinterpreted the meaning. There’s a difference between rules ‘should’ be broken and rules ‘are there’ to be broken.

If I speed, I may be fined, or lose my licence. If I don’t pay my taxes, I’ll be in trouble. So there’s some merit in following the rules if you want a quiet life.

But look around you at the world. The rules-based post-war world order is being torn down by the current president of its principal creator. And does the Kremlin play by the rules? What exactly are the rules when it comes to dinsinformation campaigns and asynchronous warfare?

In the UK, is politics following the normal rules when a Conservative government wins a majority thanks to votes in traditional Labour seats in the north while liberals in affluent areas in the south hold their noses?

But my topic is not politics but education. We’ve created a generation of students who’ve learnt how to follow the rules just as the world is overturning the principle of ‘business as normal’. We incentivise those who respond to manageable tasks in predictable ways. We don’t do enough to encourage individualism or creativity.

This may be an appropriate way to prepare people for rules-based workplaces. But how does it allow for disruption or innovation?

Can you set an assignment when there are no rules other than the requirement to ‘go solve the problem’? Educationalists say you can’t. The world says we must.

What was memorable about my school teacher telling me that ‘rules are there to be broken’ is that it sounded subversive to me. It was unexpected and liberating. It was a valuable lesson.

We’ve learnt about the value of the memorable teacher this week from retired footballer Ian Wright. There’s a soft power in teaching that can lead to some unexpected outcomes long after the assumed ROI of grades or student satisfaction survey responses. I bet no one included that in the ‘learning outcomes’ of a long ago lesson.

Ask why, not what

15 Jan

Allow me a moment of professional pride.

Yesterday, my first year public relations students sat an exam. For one thing, they were all there (bar one who was taken ill overnight). For another, they all stayed for the full two hours.

During this time they wrote answers to just three questions. I’ve not yet graded the scripts but I don’t expect to be disappointed.

Now, there should be nothing surprising in students prioritising exams. But the educational establishment disapproves of open questions at this level. Instead, the expectation is that I should be assessing knowledge through a series of closed, multiple-choice questions. How does that even work in public relations? What preparation would it be for the future?

What’s the value in knowledge when so much is just a Google search or Siri enquiry away? Certainly, it doesn’t justify years of study and thousands of pounds in tuition fees.

Besides, as a new book by Daniel Susskind argues, in a world of automation we should encourage our young people to opt for non-routine jobs that require subjective judgements (that sounds just like public relations, to me). To ask ‘why?’ questions, which AI is bad at, rather than ‘what?’ questions which machines are better and cheaper at answering than us.

It’s a deeply frustrating paradox that as education has become more expensive, we have been discouraged from challenging young people. Just imagine what difficulty might mean for ‘student satisfaction’!

Now, my students are not customers who need to be kept constantly satisfied. Nor were they visibly dissatisfied with their exertions yesterday. The end game of education is something much more important than a customer satisfaction survey.

It ain’t easy

15 Nov

Learning isn’t easy. Nor is teaching.

Last year, my first year class told me the teaching was too unstructured, and that they wanted more lectures and more theory.  Yes, really. This year, you guessed it: too much lecture material; too much choice of theoretical perspectives.

Why isn’t there one authorised (ie correct) definition of public relations, someone asked? What is the distinction between marketing and public relations?

I found myself defending the messiness of real life against the over-simplification of a classroom perspective.

I can do simple. I told my class the purpose of public relations is ‘to promote and protect.’ That’s simple. (The problem is, it’s too simple, but you have to start somewhere.)

So we present a menu of alternatives for discussion and critique. Welcome to higher education.

So let me ask the question again, why can’t I make it simple? Because the world does not stand still, it continues to revolve. The world this first year class will graduate into will be different from the world today, which is different from the world described in previous textbooks.

Let’s say there was one, fixed, immutable view of the practice called public relations. Let’s say it was written in the 1990s and designed to describe the practice in straightforward terms. Let’s have a try:

‘Public relations practitioners fax news releases to journalists working on print publications.’

How future-proof would this be? What would be the point of studying it at university? What would your chances be of earning a good living a decade or two from now?

So, we don’t want immutable and inflexible views of the purpose or the practice of public relations. We want agile and adaptable people working in a valuable field. It may or may not be called public relations, but it will cover many of the concepts we discuss (relationships, reputation, communication etc) and involve an ever-changing selection of media and channels.

At a time when the future seems especially uncertain, a historical perspective gives some comfort. There are now three decades of PR graduates in the workforce in the UK. The range of roles and job titles is ever-changing. Some have left the field for recruitment, or teaching. But most are working in the broad field of public relations, but with titles such as:

  • Director of corporate affairs
  • Social media manager
  • Digital marketing
  • Copywriting and editing
  • Agency owner
  • Brand manager
  • Content marketing
  • Communications manager
  • Public affairs manager

That’s a cause for celebration, not a reason for a narrow-minded lament.

Stick with simple, if you must. Choose the primary colours of a cartoon if you must. But I think you’ll find the rich, full colour moving picture much more interesting, challenging and rewarding. Just don’t ever expect it to be easy.

PR professional qualifications: the shock of the new

19 Jan

Last year the CIPR Diploma had a major revamp: new syllabus, new assignments, new focus (on corporate comms). It’s now the CIPR Professional PR Diploma.

We ran the new course with a very small cohort at Leeds Beckett University and this year, the second year of running, we have a full class.

Now it’s the turn of the CIPR Professional PR Certificate (formerly the CIPR Advanced Certificate). There was always a positioning problem – as this was never an advanced qualification. It’s now like a younger sibling of the Diploma – so it shares some of the sophisticated focus on corporate comms, while being pitched at ‘technicians’ rather than ‘managers’.

How is it going? It’s still too soon to tell, and I’m not an objective observer.

So I’ve asked some from the first cohort to give me their reflections, mid course (reflection is now built-in to the assessments for this professional qualification).

Millie Hamnett writes

The CIPR Professional PR Certificate. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

My first thought when I started researching public relations qualifications was how does someone just starting out, with only a couple of years’ experience as a Communications Executive and a degree in Journalism manage to complete a ‘Professional PR Certificate’. Surely ‘professional’ means I need more than that?

But not being one to be put off at the first hurdle, I delved further into what the CIPR and their foundation degree level qualification had to offer. Reassured by their entry requirements which included a UK degree (tick), two years’ experience in a public relations role (tick), and the promise of not only creative, but theoretical learning, too, I took the plunge, filled out my application and pressed submit.

Fast forward to three months down the line and I’m half way through the eight teaching days, with one assignment under my belt and a hundred ideas for the second flying around my mind.

I’m already seeing the benefits of studying for the Professional PR Certificate.

At work, I’m now starting to have a deeper understanding of not only the how, but the why behind what we do – giving me growing confidence and credibility in my role. The varied content of the course and the opportunity to research, learn and put into practice newly gained skills is a sure fire way to get geared up for the world of PR.

The flexibility the CIPR qualification offers suits me down to the ground. A couple of days in the classroom at regular intervals to really get my head into the theory of PR, followed by the creativity of the assignments that I can fit into my schedule when it suits me, is the ideal way to fit in studying alongside a full time and demanding job.

To anyone like me, with aspirations to progress their career in Public Relations and looking for the next step, I’d say go for it! The Professional PR Certificate’s proving to be a great investment in my future and a move in the right direction for this stage of my career.

Tom Holt writes

I’m part on of an in-house communications team with a social housing association in West Norfolk and was among the first in the country to take up the CIPR Professional PR Certificate in October 2017.

Here are my experiences of the certificate so far:

If like me you have taken the road less travelled into public relations then you will understand the phrase ‘learning on the job’.

My undergraduate degree was in Archaeology, but it wasn’t until I completed my NCTJ in Journalism that I began to see PR as a viable career path.

After 18 months of on the job development, picking up skills and techniques as I go, this course is giving me the nuts and bolts of theory and practical application that I needed to complement my own on-job experience.

Public Relations is all about continuous development and learning from experience,  but there is always a place for a qualification that structures and formalises that development.

The great thing about the CIPR Professional PR Certificate course is that it’s all practical. From the very first classroom session I have been employing techniques learnt on the course in my day job.

The assignments that you are required to produce for assessment can be based on your own place of employment, giving you a chance to immediately see payback for your investment  into the course.

I have personally found that the certificate has complemented rather than competed with my regular workload.

You won’t be dealing with PR as an abstract concept, you’ll be getting your hands dirty with the business of public relations and seeing the benefits of that from the outset.

I would recommend the CIPR Professional PR Certificate to anyone in the early years of their career in PR who is looking for a structured and instantly applicable course for professional development.

Teaching failure

17 Oct

Teachers have a powerful weapon. It’s not the power of grading, it’s the power of words.

Words can inspire. They can shape perceptions and be memorable. They can – and often do – bore and confuse.

In any one lesson, the same words could have all these effects on different members of the class. So teaching is not a linear, predictable process. It’s more like alchemy.

Humility is useful. It doesn’t matter what I teach: it’s what you learn that counts.

(An elaborate example of how we can no more understand how Stonehenge was used than a future civilization could work out the rules of cricket from the shape of Lord’s cricket ground led to ripples of mirth around my classroom of primary school aged children. All I had succeeded in doing was associate the image of the great stones to a cricket wicket with pictures of some stone age flintstone bowlers and batters in their minds.)

Only this week, I’ve had my teaching praised. I’m not good with compliments, so I’m much more worried about a complaint I recently received years after the event.

A successful graduate in the digital PR space wrote to me recalling a lesson I’d given in their second year:

During a lecture, you once told me that you didn’t think I would make it in the PR industry, an industry which has evolved thanks to the ever growing landscape of digital that now sits hand in hand with social as the main driver of buzz and reputation. You actually said I was forgettable, and I would just like to tell you I’ve never forgotten those words.

If I had said those things, I shouldn’t have – and did apologise in my reply. (It doesn’t seem likely that I could have been this personal in a lecture theatre, but students tend to use lecture/seminar/tutorial interchangeably.) But it doesn’t matter what I said: it only matters what impact my words had.

This was in 2010. I had probably been encouraging the class to wake up to the emerging opportunities in the digital landscape. My intention was to push my students to succeed, not to be personally offensive.

This graduate remembered. They took the trouble to write to me – most courteously – to correct me years later.

I’m ashamed of the short-term impact my words had. But I’m pleased that they were memorable and I’m delighted if they’ve acted as a spur to succeed.

Now, does that make me a bad teacher?

Delayed gratification

21 Jul

tweetsOne of the most important measures of performance in Higher Education is ‘student satisfaction’, as measured through the annual National Student Survey.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with gauging student satisfaction after three years of (expensive) education. But in practice final year students tend to be satisfied with manageable assignments and high grades. So higher student satisfaction can only be guaranteed by lowering educational standards, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction…

Wouldn’t it be good to gauge a student’s response to their education over time? My Twitter timeline gave some clues this morning.

One noted how far he’d come in five years since graduating, and how well his year group were doing.

Another blogged about his experiences in the workplace one year on, and polled some classmates for their experiences.

This isn’t scientific or statistically valid, but education should be a long-term investment – just as student debt is a long-term commitment. So a longitudinal study of graduate achievement and satisfaction would be valuable addition to the snapshot provided by the National Student Survey.

I’ll leave the final word to one of last year’s graduates who’s degree has been less directly useful to his emerging career.

As for working in PR, that didn’t really work out for me. I’m happier carving out a new career in Digital Marketing and SEO. I do still feel, however, that my degree has come to some use as it taught me to be more analytical and inclined towards finding concrete facts as opposed to swallowing assumptions whole.

I don’t know whether than amounts to a satisfied ‘customer’ or not – but it sounds like an acknowledgment of value.


How to be a student

12 Oct
Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

There’s a good piece in today’s Observer newspaper on the marketisation of higher education.

The paradox is that as universities have become more expensive, they have managed to recruit higher numbers of students.

Yet a more expensive does not necessarily mean a better education, in part because of the transactional expectations of paying consumers. ‘I’ve paid. Just give me my degree!’

As a public relations lecturer, I’m comfortable with the expectation that a pricey education should result in above average earnings. There’s a strong story to tell in terms of employability – for the right candidates.

Yet I’m not comfortable with the idea of university simply as a vocational training course. For one thing, it’s an expensive and wasteful way to be trained, since most lessons learned in the first year will be forgotten by the third. More important, do 17 year-olds have an infallible instinct for what they will be doing as 30-year-olds?

I certainly didn’t, and spent part of my 20s doing things I was already aware of (teaching and publishing) before finding my feet in areas I’d not previously known about (technology journalism then public relations).

Training has its place, but you can only train people for existing industries. You cannot train people for the jobs of the future – but you can build this flexibility into a broader education.

So a university course has to provide a greater focus on education than on training. Students have choices: they do not have to go to university and they do not have to study specific courses.

If a school leaver is set on public relations, they have the option of an apprenticeship that will allow them to earn while learning.

University suits the open minded – those who’ve yet to settle on their future career, and those who are willing to learn. It’s about the journey, not just about the destination. It takes time.

Being a student is a full-time activity, even if classes only take up a small proportion of your week. Don’t moan about this – but celebrate your freedom. Look at your parents: I’m sure they have very little free time between the demands of jobs and the commitments of a family. You’ll be busier than you can imagine for decades to come, so do please revel in your new-found freedom.

As a student, you may be cash poor but you’re time rich. Here are some suggestions of how to use your time to invest in your future:

  • Make friends for life
  • Learn to cook
  • Try to manage your finances
  • Travel (lengthy journeys, not just short holidays)
  • Learn additional skills (eg languages, computer programming)
  • Dream up an idea for a new business venture

This overlaps with some more specific things that public relations students should be doing to help them stand out to employers:

  • Develop an online brand (across your blog, website and social media accounts)
  • Follow industry leaders and employers
  • Participate in online chats and attend industry networking events
  • Gain specific work experience
  • Volunteer for a cause, campaign or charity you care about

Not having a degree may exclude you from even applying for some jobs, as might not having achieved a 2:1 or above.

But please don’t become solely focused on your degree classification. Employers don’t hire you for what you’ve learnt at university: they take your good degree as an indication of your future potential. There are more and better ways to demonstrate your potential than your grades.

How to teach (step two)

20 Jun

So, you’ve built a relationship with a university lecturer and have given a guest lecture (see How to teach step one). Then what?

You may learn of opportunities for more regular – and paid – teaching. Universities are relying on more hourly-paid staff to front classes, given the constraints on recruitment and the demands on the time of permanent staff members (who have management roles as well as teaching timetables and research profiles). Sometimes these roles are advertised and formalised as ‘associate lecturer’ contracts. Often, they arise at short notice as members of the team are given other priorities, or fall sick, or take periods of study leave.

Hourly-paid teaching is unlikely to be lucrative, but it can be enjoyable. You get to teach students and avoid the course management and admin work. You’ll only be paid for your timetabled classroom hours: universities have standard pay rates and it’s usually in the £30-£40/hour range. This is a multiple of the minimum wage, but it includes preparation time, responding to student emails outside class and grading of assignments. Also, you can only earn these hours during the teaching period, which is only half of the year and you won’t receive travel expenses.

Some universities may be able to offer you a block of teaching on one day (so you can earn more hours and reduce the travel time and expense) – but on smaller courses the teaching commitment may be spread across the week making it harder to fit around your other work. But the advantage of an hourly-paid contract is that you are free to take on work if and when it suits you. I’d advise you not to chase hours at first: six hours of undergraduate teaching may sound more worthwhile, and three sessions repeating the same material to different groups may require less preparation.

But repetitive blocks of teaching can be boring and exhausting – an unfortunate combination for the lecturer and for the students.

Often, you’ll be part of a teaching team, delivering other people’s teaching content, and this will usually involve leading tutorials or seminars rather than delivering lectures. Yet there’s always flexibility in class for you to talk about the day’s news agenda, to use your own professional experience and for you to develop your teaching skills.

Teaching can be fun and it can be rewarding (like public relations, education is a relationship business). Hourly-paid work can be a good way to add something extra to your work portfolio.

In the final post, I’ll say what’s involved in gaining a permanent lecturer’s contract.

How to teach (step one)

16 Jun

I’ve had a few conversations with practitioners in recent weeks about teaching public relations to students. This post is the first in a small series summarising my advice, and giving the upsides and downsides of  teaching.

In brief: there are lots of opportunities – but vanishingly few jobs.

Step one: give a guest lecture

A practitioner talking about his career in a guest lecture

A practitioner talking about his career in a guest lecture

The best way to start is to give it a go. Course leaders and tutors welcome guest lectures from practitioners, so your best way to gain some experience and make some contacts with university lecturers is to contact permanent members of the team to offer a guest lecture.

Students enjoy guest lectures because they are a refreshing change from their regular (academic) lectures. Yet students like to take something out of each lecture or teaching session – otherwise they tend to feel the content is irrelevant.

So beyond telling them about your personal experience of work, you need to include a ‘takeaway’ element in your talk.

This could be tips on getting a job in your sector, or a reflection on how theory applies to practice, or a cautionary tale of how not to do something. A good guest lecture would describe your sector or specialism in some detail.

The upside of giving a guest lecture is that you’re experiencing the best bit of a lecturer’s job: educating through experience and example and communicating to a (reasonably) engaged audience.

Teaching, however, is only one part of the process of learning – the passive part. Students also need to learn by doing; to learn by reading, by developing relationships and they need to develop curiosity. The paradox of teaching is that the more you teach, they less they tend to learn…

A guest lecture will also help you develop a relationship with one or more members of the teaching team, who may need to call on you for a larger contribution (see part two to follow).

The downside of a guest lecture is that it’s inevitably mostly one-way, with limited opportunities for dialogue and developing relationships (though I would expect some of the class to start following you on your favoured social networks). You may also find it a humbling experience: students are given a lot of lectures, so tend to approach each new one with indifference. Very few practitioners or academics have the pulling power to fill the largest lecture theatres, as happened with Max Clifford (pictured).

You are also unlikely to be paid, though you may receive travel expenses if you’re prepared to fill out the university’s form, submit your receipts, and to wait a while for the payment to be processed.

PR practitioners will understand that this is a relationship-building tool, and that you need to invest your time up front.

In part two I’ll discuss the next step: hourly-paid teaching.




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.