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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!

My skills (according to you)

30 Apr

LinkedIn skillsI’ve not been a fan of LinkedIn endorsements.

These are the professional network’s equivalent of the Facebook ‘like’ button, taking little time, asking for little engagement and requiring little thought.

(LinkedIn recommendations remain the exact opposite; they are hard won and hard to give, a gold standard.)

And yet, is LinkedIn onto something? Though each individual endorsement means little (though it’s pleasant to know that someone remembers you and thinks highly of you in some way), collectively they add up to something.

They paint a picture of your skills and expertise that’s an honest picture because it’s composed of lots of small votes.

What does this popular vote say about me? That I have expertise in public relations is not surprising as my job title (senior lecturer in public relations) proclaims it, as do my professional experience and memberships.

Next to this, I’m evidently an expert in media relations. If you add press releases to media relations, that’s my main specialism, eclipsing all others including my social media expertise.

How can I be such an expert in a field I’ve not practised for over 15 years? The vote probably comes because of the number of students I’ve taught over the years, and a few may even have read the chapter I wrote on ‘media relations’ in a well-known textbook. I can’t disown my past, and I am proud of the classes and lectures I’ve given in this field.

But is there a problem with crowdsourcing? Does it encourage crowd-like behaviour? Are some endorsing me for skill simply because they’re following the herd and being swayed by the popular vote? In verifying our past, does LinkedIn make it harder for us to reinvent ourselves?

Disruption

14 Mar

Drew Benvie PR WeekDrew Benvie has resigned from Hotwire, launched a new consultancy business Battenhall and used his Huffington Post column to explain why the Comms Agency model is ripe for disruption.

So what does the future hold? I firmly believe a new kind of agency that is built for the social media economy can thrive, where everything starts with social, but the experience backing that up in each individual adds another dimension. Disruption of the agency model as we know it.

He’s not alone. Jed Hallam (author of The Social Media Manifesto) writes that PR isn’t dying, but PR agencies might…

It used to be that public relations was the pipeline to the public, but now that’s no longer true. So the role of PR now has to become more strategic. It has to evolve and has to take centre stage at a more strategic, and senior level.

Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington probably share this thinking. Last year they resigned from leadership roles within a mid-sized consultancy and are now in senior roles in different international consultancies.

To me, this suggests that boutique public relations businesses can thrive if they find their niche, but mid-sized businesses might be squeezed between the specialists and the large international networks.

I’m sure I’ll return to this theme because it interests me – but my blog’s theme is public relations education. For many of the same reasons, education is also ripe for disruption. That’s what I want to explore here.