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Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

Public relations: to promote and protect

27 Jul

Here’s my belated contribution to Andy Green’s #PRredefined initiative – and also to those who would separate craft from professional public relations, or internal from external comms.

The interesting question for me is not ‘what is PR?’ but rather ‘what’s the purpose of public relations’?

Publicity is not an end in itself, but a means to some other end. The purpose of publicity is often to serve a sales or marketing end. There”s nothing wrong with this except that it makes it hard to distinguish public relations from marketing.

Yet if we separate publicity from public relations, we lose the base of the pyramid, the most widely-practised part of the business. We also lose our foot-in-the-door since the desire for promotion is universal, and by no means limited to the private sector. (Just think how charities and campaigning organisations use public relations).

So I’m happy to accept the promotional aspect of public relations – and would argue that the proliferation of media channels and rise of social media makes public relations a more broadly-useful approach to promotion than advertising. The decline in trust also makes it more valuable than SEO or search marketing.

But PR’s trump card has nothing to do with one-way publicity. It’s to do with reputation and relationships – with an end goal of maintaining an organisation’s ‘licence to operate’.

Let me back up a bit in order to explain this. Let’s take the long view of the promotional industries.

In the nineteenth century, promotion was in its infancy. What mattered most was resources: capital, energy, raw materials and cheap labour. Making things was the hard part – promotion could come later.

In the twentieth century, the means to make things became more widespread. Many people could make chocolate, or cars, or fizzy drinks. So the differentiating factor became the ‘brand’ – the recognisable quality that set a Cadburys, or a Ford or a Coca-Cola apart from their many competitors. Public relations became a part of the promotional industries serving these brands (though as public relations historians point out, it had not begun there.)

What’s changing in the twenty-first century? We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight but it seems to me that brand is a diminishing rather than a growing concept. What’s becoming important is ‘legitimacy’.

Let’s take an example. Marlboro was an exemplary twentieth century brand, complete with memorable advertising. What’s changed is the public acceptability of smoking – and the tightening restrictions on tobacco promotion in western countries. No amount of brand recognition counts against the legal and societal constraints on smoking.

The only credible strategy for Philip Morris it to de-emphasise its tobacco business in favour of its food and drink brands (in other words to save the business, not the brand).

Which business will come next? It could be a fast food supplier like Macdonalds (because of concerns over obesity and over meat production) or energy or transport companies (environmental concerns).

Promotion and promotional culture are not about to vanish, but they are becoming less important than the other role of PR – the defensive and adaptive role that helps organisations manage society’s expectations (or to argue for society to change its view of an industry as has been happening with nuclear power generation in the context of the need to meet low-carbon energy needs).

That’s why I view public relations as a double-edged sword (‘to promote and protect’) and that’s why I believe it has a bright future.

PR and the media

7 Jan

[Notes and links for use in class]

Media selection used to be easy – a straight choice between editorial and advertising. It’s a more complex picture now.

The world’s largest public relations firm – the one that remains independent of advertising agencies – is now talking up media partnerships in the form of sponsored content. It (Edelman) has appointed a new ‘head of sponsored content and media partnerships‘.

Ian Burrell, writing in the Independent, thinks that the availability of new channels means that ‘the PR industry and its clients would rather reduce the press to the margins’.

While ‘advertorials’ were always an unlovely (and unloved) hybrid, they’ve been given a boost under their newer name, ‘native advertising’. But Is native advertising really anything new?

This world of sponsored content is widely known as content marketing. Yet read these 7 Tips for Effective Content Marketing and tell me how many are not the domain of (traditional) public relations? Number 6 perhaps – though even then the PR approach seems to me to be trumping blatant SEO.

Content marketing may sound like a new concept to some, but Mark Schaefer argues in Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy that the boom is already over and it will become increasingly ineffective and uneconomic.

And there are still some voices speaking up for these traditional PR approaches. Alex Singleton has a new book out called The PR Masterclass. He argues in a blog post for PR to be done better rather than to be radically rethought.

Stephen Waddington is a moderniser envisaging a future for public relations beyond media relations. Yet his 10 areas of work in progress for public relations opens with an acknowledgment that it’s hard to change traditional workflows.

Marketing is ‘me’, public relations ‘we’

1 Jan

Looking up at the night sky, our ancestors gained an understanding of the stars, planets and constellations, naming many of them.

It was only much more recently that a scientific approach gave currency to the view that planet Earth was just another peripheral object – not the centre of the universe around which everything else revolves.

ME_WE_small-724x1024During the twentieth century – the age of industrialisation and mass media – marketing approaches put ‘me’ at the centre of the promotional universe. Branding, advertising and, yes, much of public relations were devoted to the promotion of ‘me first’.

This makes sense; it’s how capitalism works. It’s what clients want to hear from their agencies and employees. So what’s changed?

In the twenty-first century we’re no longer passive audiences reached by mass media. Following the financial crisis and with ever present concerns about environmental and economic sustainability, there’s a need for a new approach. A need for us to consider citizens above consumers, as Robert Phillips argues.

This presents an opportunity for public relations to emerge from its marginal role within the ‘marketing mix’ and to return to what it was always designed to do – to develop relationships with constituencies vital for the success of the organisation.

As Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington show in their new book, the best defence an organisation can build to protect itself from attack is to have a network of influential friends willing to volunteer their support in a time of crisis. Since this support cannot be bought and nor can it be negotiated in advance, it’s a risky strategy. But the greater risk is extinction.

The end purpose of public relations is legitimacy – the continued licence to operate. This licence is granted – and can be withdrawn – by politicians, employees, customers, activists (in short, by society). So the job of public relations is to gain understanding and support from groups beyond the organisation’s direct control (even employees have autonomy, and are often the organisation’s fiercest critics).

There are risks in putting ‘we’ first. It’s the problem politicians face in a democracy: they have to present policies with popular appeal, so promoting short-term interests over the long-term.

The danger of ‘we’ capitalism is that it’s no more successful but that it’s much less honest than ‘me’ capitalism.

The challenge for public relations is to emerge from marketing-led short-term measures and to find ways to measure how public relations contributes to long-term sustainable success.

To make a start, let’s recognise our place within the universe.

Image credit: Peter Hathaway (http://peterhathaway.co.uk/wordsculpt)

Spot the difference

3 Nov

Here’s a list of clever-sounding (and often new) terms that are all more or less synonyms for public relations. How many more have I missed?

  • Content marketing
  • Inbound marketing
  • Internal marketing
  • Native advertising
  • Permission marketing (from the book by Seth Godin)
  • Punk marketing (from the book by Richard Laermer and Mark Simmons)
  • Relationship marketing
  • Search marketing
  • Social marketing

Does this matter? Only that it’s ironic that when marketing and advertising are rapidly reinventing themselves in the image of public relations, PR practitioners so often reveal a lack of confidence in what they’re doing.

Back to earth. Back to reality.

5 Sep

There's a feeling of 'back to school' this week. But that's not the reason for the jolt.

The reality check is the decision to fold the Media Guardian supplement (and Education and Society supplements too) into the main paper. Clearly, this is a commercially-driven decision taken because of the migration of job advertisements from print to online (and elsewhere). Decades ago, before the world of the web, each Monday's Media Guardian had page after page of job ads and was the place to find a whole range of graduate opportunities. Times change, and so does technology.

The second jolt relates to this first one. Here's a very lucid perspective on the issue of unpaid internships from an MSc Marketing student. The phrase that leaps out at me is this uncontentious-looking one: 'I’m 23 and aspire to a career in advertising'. Only connect. The Guardian loses its well-established Media supplement  because of the migration of classified ads online. Then ask some questions about the future of display ads and print media.

Yes, but surely broadcast ads have bounced back in the past year. Perhaps; but what's the wider picture? The future of advertising isn't in advertising. It's in creating ideas, delivering compelling communications, fostering communities and managing digital campaigns (as this student is already aware). In other words, the future of advertising looks very like public relations…

Hopefully smart graduates are alert to this. Hopefully their lecturers and textbook authors are too. But I very much doubt that university marketing and management teams are when they offer courses that appear to promise glittering careers in glamorous twentieth-century industries that evoke a Mad Men world.

Bump. Back to reality.

Book review: Loose

13 Mar

Loose

Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go
Martin Thomas, Headline Publishing Group 

Marketing consultant Martin Thomas was co-author of Crowd Surfing, one of my favourite books in 2008. When I saw the new book's contents page containing such chapters as 'Not a place for tidy minds' and 'The end of planning?' I knew I was in for a treat.

In follow up to Crowd Surfing and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (my top pick from 2008), this feels like a radical manifesto. It's certainly a challenge to the micro-managers, the planners and brand consultants whose traditional role has been to offer predictability and certainty.

We live in a complex, non-linear world – and the challenge is how to 'embrace the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'.

The author is keen to stress that this is not a web phenomenon. 'Something interesting is happening beyond the world of social media: public meetings are suddenly all the rage.'

It's a social phenomenon – and an understanding of behavioural economics is more useful than mastery of technology, Thomas argues. 'The simplistic view of man as a rational economic animal doesn't appear to fit the mood of the times.'

Simple prescriptions obviously won't do, though the author does offer some broad guiding principles for successful loose organisations (on page 168). He also gives many case studies to show where loose principles prevailed (ASDA, Pret a Manger, First Direct and Unilever among them).

He quotes Google's Shona Brown discussing loose management: 'The way to succeed in fast-paced, ambiguous situations is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either.'

Those singled out for criticism include business schools that have inculcated a rational approach to business. 'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'

Thomas writes well of the millennial generation who 'take great pleasure in subverting any attempts by authority figures to silence them.' But I should say that I'm more likely to be criticised by my students for teaching in too 'loose' a way by those who want me to give them much more precise instructions ('just tell me what you want me to do').

The author is an articulate and well-read guide. Though it's a business book and not an academic text, he frequently makes me feel inadequate by his erudition.

While there's nothing I can disagree with the in the book's premise, it's not an original idea. I'm surprised the author makes no reference to open source, whose concepts have already been taken beyond software development into politics and marketing.

And a book that makes an even more compelling case for creativity and innovation in business is Charles Leadbeater's We Think (not cited here).

But it's an enjoyable and valuable read and the challenge for many will be to learn the lessons and put them into practice.

'The principles that appear to determine the success of any social media initiative are becoming well established: be responsive, be human, be transparent… Unfortunately, most institutions struggle to live by them.'