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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.

Public relations: on the side of the angels?

19 Aug

Four books, two themes

new booksIn place of full reviews, here are some themes from four new books I’ve been reading this summer.

The first is long-awaited. It explores the connection between public relations and leadership (as distinct from management).

Kevin Murray’s The Language of Leaders (first published in 2012, but I’m reading the 2013 second edition) is concerned with the leadership traits and communication skills of senior executives, not the PR skills of their advisers. Based on interviews with CEOs, it’s an anecdotal but intellectual book that covers key traits and explores ‘why you need to be a better communicator if you want to lead.’ The book presents twelve principles of leadership communication.

Though Richard Branson was an interviewee who eluded the author, his example as a communicative leader is an inspiring one.

Kevin Murray is a senior practitioner, though one with an impressive commitment to scholarly publications.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, both based at Leeds Metropolitan University, have written the pioneering Strategic Public Relations Leadership. From Grunig and Hunt’s landmark textbook Managing Public Relations in 1984 to Moss and DeSanto’s 2012 Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective, management was the key challenge in the academic literature.

Now it’s leadership. The book articulates the strategic contribution of public relations and explores the qualities and attributes of public relations leaders before describing their responsibilities.

It’s a rich and rewarding read, but the practitioner is spared the opaque language and obscure references of many academic texts. That’s because the book uses footnotes, many of which are detailed explanations of academic sources and concepts.

It’s an ideal textbook for a senior practitioner qualification that doesn’t yet exist (since the CIPR Diploma is still stuck in the management paradigm).

My second theme is public relations and the public good. At first glance, this is a challenging concept, since it’s much easier to see how public relations is used to protect and promote private interests.

John Brown, Pat Gaudin and Wendy Moran have written PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services for the Kogan Page PR in Practice series.

Some texts in this series are purely ‘how to’ guides written by practitioners, showing little awareness of wider debates and academic contributions to the field. This is an altogether more sophisticated read, even containing some historical context and citing scholars such as Jacquie L’Etang and Scott Anthony (see below).

‘Public relations and public services go together’ the authors write. ‘They are intrinsically linked to a belief in both the public service ethos and public interest.’

Yet is the rebranding of PR as communication in the title and throughout the text an attempt to distance responsible communicators from the discredited image of PR consultants?

Scott Anthony’s Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain was published last year, but I waited for the (much cheaper) paperback to appear this year. Its subtitle is ‘Stephen Tallents and the birth of a progressive media profession’ and this indicates the balance of the book. Rather than being a straightforward biography of Stephen Tallents, one of the founding fathers of British public relations, the book presents the emergence of public relations within the context of the history of ideas.

Anthony writes: ‘Public relations today has an image problem. Seen through the prism of popular works… public relations is a profession that has endowed sectarian interests with the ability to manipulate entire populations… By contrast, this book argues that the development of public relations in Britain was a product of the Great Depression that was animated by the same liberal ideas that inspired William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes.’

In other words, public relations originated in a desire to create a more harmonious and cohesive society. I’m sure the authors of PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services would agree.

As with the Gregory and Willis book, the text is supported by extensive footnotes, making a complex book a manageable and brief read.

Just as many seem to be ditching the name ‘public relations’ we have a Cambridge academic writing a revisionist history to make professionals feel much better about their practice.

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.’

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.

Defending the indefinable

25 Apr

‘Public relations can’t be defined.’

I read this often in student essays. It’s a consequence of teaching that offers multiple perspectives and encourages independent thought on the practice and profession.

But if public relations can’t be defined, then how do you explain the existence of so many different definitions? The evidence suggests that it’s too easy to define public relations, not too hard. It’s so easy you can have a go yourself (many students, practitioners and lecturers do).

Rather than discussing the definitions of PR, let’s consider its purpose. Let’s try to answer the question ‘why?’ rather than the question ‘what?’

If the purpose of PR is to generate publicity, then this simplifies matters. We can scrap the professional bodies, end most PR qualifications and merge the PR and advertising industries.

Professor Tom Watson argues here that there are two industries living unhappily together: a publicity business and a strategic communication business.

So what’s the purpose of strategic communication? Many would argue it’s legitimacy (and I agree): it’s about organisations retaining their ‘licence to operate’ in a complex world in which competitors, customers, politicians, activists and the media can all turn on an organisation in full public view.

This legitimacy business (it goes beyond reputation) sounds important; it should be professional.

This leads us to the intriguing prospect of a high calibre contest for the CIPR presidency between a practitioner who writes (Stephen Waddington) and an academic who talks to practitioners (Dr Jon White). Their discussion, sparked by another blog post by Tom Watson asking if the CIPR isn’t past its sell-by date, already has 80 comments on LinkedIn.

It’s an important debate, and it’s good to see engaged academics mixing it with intelligent practitioners.

CIPR 1 v 0 PRCA

4 Oct

Today's news that the PRCA now welcomes individual members is not a surprise. The PRCA's competitive moves onto the CIPR's territory have been clear for some time.

The CIPR has responded with a statement:

"We support healthy competition and we believe – as we have said repeatedly – that there is a role for a trade body representing consultancies and a Chartered body representing individual members. We have consistently maintained that it is in the interest of the profession to work together to promote professionalism, standards and public understanding of what  we do. It is for this reason that we believe the PRCA’s announcement does not represent a step taken in the best interests of the profession."

I also support competition, but recognise that in some fields representation is better served by a single voice. Would workers be better served by joining two trades unions claiming to represent their interests, or one? Would one or two be a more powerful lobbying/negotiating force?

There are some 60,000 people in UK public relations roles. Scarcely a quarter of these are members of either the CIPR or the PRCA today. The professional project demands more members and a clear voice for the profession.

We had one body from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (the then Institute of Public Relations). The PRCA broke away in 1969 when consultancies felt they needed stronger representation. For four decades we have had a professional body representing individual practitioners (now the CIPR) and a trade association representing PR consultancies (the PRCA).

Equally, there used to be trades unions representing boilermakers among many other specialist trades. Now there are general unions like GMB and Unison.

I would prefer to see one PR representative body in the UK – and still predict it will have to happen by negotiation. If need be, it will happen by the choices of thousands of members.

I already pay my subscription to the CIPR. I'm publicly supportive (but willing to air my criticisms of the body in private). I'm going to keep this membership, so the question for me is should I pay an additional £100 to join the PRCA. My answer today is no. If everyone makes a positive decision one way or another, the outcome will be one of these bodies emerging stronger than the other.

It will take longer than a negotated outcome – and will be more expensive – but it will lead to the same result. Vote with your wallet.

Is there a PR personality?

18 Mar

Warning: this post contains generalisations. But remember that theories are abstractions (ie generalisations) based on evidence such as observation.

I fear that we are producing too much convergent thinking. There have always been social pressures to conform in any society – but the world of Facebook likes and Twitter retweets echoes and amplifies this tendency to converge on campaigns, communities and conversations where people can share common ground.

Public relations by its nature seeks consensus – and public relations practitioners will tend therefore to be more conventional than average. This tendency is pronounced among in-house practitioners who must be organisation men and women.

This works well in the good times. But what about in uncertain, unpredictable times? Where are the warning voices? Where is the encouragement of divergent thinking?

Where will the fresh ideas come from if we're all of a similar age, ethnicity, educational background and gender, sharing similar interests? Who will be able to warn of dangers ahead?

We're far enough into the year to know that this will be one of those milestones in history: 1848, 1989, 2011. The tectonic plates have literally shifted. These are uncertain times; there are many risks ahead.

We need to encourage diversity in its true meaning – and bring in fresher thinking from different disciplines and perspectives. There's more to the diversity debate than class, gender, age and ethnicity.