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The most important year of your degree

16 Jun

A conventional three-year degree course is more of a marathon than a sprint.

I’ve seen students begin strongly but lack the passion to sustain this to the end. I’ve seen yet more begin slowly but come good at the end.

Most students probably view the year in the middle as the unexciting bit: it’s not new, but nor is it near the end.

That’s why your second year is the most important of the three.

You’ve adjusted to higher education by surviving year one. You’ve worked through the doubts and questions about whether you’re on the right course.

Year two is your time to make progress without the imminent pressure of graduating (or the self-imposed pressure of believing that only a First/Upper Second counts).

You’re familiar with your surroundings, your classmates, your lecturers, the routine. You should have learnt a lot about yourself and what motivates you. It’s time to start putting some lessons into practice.

If you’re studying public relations, that means gaining work experience in different sectors. That means applying lessons to ‘brand you’ and exploring how to develop professional relationships.

Who does this well?

Lucy Hayball has won our #bestPRblogs contest while still in her second year (of four: she’s about to spend a year working in the PR team at L’Oreal in London).

She was an outsider to win the contest as she’d started her blog during the year and had taken time to find her voice.

She’s not a show-off. She’s not a know-it-all. Instead, she’s a thoughtful learner who took us with her as she made connections, applied for placement opportunities and built her personal brand.

Most impressive of all, she did it alone. No classmates were in competition to produce better blogs; no tutors incentivised her by assessing her efforts; the placement year application process is solitary (she’s potentially in competition with her classmates).

I’ve spoken to Lucy about her year, and these are the lessons worth capturing from her year two experience:

  • Keep learning
  • Be humble
  • Push yourself
  • Experiment to find your niche and your voice
  • Find your community and be supportive of others
  • Busy people find time

She made the long journey to spend an afternoon with me at the Search Leeds conference yesterday (where we met someone who’s achieved spectacular success in the five years since graduating with a PR degree).

Lucy knows she’s still a work in progress and there are many tougher challenges to come – but she has the ability to see the bigger picture.

Only at the end did I think to check her age. She turns 20 next month. So she’s achieved this as a 19 year-old.

That’s worth noting – and her achievements are worth celebrating. Youth and wisdom: what a great combination (as we saw from most of the speakers at Search Leeds).

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In praise of excellence

17 May

In my day job, I primarily have to teach to assignments. Curiosity, interest and long-term value are secondary.

Teaching to assignments is repetitive and often involves a discussion of rules (word counts, referencing conventions etc). In truth it’s a dull business (but someone has to do it).

I’m also a mean marker. By that I don’t mean I’m particularly miserly, but that I keep an eye on averages. I’m delighted to award high marks, but they will tend to be counterbalanced by low ones as marks revolve around a mean (as well as recording the achievement of ‘learning outcomes’). Yet university administrators really don’t like low marks to be awarded: it looks bad, and is assumed to reflect bad teaching and support rather than any failing on the part of the (fee-paying) student.

Luckily, the day job’s constraints have their limits. As a volunteer magazine editor for almost ten years I’ve been able to set my own rules and to strive for different standards.

What do I have to show for this dedication? Not as much as I should, but allow me to be very proud of one achievement only.

Consistency is king

After a misfiring experiment with ranking students on their influencer metrics (#socialstudent), I came up with a better formula to identify and recognise outstanding PR students. Our #bestPRblogs contest has been running for four academic years. I don’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the three past winners (they were the best in their year) – but to me the contest has never been stronger than this year.

It’s an exercise in excellence. It rewards exceptional achievement, but is also a long-running contest that rewards consistency over sporadic brilliance. It’s a true test of PR ability.

Here’s the breakdown. To compete, a student has to:

  • Have a blog, partly or wholly focused on public relations. Easy. Then they have to post consistent, quality content to their blog (the hard part) – and make sure that others know about their efforts (by using, but not abusing, social media channels).
  • Be selected for my pick of the week roundup. This ran throughout the academic year. 39 students from 13 universities made it. No doubt I missed several talented student bloggers, but part of the exercise involved them finding ways to draw their efforts to my attention. Most of those shortlisted were outliers, who faced no competition from classmates at their universities. They found their own way.
  • Be consistent. Those shortlisted after 24 weeks were those who had appeared most often in the weekly roundup. Some had scarcely missed a week. There’s a time and a place for brilliant, original content – but let’s not overlook the virtue of consistency.
  • Be brilliant. In a crowded field where anyone can have a blog and a social media presence, how do you stand out? Here are two lessons I’ve learnt from our shortlisted student bloggers:
    • Brilliant writing counts. It’s so simple really: good writing is easy to read. But what’s difficult is getting the balance between the personal and the professional.
    • Quality content has value. Your blog does not demand a stream of personal anecdotes or confessions. This year, we’ve had shortlisted candidates who have been editors as well as writers. They have commissioned and published interviews with practitioners. This is doubly valuable as an exercise in networking.

The strength of the leaders this year has meant there were fewer opportunities for others to force their way into the competition. There was little space for the merely ordinary.

So, just this once, let me praise some exceptionally talented individuals. Let’s recognise excellence and out of the ordinary achievement. Far from diminishing others, our shortlisted bloggers are leading by example and inspiring others. It’s the best lesson of all.

Unfollow me

12 Jun

Twitter screenshotNothing to see here. Move along please.

I keep half an eye on vanity measures (likes and follows etc) but don’t pay them much attention.

My Klout score of 58 (today) is a perfectly respectable average grade, but slightly below the percentage most of my students aspire to achieve. Yet it doesn’t mean much.

One number I have been watching is the number of my Twitter followers as it crept slowly up to the 5,000 mark – before promptly falling back below this level, then creeping up once again.

For the most part, people add others on social media, but don’t remove anyone since it’s easier to ignore someone if you’ve no interest in what they have to say, and no desire to invest in a relationship.

Yet clearly some people do unfollow. Who are they, and why?

Twitter alerts you to new followers (via email alerts), but you get no such warning of people who unfollow you. To do this, you need to use another tool.

I’ve installed Unfollowers and so have been receiving alerts when people unfollow me. I can see who they are, and also check on people I follow who don’t follow me back (and vice versa). So it’s a useful exercise in investigating reciprocity in online relationships.

I’ve not learnt much though. Some unfollowers are because their accounts have been suspended. They’re no loss to me. Others (so far) have been people I didn’t even know were following me.

Some, I’m told, will follow as many accounts as possible in the hope of gaining a proportion of follow-backs before discreetly unfollowing these and then presumably moving on to dupe some new targets. Not cool – but it happens.

How to mute or block users on Twitter

How to mute of block users on Twitter

Is there an alternative to unfollowing? Twitter now offers the chance to mute someone we’re following so their updates won’t appear in our feeds.

Muting is invisible to others, and we can simply reverse it if we change our mind (or the person we’ve muted changes their communication behaviour).

From cannon fodder to Google fodder

19 Jan
I sucked at spin too

I sucked at spin too

I don’t mean to belittle the sacrifice of those who have experienced real combat, but I do recall feeling like cannon fodder when I started out in public relations 25 years ago.

An educator colleague used to describe the work as ‘media hustling’ – and I was as bad at it as everyone else.

I still shudder to remember some of my failed pitches. Like the time I phoned a senior technology journalist in an attempt to engineer a meeting at a trade show.

Me: Are you hoping to attend Client-Server World next week?

Him: [Long pause.] Have you any idea how that sounds?

More useful was the rebuff from a national newspaper correspondent in response to my lame attempt to offer him an environmental story.

Is it new or is it surprising?

This at least became a memorable test to apply before picking up the phone in future.

This talk of phone calls and conversations places me in the analogue world of public relations and I suspect we’re past the tipping point now.

About five years ago I noticed that more PR graduates were being offered work in digital agencies than as ‘media hustlers’ in ‘traditional’ PR roles.

Where we chased ‘coverage’, the mantra now is ‘content.’ Where I prized my clients’ appearances in the Financial Times or on the BBC, it seems that all that matters is feeding the Google machine.

Graduates have no problem making this transition as they never knew the old world, but it’s a challenge for many experienced practitioners.

The principles of public relations remain the same: reputations are hard-won and easily lost; relationships matter. But the practice needs to adapt.

Take the tried and tested news release. It’s still not died and still has a place, but you need to be careful how you distribute it since Google assumes that duplicate content must be spam.

So where we were once delighted to have our ‘news’ picked up word for word in multiple publications, it could now damage our Google search results.

It sounds like it’s time to relearn about customisation. It’s time to pick up the phone and develop some meaningful relationships.

For those who’ve blinked and missed the shift from media distribution to customised content sharing, I recommend Spin Sucks, a practical guide to the new world of Paid-Earned-Owned and -Shared media by US consultant Gini Dietrich.

It’s never too late to learn and it feels good to confess to the sin of spinning.

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)

Social media’s long history

23 Dec

Writing on the Wall

This brief review explores the book’s central thesis, so I should offer a spoiler alert to those who’ve not read Tom Standage’s ‘Writing on the Wall’ through to the end.

The argument explored in this intriguing and unusual media history is that social media goes back at least 2,000 years but that mass media has been a 150 year aberration in human history. The author writes:

“Social media is not new. It has been around for centuries.  Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. Media-sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottlenecks of broadcast media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift – and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.”

The author is The Economist’s digital editor, a paid-up representative of the mass media world (The Economist was founded in the 1840s) and the book provides useful background to the debates about press freedom and regulation that have surrounded the Leveson Inquiry.

Historical examples in the book include the sharing of correspondence in Ancient Rome; how printed pamphlets helped spread the ideas of Protestant reformers; how coffeehouses promoted innovation; how self-expression has a longer history than the taking of selfies.

This historical analysis leads to a balanced concluding essay weighing up the arguments between the optimists who view social media as a channel for free expression and the pessimists who point out that governments can use the same tools to promote repression.  To those who condemn social media as a waste of time, Standage says that coffeehouses led to the same complaint (in the 1670s they were denounced as “great enemies to diligence and industry”).

An Oxford antiquarian blamed coffeehouses for the lack of learning among students. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university? Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.”

The complaint in Cambridge was of students taking an interest in news. “The scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of a pure novelty.”

In his book tour talk, Standage defined social media as ‘media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community’.

For public relations educators and practitioners, the book is helpful as it reminds us what we do: we develop these social connections and encourage conversations and communities. It also enables us to respond to the familiar criticisms of social media, that it’s a fad or a waste of time. Conversely, if all we did was media relations, then the end of the mass media age would mean an end to our usefulness.

Standage provides a detailed, forensic reading of his chosen historical sources but this is emphatically not a book about technology. It’s about the people who have used various communication technologies (from writing and printing through to the Internet) to share ideas. The emphasis on behaviour reminds us that human nature is resistant to change.

For my part, I’m pleased when my students take an interest in news – and I have no plans to discourage their coffee consumption. Whether many of them share my interest in history is another matter.

Virtual virtuoso

17 May

virtualvirtuosoI picked up a gong last night. Now, bragging’s not charming and two awards in two days might be pushing my luck.

But the inaugural Golden Robes awards 2013 were special: these are awards made by students at an event organised by the students’ union. The loudest applause of the night went to Barry Galawan, a member of the security staff, who won a ‘hidden hero’ award.

I was presented with ‘virtual virtuoso’ in another alliterative category. The citation mentioned a social media stunt in a class before Christmas. It also referred to the opportunities I give for students to get published on Behind the Spin.

All evening, the phrase ‘over and above’ was mentioned in the context of academic and support staff who have done their utmost to help students.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that no mention was made in the citation about teaching in the area of digital and social media. This year, I’ve shared teaching with Stuart Bruce on one undergraduate and two postgraduate modules. Though I say it myself, I think our teaching is fresh, innovative and embracing of academic and practitioner perspectives. I don’t apologise if it’s also challenging. I think this (not me) is a worthy winner!