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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

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.

Key themes for 2011

8 Jan

Looking back on 2010 allows us to predict some of the main talking points for the year ahead.


I have previously argued that the Stockholm Accords were a milestone event. This document qualitatively articulates the value that public relations provides to organisations at a macro level.

But can we quantify this value? The hyperactive and always challenging David Phillips will attempt this at a conference this year, from his perspective that the PR business has been failing to reach its full potential for years.

Though these questions may sound academic, this will be a year in which practitioners in all sectors will need to prove their value to their clients and employers. So they would be well advised to take note of these discussions.

Within higher education, the new fees regime from 2012 will challenge universities to demonstrate the value of their degree courses. My humble effort is a project to document how graduates have benefited from their PR degrees over the past two decades.


Remember Gordon Brown forgetting his mic during the election campaign? The problem was the disconnect revealed between the public and private person (a problem some of his senior colleagues had been concerned about for years).

Now consider the implications of WikiLeaks (and the parliamentary expenses scandal). These challenge the assumption of private, and make a presumption in favour of information being public. We've not heard the last of the tussle between public and private, national security and civil liberties. (There's also a civil liberties argument in favour of less being known about us, not more).

Public relations, concerned as it is with matters in the public sphere, has a role in defining what should be known in the public interest, and what should be concealed for private reasons. Expect public relations teams to be auditing information flows and anticipating what would happen if and when the private becomes public. The intention will be to inoculate against further Gordon Brown moments.

Rethinking public relations education

8 Dec

20yearson This isn't a manifesto (yet).

It's just a useful place to explore some thoughts and exchange views with others.


PR degree courses are 20 years old in the UK, and CIPR professional qualifications have been taught for ten.

This has been a period of growth and expansion, with seemingly insatiable demand from employers for our graduates.

This is good.

But does past success prepare us for a more challenging future?


Let's summarise –

  • The new funding and fees regime challenges the financial model of some HE institutions. Will they all be able to move from quantity measures to quality measures?
  • Public relations education may have successfully moved out of journalism school into the business school, but it's a minnow there alongside large marketing and business studies courses. When the cuts come, guess which will be first to go? Do we have the right name and content fit for the future?
  • In an uncertain world, we should be thinking of lifelong learning, not assuming education ends at 21. Are we as good with professionals as with 'traditional' students? Do we offer something at each career stage, and are the delivery and assessment tools fit for purpose?


  • In response to higher fees, let's offer some genuinely full-time degree courses. These could be delivered in two years (in four ten-week terms a year, say) though many school leavers will lack the maturity to benefit from this greater intensity. So the typical student will be older and may have had some sort of foundation degree or some work experience first.
  • In response to higher fees, let's take the opposite tack and deliver a much slower track (four years?) to those in full-time work, sponsored by their employers to study part-time. Delivery will have to shift from face-to-face to online (or 'blended' learning). The learning will move out of the university and into the workplace. The university becomes a partner in rather than an owner of the course.
  • In response to the changing labour market, let's offer a package that begins with undergraduate and moves through postgraduate, professional and on to executive education. If this journey took twenty years, then we would be halfway to lifelong learning.
  • Education, like youth, is often wasted on the young (blame George Bernard Shaw, not me). Let's use our skills and our facilities to welcome back people of retirement age. They are very receptive to a social learning environment. Though public relations may not be a compelling course, consider all the useful components: using the web, writing a blog, photo editing etc.

Work-pay balance: the problem facing students

9 Aug

Work experience These are tough times for young people relative to the easy years of the long post-war boom. (Let's remember that these are still good times for young British people relative to other historical eras and many other countries.)

First, there's the squeeze on university places after a decade of rapid expansion. Lucy Tobin describes this well in an Evening Standard comment piece.

Then there's the over-supply of graduates that has devalued a degree in the eyes of some employers. The answer has been to gain a degree along with relevant work experience, hence the growing popularity of internships, as discussed by Jon Kelly for BBC Magazine.

Two problems arise from this. How to pay for higher education, and should students be paid for work experience internships.

The graduate tax suggestion is coming under fire before it's even been proposed (Lord Browne still has to make his recommendations on student fees). One way or another, students will have to contribute more for their education: two benefits of this are that successful universities will continue to compete internationally, and students will value their education more and should expect more of their tutors and institutions, so driving up standards.

A difficult jobs market has encouraged students and graduates to work for no pay. Up to a point, there are mutual benefits to be gained from a 'try before you buy' arrangement – but employers may need reminding to pay up. So a refreshing solution to this problem has been proposed by Michael White, himself a PR student currently on a (paid) work placement.

He suggests paying interns after a certain time period because beyond that they have become experienced workers rather than work experience students. So here's my proposal on a time limit:

Full-time internships should be unpaid for a maximum of three months. After that, the opportunity should be offered to someone else or the intern should be kept on and paid. Part-time arrangements (eg one day a week) could run for six months before pay became expected.

For more on this discussion, here's the recently-updated CIPR work placement charter.

PR as personal relations

17 Jul

Graduation This is the first summer since 2003 I've not attended a university graduation ceremony.

Yet I couldn't resist a personal invitation to meet a graduating student who told me that her mother had remembered me from a university opening day four or five years ago. 

I'd already helped connect this student with a graduate vacancy in a global consultancy. She gains all the credit, of course, for her First Class degree and for securing a good graduate job.

But I appear to have influenced her throughout her time at university (whether I was teaching her or not). This reminds me of Joseph Nye's distinction between hard and soft power.

Public relations exerts – at best – soft power. And we are best able to do so when we have established relationships based on trust and mutual respect. It's similar for educators. We have the stick (hard power) of assessment, but the lasting influence is more likely to come from the carrot of influence (or inspiration).

I recently attended a party organised by a teaching colleague I'd worked alongside in the mid 1980s. Among his guests was a former pupil who had left the school over 30 years ago and who made the six hundred mile round trip to be there. There's inspiration; there are relationships; and there are those that endure over time.

Next week I'm looking forward to talking to a University of Westminster student about 'personal relations'. I don't yet know her perspective or research focus but I suspect I'll tell her that personal relations are nothing new, but that we should perhaps view public relations as an aberration.

Photo by reality-check on Flickr

Why history matters

12 Jul

An open letter to Tom Watson

The First International History of Public Relations Conference you organised in Bournemouth last week was an important event for public relations education. The conference was large enough to have critical mass and small enough to be focused and friendly.

I detected a consensus around the need to revise the standard approach to the history of PR (from Barnum to Bernays via Ivy Lee). We clearly need more than a solely US perspective on the development of the practice, though this isn't to make an anti-American point. Your conference was notably well-attended by US academics and their contributions were vital to its success.

I found the German perspective particularly valuable (we were fortunate to have three opportunities to listen to Gunter Bentele). In a short space of time (about 150 years), Germany has experienced industrialisation, unification, fascism, communism and liberal democracy. Debates around the role of public relations and propaganda in society have particular resonance here.

But why is history important and why should it be studied and taught? Ultimately we are all history and all generations struggle with the contradictions and confusions of their times. We are no wiser in 2010 than were intellectuals living in the European Enlightenment – or those living in classical antiquity. History teaches perspective – and humility.

Claims of novelty are usually exaggerated (and not just in news releases). While the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility may have been first used in the 1950s, it's not a new concept. Similarly, public relations-like behaviour long predates the emergence of a public relations industry.

Public relations practice depends on context. History teaches a broader understanding of the forces at play (Kaja Tampere categorised these as 'economic, social, cultural and political'). When we teach students, it's context and analysis we should be teaching rather than a canon of facts. That way, we can avoid the impression that 'history's just one fucking thing after another', to quote from Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

Vince Hazleton rightly said there are two processes in historical research: information gathering and making sense of the information gathered. There were papers that presented new information based on archival and other primary research methods. And there were revisionist approaches to many well-known figures (Edward Bernays, John Hill). There is so much more potential here: I was amazed for example that no one mentioned Machiavelli in any of the papers.

Too often I heard people explain that they read history books but were not historians. This is not a useful distinction. Any academic who has written a literature review (and that's any academic) has researched and written history.

So where should we teach the history of public relations? It clearly belongs in our introduction to public relations theory and practice. It also opens up possibilities for dissertation research and could be taught at a higher level, perhaps as an elective.

Yet public relations can also be taught within the broader field of the history of ideas – and I recommend your colleague Kevin Moloney's Rethinking Public Relations: PR Propaganda and Democracy as the key text that maps out this intellectual terrain.

There are still few books in this field (here's my selection) but your conference and the resulting papers will add to this corpus and will surely spur more activity.

Thank you for this.

A new approach to education

12 May

It was always evident that whoever formed the new government, higher education would face a period of retrenchment after the rapid growth of the past decade. We're still waiting for Lord Browne's review to report, but can expect it to recommend raising the current ceiling on student fees.

Many complain about education becoming a market. Educators are faced with growing demands from students, who complain loudly if they don't receive what they feel they've paid for (this is never about good teaching, note, but about good grades).

For a marketing perspective on the problems in higher education, read Seth Godin's analysis of university courses in the US. 'Most undergraduate college and university programs are organized to give an average education to average students.'

Let's hope average courses are squeezed in a more competitive market with rising fees. But how could the education we provide become less average, while remaining affordable to many?

Here's one approach. We should welcome two-year undergraduate degrees, but under the following conditions:

  • Students should be older when they start university (either having taken a gap year, or worked, or studied for a foundation degree). We teach too many school leavers who aren't yet ready to learn.
  • A two-year degree should not simply teach more to compress the syllabus (that only encourages students to learn less). 
  • Students would be expected to meet minimum attendance requirements – at risk of losing the opportunity to be assessed.
  • Work placements should not be abandoned: space would ideally have to be made for two three-month placements as part of the course.
  • An academic year would have to become fuller: I suggest nine months, plus three months on placement. (Paid work outside the course would have to become a secondary commitment.)

Academics and university administrators will resist this fiercely: the status quo is very comfortable for very many. But Godin's right: an average education for average students is untenable in a world of rising fees and greater competition.

PR: a manifesto for change

5 Apr

David Phillips – author, consultant, academic and Fellow of the Institute of Public Relations – has built on news of the departure of the institute's director general Colin Farrington to issue an impassioned call for change within the UK's membership body for public relations practitioners.

As ever with David, there's much that's brilliant and far-sighted here, but I fear that his piece sets so many hares running that it won't amount to a clear manifesto for action.

So, to keep things simple, here are two action points that I had previously kept private, but will now air in public.

  • We need a UK forum for public relations educators and researchers. It could have been the CIPR's Education and Skills sectoral group, but this was taken in an entirely different direction. The CIPR's choice is either to facilitate this group under its wing, or to allow this group to operate independently (in the model of the Academy of Marketing or the US Institute for Public Relations).
  • University course approvals are a mess. There are CIPR-approved courses that are no longer recruiting, and well-established courses that are not approved. Public relations education at university level is at risk because changes in higher education funding pose particular problems for the 'new' teaching universities with their PR degree programmes. For the sake of the students and for the reputation and distinctiveness of the 'profession', the CIPR either needs to grasp this nettle or resign from its self-appointed role as an arbiter of educational quality.

School of hard knocks

10 May

If someone says you’re good, what do you learn? Very little. But if you (or your work) are deemed poor, then there are valuable lessons in the experience and in the feedback.

Educators want all students to succeed, but know that easy success brings few lessons.

One of the more memorable chapters from Ed Smith’s excellent What Sport Tells Us About Life is called ‘the curse of talent’. He cites an academic study from the US tracking the fortunes of a group of high school beauty queens. ‘Fifteen years on, the high-school beauty queens were typically doing worse – in terms of wealth, careers and even happiness – than their less good-looking contemporaries. They had peaked too early.’

In education, failure is deemed as, well, failure (and the f word is even banished from discussions). Yet, as Ed Smith writes about sports coaching and sibling rivalry, ‘experiencing small formative early defeats made for subsequent large victories… Formative defeats are usually a central strand in any successful sportsman’s story – because failure, for almost every athlete, is written into the script.’

MichaelYoung In last night’s remarkable¬†Endgame on Channel 4, a corporate public affairs man played an ultimately successful part in discussions to end apartheid in South Africa. Yet he was continually being talked over and having his agenda disrupted by the stronger personalities involved in the story. He suffered many minor defeats but emerged a quietly heroic figure (and the history of public relations has too few public heroes). (Here’s an interview with the real-life character, Michael Young; it will make you reconsider the place of public relations in conflict resolution.)

The recession will give many of us opportunities to experience failure. Let’s hope we can at least learn some valuable lessons from this.