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I confess

10 Aug

Cocktail lifestyle. Picture by @dubaipartyqueen on Instagram

I’m a male, middle-aged, middle-class university lecturer. There, I said it.

My students and graduates are overwhelmingly young, white and female. They jog, do yoga and enjoy beach holidays and smart hotels according to their Instagram feeds. In other words, they lead affluent and aspirational lifestyles.

And there’s nothing wrong with this: we are what we are. We either have no choice, or we have made choices that seem rational to us.

Except, so far so conventional.

Do our worldviews present a norm that excludes others? Lecturers might scoff at the popular perception of public relations as a glamorous, party-going practice – but it only seems to attract new generations of young women called Kate. Or Victoria. Or Olivia.

You get the picture. Success for some could mean lack of opportunity for others.

My British Asian students tell me that public relations is not viewed like medicine or the law or accountancy. For their families, it’s not a profession to aspire to.

Of course there are outliers. We have role models like Colleen Harris and Yasmin Diamond. But these individual success stories are not typical products of mass higher education.

We need to recruit more widely onto university courses and the profession needs to recruit more widely and sensitively. Age, gender, ethnicity are all problems: in a word, diversity.

But everyone knows this. The question is, who’s doing anything about it? What can I do?

The indefatigable Stephen Waddington and the admirable Sarah Stimson are campaigning to raise funds for the Taylor Bennett Foundation, which has a track record of action in this area.

I’ve pledged my support. Will you do too?

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The craft that dare not speak its name

14 Dec

I love PRPublic relations (or PR). There, I said it.

Many people (including some of those who work in the field) have a problem with the term ‘public relations’.

But what’s so disreputable about paying attention to the public (or, better, having regard for the public interest)?

What’s wrong with building relationships with those who matter to your organisation or cause?

If there’s nothing wrong with PR in principle, then the problem must lie in the way it’s practised – or in the gap between principle and practice.

That allows its critics to condemn public relations as, um, a PR exercise. To damn it as spin, manipulation or lies.

That’s why so many practitioners – particularly in the public sector – prefer to use the neutral sounding ‘communication/s’. When the public is paying for your service (though taxes), you want to avoid the charge that you’re using public money to hide the truth.

Communication/s: sounds good, doesn’t it?

There are two problems though (besides the point that no one can agree on whether it should be singular or plural).

One is practical. In a world in which all professional and managerial work involves communication, what sets the paid communicators apart? Doctors and lawyers communicate; accountants communicate; managers communicate. Communication may even distinguish the good ones from the rest, but communication doesn’t define what they do.

The other is a question  of professional status. Communication is what you do when a decision has been reached: you tell people about it. There’s no implication that professional communicators help shape those decisions. (In other words, it suggests a functional rather than a strategic role for comms practitioners).

Yet public relations – the practice that manages relationships with groups that are important to the success or failure of the organisation and which has regard for the public interest – goes beyond communication. It has a say in how the organisation behaves.

Why does this matter? Public relations had a good twentieth century, its first century as a named practice and would-be profession. It established itself; became an academic discipline; increased rapidly in numbers and gained professional and trade associations. There’s now a lot invested in the name.

If that name is misunderstood and widely discredited – then how can the field continue to assert its relevance and significance?

There are no lack of those in more assertive and less self-critical fields who’d like to make a land grab. Marketing, advertising, human resources, management consultancy and the law all overlap with public relations.

This is why discussions around the role, purpose and (even) definition of public relations matter. They’re not mere academic questions: they matter to the work of tens of thousands of people. They matter to the organisations why hire and pay them.

These questions even have implications for the strength of our democracy and society.

 

Why I won’t miss PR Week

6 Jan

PR Week coverPR Week has been the trade paper of the UK public relations industry for as long as I can remember. And that was its problem.

Coming from the stable that also published Campaign, it understood agency dynamics – the process of pitching and sometimes winning new business, of hiring new staff, of creating campaigns and winning awards. That perspective works well for the ad industry, since almost all of those involved work on the agency side.

But it led to some major blind spots when reporting on public relations: it undervalued the role of corporate comms practitioners including internal communicators (mostly working in-house), favouring the picturesque over the complex, the output over the outcome.

By taking a trade paper perspective, it had a blind spot over public relations education (a large sector) and of challenging discussions around the professional project (boring and uncommercial).

New books were rarely reviewed in the weekly format, and academic books were viewed dismissively when there was more space in the monthly edition. I couldn’t find a single academic or educator listed in the recent PR Week Power Book.

Looking back over my 25 years as a reader, all the memorable issues have been in the monthly format. I’ll be keeping the July/August 2014 ‘agency issue’ featuring Richard Edelman plus the top 150 agencies (see picture) and the October 2014 ‘integration issue’ featuring Sir Martin Sorrell.

Danny Rogers, having also edited Campaign, was on the ball in noting the blurring lines between advertisers chasing earned media and PR practitioners buying paid media.

I’ll miss that – but have decided not to pay for more of it as I can and do read Edelman and Sorrell’s thoughts elsewhere. I can read people’s opinions on their blogs, and there are some excellent debates on LinkedIn and on grown-up blogs such as PR Conversations. We don’t need more of this.

I’ve grown out of a trade paper because it no longer reflects what I do or what I’m interested in. I still wince at the use of ‘agency’ to mean ‘consultancy’, but have had to accept that some battles are not worth fighting. But I’m not yet quite ready to ditch ‘industry’ for ‘profession’ because I feel that would involve too much spin.

But I can agree that we’re on a journey of professionalisation. So here’s my challenge to members of the CIPR, who have signed up to the professional project.

We can get our news and our gossip online. We can have some enlightening (and some irritating) debates on social media.

But what we can’t always get from this is perspective.

Beyond 140 characters

We need something less hectic (in annual or quarterly format) to provide a deeper analysis of trends, to look at the currents beneath the frothing water.

We need practitioners to teach educators about what’s new in their work, and for educators to teach practitioners about new thinking and new research.

We need a record of achievements: new members, new fellows, New Years honours, senior appointments. We need a place for obituaries.

We need a debate about the future of the ‘profession’ and its representative bodies. Do we really need a CIPR, a PRCA, an IoIC, an APPC, a PR Guild and all the others? Are we still a trade, or worse, multiple trades?

We need reminding who we are, what we do – and why it matters, and where we’re going (as well as where we’ve come from).

It may sound dull to some. But are we ready for a professional journal?

CIPR Fellows’ lunch

4 Aug
Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

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.

Strategic Public Relations Leadership: my PR book of the year

15 Nov

Strategic Public Relations LeadershipDisclosure: I have worked with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, and apologise for the rave review that follows. My thoughts are my own.

First, let’s tackle some myths.

Myth #1: That most PR practitioners work in the private sector. They don’t: in the UK most PR and communication practitioners work in the public and third sectors (see page 34). This book corrects the imbalance in much of the literature.

Myth #2: That the most rewarding – and best remunerated – PR jobs are in consultancies. If we exclude the few entrepreneurs who have become wealthy through building and selling consultancy businesses, many of the largest and best-paid PR roles are in complex public sector organisations. This book addresses them. But it makes the case for all public relations leaders to operate like consultants (see chapter 14).

Myth #3: That academics and practitioners don’t understand each other. There’s fault on both sides: on academics for writing inaccessibly and on practitioners for ignoring most academic thinking. Next year’s CIPR president Stephen Waddington has been tackling this problem – and who better than a past president (Anne Gregory) to respond with an accessible book aimed more at practitioners than at her academic peers.

This book manages to be  short (just 164 pages including the index) and wide-ranging. The key to this is that it has ditched academic referencing for footnotes, making the text much more accessible. So a typical chapter is of ten pages, with two pages of extensive footnotes. I hope I’m right in detecting a trend because this device alone will do much to demystify academic writing.

Part One reviews the strategic contribution of public relations. Just as marketing directors or HR directors see an organisation through their particular lens, so there is a distinctive PR lens that explains why this is a vital function embracing media, corporate communication, public affairs, community relations and investor relations.

“Communication is the word often used to describe these collective specialist functions, but we will use the phrase public relations because it best describes what happens: the organisation builds relationships in public and with these various publics. (p.11)”

This echoes with David Phillips’s view of the organisation as  a ‘nexus of relationships’. As Gregory and Willis state: ‘Organisations are organic, evolving and deeply relational. They are usually made up of people, although some organisations have very few, but facilitate connections between people, for example Twitter. Organisations interact with others. The create connections and conversations… ‘Organising’ happens as people communicate and undertake action.’ (p.8)

The centrepiece of this section is the authors’ new model of strategic public relations (the ‘four-by-four model’ p.35). In summary, this places organisations within a complex stakeholder environment (Coombs and Holladay’s definition of public relations as ‘the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constituency relationships’ could have been cited here).

The first of the four dimensions note the contribution of public relations at societal, corporate, value-chain and functional levels (pp 36-40). The other four dimensions are the four attributes of public relations leaders (described as their ‘DNA strands’): an excellent understanding of the brand; leadership qualities; public relations as a core organisational competence (communication does not only come from the PR team); and excellence in planning, managing and evaluating public relations (note the emphasis on evaluation in Alex Aiken’s government comms strategy).

Part Two addresses the preoccupations of public relations leaders such as contextual intelligence, organisational values and ethical practice. This section relies more on practitioner research than on ‘pure’ academic research.

The authors identify ‘contextual intelligence’ as the core characteristic marking out the public relations leader. It involves coping with uncertainty and thriving on ambiguity, though intelligence is also supported by rational planning.

Part Three looks at the responsibilities of public relations leaders (the planner, the catalyst, the expert technician, the internal educator, the consultant).

I found the last of these particularly new and refreshing (and feel I can detect Paul Willis as the principal author of  this section).

‘A consultancy approach suits public relations. Consultants facilitate change in organisations and in Chapter 3 we highlight how public relations leadership is associated with being an agent of change… The applicability of consultancy thinking to public relations is also highlighted by the idea that consultants do not just intervene and implement solutions themselves; they also enable others.’ (p. 146-7)

What is needed is ‘transferable knowledge, as well as profound theoretical and practical understanding.’

It’s risky to make sweeping judgements, but this feels like a milestone text to me. Yet it’s written for senior practitioners, not for everyone. I’m pleased to have made sense of it – which is not true of that many academic contributions.

Joined-up public relations

13 Oct

Here’s the challenge. It’s easy to teach tips and tricks, but it’s much harder to teach students to join up the dots.

There’s an obvious analogy here. Imagine learning a foreign language (one not using the Roman alphabet). First you have to learn the shape and sound of the letters; then you learn some words; then phrases. But you still can’t read, write, or hold a conversation. That takes months or years of immersion and hard work.

Students can learn to recite some models and theories; they can easily be taught to write press releases. But they don’t know why they should (or shouldn’t) use one. They don’t have a bigger picture in mind.

They’re not alone. Many practitioners focus on the ‘what’ and avoid answering ‘why’. I see this when I visit work placements and realise that too many practitioners are still counting the value of PR based on spurious measures such as AVE.

Who are the experts in joined-up public relations? I’m sure there are many, but the following four people stand out for me because they’re not only doing it – they’re regularly sharing insights with the rest of us in books, blogs and talks.

David Brain (@DavidBrain). Co-author (with Martin Thomas) of Crowd Surfing, and a leading figure in global consultancy Edelman. Key quotation: ‘in the era of enfranchised consumer and stakeholder… it is PR thinking not advertising thinking that is best placed to succeed.’

Robert Phillips (@CitizenRobert). This former Jackie Cooper PR and Edelman consultant presents an articulate critique of PR’s role in the consumer society. Key quotation (from his chapter in Where the Truth Lies): ‘We urgently need to change our language and to appreciate that citizenship is a more vital element of a healthy society than consumption without restraint. PR is no longer merely a sales tool’.

Stephen Waddington (@wadds). He’s co-authored or edited four books in the past two years, which would be a prodigious output for a research-focused academic, but is an astonishing one for a family man who’s a full-time PR consultancy director who has also been elected as CIPR president for 2014. Key quotation (from Brand Anarchy written with Steve Earl): ‘Shedding the shackle of media relations will be critical to the future success of the public relations industry.’

Heather Yaxley (@greenbanana): Research academic, author, tutor, blogger, consultant, Yaxley seems to be everywhere at present. Her key insight is to unearth the shamefully hidden female side to public relations (she will condemn me for this unbalanced shortlist). Her thinking’s joined up because it draws on insights from history, psychology, business and management. PR Conversations is a must-read blog and I’m using her co-authored book The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit in my teaching this year.

Even from this short summary, you can see that joined-up thinkers are looking outside and beyond one narrow discipline, and asking (often awkward) questions about its future. We need more of them.