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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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Campaign of the century

14 Jul

This is a summary of a paper I presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference at Bournemouth on 8 July 2015.

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Is the anti-smoking campaign the public relations campaign of the twentieth century?

It scores on awareness of the link between smoking and disease; it has achieved widespread attitude change around the issue of passive smoking; and it has reduced smoking from a majority to a minority habit.

Some might argue that the campaign has not succeeded because almost one in five of adults (19%) still smoke. But those behind the campaign had a different goal – to make smoking abnormal in society.

This was not initially a government campaign. It was initiated by a professional group of doctors – the Royal College of Physicians – whose only previous public campaign had been to lobby for an increase in the price of gin in 1725.

Nor was it obvious that doctors should take a stance on smoking. Some still smoked in the 1950s, and many felt that it was not their role to campaign against cigarettes as they were not a disease (though smoking could lead to disease).

Change came with the election of Robert Platt to the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957. His greatest achievement as president was the report on Smoking and Health published in 1962. The catalyst for this report was a chest physician, Charles Fletcher, who had presented two BBC television programmes about health in the late 1950s and was a natural communicator.

Fletcher edited the report to make it comprehensible to the public and members of parliament (previous reports from the college had been written for medical practitioners only).

Smoking and Health coverThis report was launched on 7 March 1962 – Ash Wednesday – when the college held its first ever press conference.

The morning press conference was well attended and the press release from this event provides an early and compelling example of risk communication. How to present the mortality risks from smoking to a roomful of journalists? Platt is reported as saying:

‘Those who smoke 25 or 30 cigarettes a day have about thirty times the chance of dying of [lung cancer] than a non-smoker does. Of course you might say it is still only the minority, about one in eight of heavy smokers, who died of the disease, and this is true. But supposing you were offered a flight on an airline and you were told that usually only about one in eight of their airlines crashed, you might think again.’

The report received extensive and largely positive press coverage – and interviews were given to the BBC and ITV (the only two television channels in the UK at that time).

Journalists accepted the evidence, though some questioned what action government should take.

The Daily Mail editorial from 8 March 1962 illustrates this ambivalence:

Risk in a cigarette

Men and women must decide for themselves whether to continue smoking or not. For the Government to try to do it for them would be an interference with individual liberty.

That is our first reaction the latest report on the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It comes from the Royal College of Physicians, whose warnings should be taken to heart.

After years of argument there is no longer any doubt about the correlation between the smoke and the disease. The evidence is too overwhelming to be explained away.

We would strongly oppose the suggestion that the price of cigarettes should be made almost prohibitive. This is the wrong approach.

Smoking is a virtual necessity for millions of people and there would be widespread resentment (or pay demands) if a packet of 20 were put up to, say, 10s.’

To regulate smoking in public places is a better proposal. The foul atmosphere of cinemas and some theatres is a reproach.

But if restrictions are to be applied to tobacco, as they have to smoke from chimneys, why not also to car fumes? It is time some cleansing apparatus on exhaust pipes was made compulsory.

The tobacco manufacturers have spent a lot of money on research into lung cancer and have published the results without fear or favour. As they say themselves, still more is needed.

If they could find how to take the risk, but not the pleasure, out of cigarettes, they would do themselves and the public a great service.

The report presented seven recommendations for possible action by government:

  1. ‘more education of the public and especially schoolchildren concerning the hazards of smoking
  2. ‘more effective restrictions on the sale of tobacco to children
  3. ‘restriction of tobacco advertising
  4. ‘wider restriction of smoking in public places
  5. ‘an increase of tax on cigarettes
  6. ‘informing purchasers of the tar and nicotine content of the smoke of cigarettes
  7. ‘investigating the value of anti-smoking clinics to help those who find difficulty in giving up smoking.’

Looking back after more than 50 years, we can see that the aims of the report’s authors had been achieved. Indeed, in one case action has gone beyond what they had asked for (the health warning on cigarette packets has evolved into a blunt warning that ‘smoking kills’.)

The report sold well in the UK and the US and it received widespread and largely positive press coverage. But it did not initially lead to government action.

Some limited restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 1965 and the Health Education Council (now Health Education Authority) was formed in 1968. It commissioned anti-smoking campaigns from Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So the initial response was disappointing, and after a brief decrease, numbers of those smoking (especially women) began to rise again.

The Royal College of Physicians decided to keep campaigning. A follow-up report ‘Smoking and Health Now’ was published in 1971 (this described the deaths from smoking-related diseases as a ‘holocaust’) and the College established the campaigning group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Further reports followed in 1977 and 1983 – by which time attention had shifted to the issue of passive smoking.

Today, the UK has the strongest controls on tobacco of any country in the EU. Banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes, banning smoking in public places have all helped to make smoking abnormal – but government was initially slow to act.

The campaign against smoking is now seen as a model for other public health campaigns (only this week doctors have called for an increase in the price of sweetened drinks). It marked a shift from doctors focusing on treating infectious diseases to campaigning on chronic (‘lifestyle’) disease, using the tools of public relations and public affairs.

Basil Clarke: past and present of PR

15 Jul

From the FrontlineJournalist, propagandist and public relations adviser Sir Basil Clarke (1879-1947) has some claim to be considered the father of British public relations. He now has a full-length biography, written by Richard Evans (whose day job is head of media for Diabetes UK).

Clarke made his name as a fearless war reporter for the Daily Mail, but he gained his knighthood for his work as a British propagandist in Ireland in the years immediately before Irish independence.  His legacy to the industry comes from his establishing of Editorial Services, a pioneering public relations agency later absorbed into Burson-Marsteller.

Histories of public relations, mostly written from a US perspective, give prominence to Ivy Lee and his Declaration of Principles. Clarke is his UK equivalent.

As a published writer, there is good source material for Clarke’s life and Evans does a good job of weaving the sources into a compelling narrative. While the events of the first half of Clarke’s life are the most interesting, it’s only in the later chapters that we learn something about the early years of public relations.

Clarke’s first PR role was for the Ministry of Reconstruction, in 1917. His duties were listed as ‘getting matters connected with this ministry inserted in the daily Press, interviewing journalists, discussing the matter of the work of the Ministry of Reconstruction with distinguished foreigners… and in keeping in touch with what is being done in foreign countries with regard to Reconstruction.’

His record in Ireland remains controversial, but from Clarke’s perspective his goal was ‘propaganda by news’. In other words, the unadorned truth was a more effective tool than manufactured or distorted news. There’s clearly an echo of his work as a war reporter here, and a premonition of the thousands of apparently objective news releases written by public relations practitioners. Propaganda, let’s remember, only gained its negative associations a few decades later.

In another prediction of the problems facing all PR practitioners, Clarke struggled to get colleagues to accept ‘propaganda by news’. Evans writes: ‘Clarke is far from alone in this; the history of public relations is littered with examples of people who identified the right approach but were then unable to win support for it within their organisation.’

Clarke’s career in government suffered from changes of policy towards publicly-funded publicity. As one memo records: ‘The Chancellor has set his face firmly against the policy of spending the taxpayers’ money to tell the taxpayer how his money is being spent.’ Ouch.

In 1924, after a period out of work, Clarke set up Editorial Services Ltd, the UK’s first public relations agency. As a pioneer, he had to grapple with the questions of definition, ethics and professional status that have concerned practitioners ever since.

Here’s how he explains the difference between public relations and advertising: ‘While our Press work will sell nothing and does not aim to sell, it nevertheless creates an atmosphere of greater and more enlightened public interest in a commodity, or idea, or service, generically – in other words, creates an atmosphere in which sales are much more easily effected.’ This from a previously unknown publication identified by the author and dating from around 1934.

If Clarke’s government work was ‘propaganda by news’, his intention with Editorial Services is evident in the choice of name. This was to be ‘publicity by news’ and Clarke seems to have avoided the stunts associated with Edward Bernays around this time in the US.

Though most of the work was aimed at news coverage, Clarke also wrote speeches for King George V and was involved in ‘industrial propaganda’ (ie internal communication). Clarke thought this ‘the most difficult and delicate type of propaganda work that can be imagined.’

He also defended the ethics of press agentry:

‘Why, then, is the press agent to be condemned if he offers, free of charge, some “copy” or information which the editor may like to publish and which he can always thrown away… if he does not? Does the fact of its being a press agent’s copy, and therefore publicity copy, automatically condemn it, destroy its news-value, vitiate its interests for the public? Of course not. For it is one of the truths the editor knows from his editorial cradle that virtually every single item in the paper is publicity for some person, cause or thing.’

The author is sceptical about Clarke’s argument: ‘The large number of people working in public relations today is proof that Clarke was right about the usefulness of public relations. But he was wrong to see it as just another source of news and many people today argue that the media’s reliance on public relations has become extremely damaging.’

In 1930, Clarke set out a code of practice for public relations practitioners, calling for an end to anonymity in public relations (he was grappling with the issue we call transparency today). Other aspects of the code related to receiving a professional fee rather than accepting payment by results; respecting the independence of journalists; and calling for the inclusion of footnotes in press releases giving the sources for the claims made. It was not until decades later that the professional bodies published their own codes of practice.

In describing the aptitudes required for a public relations role, Clarke identified the need for broad understanding as well as narrow technical skills:

‘The duties of a press agent who is directing or advising in the public relations of a big undertaking or movement demand something more than ordinary journalistic qualifications. They demand a knowledge of men and affairs more comparable with an editor’s knowledge; a certain aptitude for, and knowledge of, business and administration which a journalist need not necessarily possess.’

Today, we still debate whether public relations should sit alongside journalism in a media school, or alongside marketing in a business school.

I’ll leave the final word to author Richard Evans:

‘For all the attempts by academics to theorise about it and the efforts of the industry itself to become more respectable, and despite the rise of 24-hour news and then social media, it is remarkable just how little change there has been in the tactics used in public relations and in the ethical dilemmas facing those who use them. This means that even though just a tiny proportion of those working in public relations have today even heard of Basil Clarke, all of them are walking down the trail he blazed.’

What’s wrong with CSR?

15 Feb

Please note: this is not a principled attack on corporate social responsibility. Who would argue in favour of corporate irresponsibility? Certainly not Milton Friedman, whose famous attack on CSR remains a very potent one.

My objections come from two perspectives: the name is wrong, and the history is wrong.

Let's start with history.

Cadbury CSR is often presented as a towering achievement of late twentieth century stakeholder capitalism, and therefore as a grown-up strategic justification for public relations.

This narrative fails adequately to respond to the fate of such cynical cheerleaders for CSR as Enron.

It also airbrushes out the pioneering achievements of nineteenth century capitalists such as Sir Titus Salt, whose Saltaire near Bradford, begun in the 1850s, is now a World Heritage Site. Or Bournville in Birmingham or New Earswick in York – housing developments by two Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury's and Rowntree's, for their factory workers.

Sure, there was something paternalistic about these Christian capitalists who encouraged improving activities (institutes, schools, church, chapel or meeting house) over perceived bad practices (public houses).

But the advocates of CSR do not deny the rights of donors to pick their causes for maximum and sustained social impact.

What's wrong with the name?

People have been moving away from 'social' responsibility because of the rise of the environmental agenda – preferring instead the broader 'corporate responsibility' to refect the triple-bottom-line of 'people, planet, profits'.

The Stockholm Accords have thrown out the whole idea and replaced it with one word – sustainability. The Accords allow for both interpretations of this word: sustainable organisational success within a sustainable environment.

Then there's the question of sustained legacies. Companies and organisations decline; people die; but a Peabody, a Rowntree or a Carnegie lives on through their legacies. Where are the great philanthropists from the twentieth century? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet head the list, but their achievements will belong to this present century.

Time for some perspective, please.