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Why study public relations? Why now?

3 Jul

We have an open day at the university today. Normally, these are opportunities to meet and show, and to answer questions from applicants (often accompanied by family members). Today, it’s all online, so rather than a schedule of talks and a location for informal conversations, I’m waiting to answer any chat box queries.

Here are some questions you should be asking along with my suggested answers.

Why study public relations?

It’s not the most important question for you, but it is the one that interests me most. You will most likely be choosing a city first; a university second; and a course third. But let’s turn straight to the course question.

Public relations, or a combination of public relations with journalism and/or marketing, is interesting in its own right, but also highly applicable in many career contexts. If you enjoy writing and creating content, if you like building connections on social media, if you’ve thought about your personal branding – you’ve already made the first steps towards paid work in this field. Brands, businesses, charities and public sector organisations all need help developing relationships with customers, volunteers, employees and allies. So you can apply your university studies to sectors that interest you.

Why study now?

This is a harder question, because it must be tempting to hold off on university entrance when so many aspects of the university experience will be denied to you next academic year. But university is a three (four, or more) year journey, so I think you need to see the bigger picture. Your options for paid work and travel may also be limited in the short term, so investing in your future could be the wise choice.

But you need to be sure you’re investing in skills and approaches that will be useful in future. Public relations is needed in the good times. Many sectors are suffering right now, but there are exceptions and these are book times for the technology sector (think how reliant we’ve all become on online and streaming services). Other sectors with promising futures include pharmaceuticals, green energy and financial technology (fintech). But public relations is not only needed in the good times: it’s really needed in the bad times. Think of those firms announcing redundancies and closures: they all need help communicating the message to staff, investors, politicians and the media. The more difficult the challenge, the more important becomes the role of the public relations adviser.

The future is unpredictable. You will change in the coming years. So there are no guarantees, but the long list of challenges facing the world means opportunity for curious graduates who are up for a challenge and who have demonstrated their capacity to learn.

The bigger the problem, the greater the need for problem-solving graduates. That’s how to view university, and the choice of public relations.

Tough love

24 Mar

It’s always surprised me that the thinking behind the Welfare State and the National Health Service emerged from the darkest days of the second world war. The Beveridge Report, on which these reforms were based, having been published in 1942.

How did people have the space to envisage a better future when faced by a daily struggle to survive? How was there spare capacity to ‘think the unthinkable’ when all energies were devoted to the demands of total war?

The answer is now clear to me – and may well have been all along to others. You need an optimistic vision to help you through the darkest days. You need to believe in a better world to cope with the privations of the present situation.

(Another example is the experience of art historian Nikolaus Pevsner. It was while watching for incendiary bombs in London that this German Jewish refugee dreamt up his postwar series ‘The Buildings of England’. By seeing the destruction of historic buildings, he realised the urgent need to record the nation’s architectural heritage.)

I was born in 1961. In hindsight, not that long after the war, but at the beginning of an age of expansion and opportunity. Yet there were anxieties. The Berlin wall was built that year; Dr Strangelove satirised the fears around accidental nuclear war in 1964. The Cold War lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades later.

Since then, the world has become less predictable, with threats more likely to come from non-state actors such as terrorist groups or even individuals.

We will always be anxious: it’s hard-wired into our survival instincts to scan for threats. Perhaps my generation had it too easy: no conscription, no total wars. A mostly benign economy with rising indices allowing for the accumulation of capital.

What of those born around the turn of the millennium, like most undergraduate students? They’ve been doubly shielded from existential threats because they’re two or even three generations on from the effects of war, of privation and the imminence of death. Yet while work is abundant, it’s less secure and the challenge of matching the capital accumulation of wealthier older generations seems insurmountable. How can you ever save for a pension if you’re stretching to afford a mortgate and a travelcard?

So rather than dreaming of a better future, we have a generation of young adults who’d rather retreat into dreams of childhood. Disneyworld and Harry Potter, created for children, are reassuring experiences for young adults too.

Will the present crisis enable a rethinking and a resetting, similar to the Beveridge Report and the Welfare State? It’s not going to be easy, but the outlines of a more optimistic future are already apparent in these early days of lockdown.

  • The climate will thank us. Already, noise and vehicle pollution is lower. Air quality has improved. Long term, our survival depends on collective action, so this is a social experiment that will be studied for its lessons.
  • Consumption will slow. We can no longer shop for entertainnment, or buy non-essentials because of wants rather than needs. We already know we needed to stop doing this, but what was finally going to nudge us away from shopping? Will we revert to ‘make do and mend’ or learn greater self-sufficiency? Will having fewer things mean we value them more highly?
  • Food. There are already signs of a ‘dig for victory’ approach from some. If nothing else, a vegetable patch in the garden is proving good for health and mental wellbeing, though not everyone has a garden. Beyond this, we were already facing disruption to supply chains and to a crisis in farming because of tariffs and Brexit. Supporting local farms and food producers will see a return to local and seasonal produce, with less year-round choice of luxuries flown from all corners of the globe. It’s a major challenge to feed 60 million from locally-produced food. If farmers are to get a better deal we’ll have to get used to less choice and more expensive food. Not easy, but this reset gives us as chance to rethink. More of us will have to give up or reduce our meat consumption if we’ve any chance to feed all of us.
  • Travel. Already, some Instagram feeds and weekend newspaper travel supplements, so popular until so recently, are looking socially unacceptable. Where the generation before mine settled for a week at Blackpool or Scarborough, and mine would backpack to a beach in Greece, my students and graduates seem to think nothing of taking a holiday flight to Bali, while their grandparents book onto oversized cruise ships that are contributing to the destruction of Venice. Now, we’re being discouraged from driving to beaches and national parks for exercise, so will be forced to enjoy spaces closer to home. Since the lockdown is coinciding with spring, many will rediscover the solace to be found in an acute observation of nature.
  • Work. This is the big one. Near full employment has been the norm in recent years, but many jobs in hospitality and retailing are threatened. Will these sectors ever recover? Then there’s the question of work-life balance which has been a problem for people in higher paid, ‘white collar’ jobs. Most are now classified as ‘non-essential’, so will people ever return to commuting and the 9-5 lifestyle now they’ve been forced to work remotely and rely on technology instead? The short-term effects of the lockdown will be difficult for businesses and for workers. The long-term effects are unpredictable, but there will be opportunities for business that can prove that they’re essential, and for entrepreneurs and traders to dream up vital new services. Many will involve a return to the past: crafts that can be sold, markets that travel to us, food from farms.
  • Sport and exercise. I understand that people are busy and gyms meet a social need in cities. But they’re surely only essential for elite sportspeople. Walking, jogging, cycling, rowing can all take place at home (with minimal equipment) or locally. Climbing the stairs, walking and gardening are probably the best exercise for older people. The loss of major sporting events is damaging to morale, but we will channel our time and energies into other activities. It’s a creative opportunity. Online gaming may come to seem like a good obsession, like chess!
  • Community. People need company and a sense of common purpose. Changes to family life and the decline in churchgoing mean that we’ve increasingly been relying on private business to meet these needs. In the short term, volunteers and charities will have to step up but in the longer term there will be opportunities for individuals and social entrepreneurs to meet people’s needs and earn some money doing so.

I don’t mean to gloss over what will be a very difficult and unpredictable time for many. We don’t know who or how many will die. I am above all concerned for a generation of young people who were already anxious and who will now have good reason to be so. We’re all missing the social experience of the classroom and lecture theatre. But that’s why we need to think about their future and to make sure that an opportunity to reset and rethink provides some positive outcomes to offset the obvious and immediate negatives.

Rules are there to be broken

18 Feb

It’s a conventional saying. What made it memorable was when it was used by one of my school teachers.

I may have misinterpreted the meaning. There’s a difference between rules ‘should’ be broken and rules ‘are there’ to be broken.

If I speed, I may be fined, or lose my licence. If I don’t pay my taxes, I’ll be in trouble. So there’s some merit in following the rules if you want a quiet life.

But look around you at the world. The rules-based post-war world order is being torn down by the current president of its principal creator. And does the Kremlin play by the rules? What exactly are the rules when it comes to dinsinformation campaigns and asynchronous warfare?

In the UK, is politics following the normal rules when a Conservative government wins a majority thanks to votes in traditional Labour seats in the north while liberals in affluent areas in the south hold their noses?

But my topic is not politics but education. We’ve created a generation of students who’ve learnt how to follow the rules just as the world is overturning the principle of ‘business as normal’. We incentivise those who respond to manageable tasks in predictable ways. We don’t do enough to encourage individualism or creativity.

This may be an appropriate way to prepare people for rules-based workplaces. But how does it allow for disruption or innovation?

Can you set an assignment when there are no rules other than the requirement to ‘go solve the problem’? Educationalists say you can’t. The world says we must.

What was memorable about my school teacher telling me that ‘rules are there to be broken’ is that it sounded subversive to me. It was unexpected and liberating. It was a valuable lesson.

We’ve learnt about the value of the memorable teacher this week from retired footballer Ian Wright. There’s a soft power in teaching that can lead to some unexpected outcomes long after the assumed ROI of grades or student satisfaction survey responses. I bet no one included that in the ‘learning outcomes’ of a long ago lesson.

The purpose of education

16 Nov

The end goal of education is to encourage people to learn.

Knowledge is not the goal, as in a world of Wikipedia and Google information is at our fingertips. There’s little value in memorising it.

Yet with so much information available, how to sift out what’s important? How to recognise what is reliable from what’s merely distracting – or even fake?

Learning is not about knowing, it’s about finding out. It’s about questions, not answers.

None of this will come as a surprise to educators. But it involves culture shock for new students who are used to facts being incontrovertible, and questions having answers.

My first year class have asked me to give them more theory. Why? I suspect because theory is definite and known, whereas practice is shifting and unknowable. Unpredictable even. I will of course adapt to their wishes, and hope to meet them half way.

I can make my classes easier, but I can’t close off questions and pretend that knowledge is finite and finished. My students need to loosen up and learn to be curious.

This student blog post makes me very happy as an educator. Not because I’m mentioned in it. But because it illustrates the learning journey so well, including the inevitable doubts and introversion.

Lucy’s bright. She’s ambitious. She’s four years in to her degree course. But let’s not dwell on the exceptional, let’s look at the universal.

  • Learning involves stepping out of our comfort zone
  • We have to take risks, otherwise how will we reap rewards?
  • If we give, then we’re likely to receive
  • ‘Yes, it’s scary at first. Try it.’

Finally, students assume when coming on a public relations course that they’ll learn about communication. They will. But they also need to ask questions about the purpose of communicating. Lucy has learnt that one answer to this is community.

Here endeth the lesson.

Not working

26 Oct

I’m running the #prstudent #bestPRblogs contest for a fifth year. This time it’s at PR Place, and selections appear each Friday.

There are some confident and experienced student bloggers posting most weeks. I’m loving the quality of the content they’re producing, but I’m also aware that it may be daunting for novices. How to join? What’s blogging? What to write about?

So as a learning device, I’m not about to tell you what you should do. I’ll let you work out what not to do.

What’s wrong with this (apparently genuine) Twitter profile pictured here?

Of course you know. No picture, no credible bio, no followers, no tweets of any substance. Would you follow this person? Me neither. It looks like the least successful bot ever created.

Am I being unfair? Sofia may be a real person, wisely using her Twitter presence to lurk while she works out the answers to what, when, why. That could make sense, but the clock is ticking and it’s been six months…

So you can work out from here how to get started.

  • You need an integrated approach to your personal brand across social media (and are allowed to separate out personal from professional networks)
  • You need to give people a reason to follow you
  • You need to think through your approach to content, conversations and curation (your sharing of others’ content)
  • Your goal should be to build your professional network and establish a credible personal brand

You don’t have to blog (unless it’s a requirement for assessment on your course). There are alternatives to owning your own property (you can ‘rent’ on LinkedIn or Medium).

I’ve noticed a fashion for building personal sites using Wix. This works for some, but I find that it’s not always possible to subscribe to Wix sites using RSS (you see, I’m old-fashioned). What that means is that your content is harder to find and follow.

There’s an easy answer to that, suggested above. If you’ve integrated your social media accounts, you should share your latest posts using the #prstudent hash tag. That way I (and others) can find you.

Though I’ve described #bestPRblogs as a contest, in reality it’s a community. A community of learners who are supplementing their studies by developing their voice, building a network, and learning. What more could you ask of a public relations student?

You’ve probably noticed that I rarely post to this blog. So I’m not exactly practising what I preach. Good point: you don’t only have to aspire to be as good as those teaching you, you should aspire to go beyond them. To use their experience as a springboard for greater things.

I’m ambitious for you, not for me. I want you to gain a face, to find a voice, to build a network and to pursue a fulfilling career. I want you to know what not to do.


Teaching failure

17 Oct

Teachers have a powerful weapon. It’s not the power of grading, it’s the power of words.

Words can inspire. They can shape perceptions and be memorable. They can – and often do – bore and confuse.

In any one lesson, the same words could have all these effects on different members of the class. So teaching is not a linear, predictable process. It’s more like alchemy.

Humility is useful. It doesn’t matter what I teach: it’s what you learn that counts.

(An elaborate example of how we can no more understand how Stonehenge was used than a future civilization could work out the rules of cricket from the shape of Lord’s cricket ground led to ripples of mirth around my classroom of primary school aged children. All I had succeeded in doing was associate the image of the great stones to a cricket wicket with pictures of some stone age flintstone bowlers and batters in their minds.)

Only this week, I’ve had my teaching praised. I’m not good with compliments, so I’m much more worried about a complaint I recently received years after the event.

A successful graduate in the digital PR space wrote to me recalling a lesson I’d given in their second year:

During a lecture, you once told me that you didn’t think I would make it in the PR industry, an industry which has evolved thanks to the ever growing landscape of digital that now sits hand in hand with social as the main driver of buzz and reputation. You actually said I was forgettable, and I would just like to tell you I’ve never forgotten those words.

If I had said those things, I shouldn’t have – and did apologise in my reply. (It doesn’t seem likely that I could have been this personal in a lecture theatre, but students tend to use lecture/seminar/tutorial interchangeably.) But it doesn’t matter what I said: it only matters what impact my words had.

This was in 2010. I had probably been encouraging the class to wake up to the emerging opportunities in the digital landscape. My intention was to push my students to succeed, not to be personally offensive.

This graduate remembered. They took the trouble to write to me – most courteously – to correct me years later.

I’m ashamed of the short-term impact my words had. But I’m pleased that they were memorable and I’m delighted if they’ve acted as a spur to succeed.

Now, does that make me a bad teacher?

Journalism is the past, public relations is the future

29 Sep

I have taught public relations to journalism students (undergraduates and postgraduates). I’ve come to realise why they find the transition hard (though they don’t share their lecturers’ negative preconceptions and are invariably open-minded at the outset).

Journalists are trained to report on events that have just happened, or are happening right now. Their reports are written in the past tense (and journalism is often described as the first draft of history).

There are challenges in distinguishing news from noise; there are many practical and ethical obstacles to establishing what happened and reporting it fairly. It’s easy to see that from the reporter’s perspective public relations looks biased and can never represent the whole truth.

The challenge journalism students struggle with is the shift from the past to the future tense.

Public relations involves change – it looks to the future. The aim is to change specific groups’ awareness, attitudes or behaviour by some future point. It’s about mapping out a route from here to there.

And that explains the difficulty. An ability to report the news with accuracy and concision is a valuable transferable skill, but it can’t begin to help with the problem-solving challenge of public relations.

Which groups do you want to reach? How will you achieve this? How will you measure success? How will you persuade the boss or client to back the plan?

In short, public relations is a management discipline that includes elements of media practice. There’s a value to having an outsider’s perspective, but you need to understand about organisations and their environments. You’ll need teamwork to achieve your goals.

This shift from being the lone shark hunting the truth to being an organisational player is a difficult one. I struggled to bring a class with me in the summer as we moved from simple media tactics to the complexities of strategic planning in a few short weeks. I sensed their relief when we returned to a discussion of public relations and propaganda: writing an academic essay proved so much easier than writing a strategic PR plan.

There’s a misguided view that public relations is easy: journalists have all been the recipients of poor pitches and tend to assume they could do the job better. Some do succeed, but many find the going tougher than they had assumed. Reporting what happened this morning is easier than trying to change awareness, attitudes or behaviour in the future.

Graduates: why B2B is the place to be

19 Sep

You want your work to be interesting. You want it to be rewarding and to open up possibilities.

Many students and graduates make the assumption that interesting work involves products or brands they’ve heard of. So this means consumer brands (FMCG – fast moving consumer goods – in the marketing jargon). Many start out with ambitions to work in music or fashion.

By contrast, business-to-business companies are invisible and ‘boring’. Corporate work sounds too, well, grown-up.

Here’s why many are making the wrong call and limiting their career possibilities.

There are some high profile and award winning consumer PR campaigns (everyone cites the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty). But it’s hard to separate out the PR role from marketing. You’ll most likely be working for a boss or client who sees PR as the promotional P in the marketing mix.

This can be fun. It can be creative. But it’s not always well paid and it is potentially career limiting.

Contrast that with ‘boring’ business-to-business or corporate clients. They will usually adopt a PR-first strategy. This isn’t just about money, it’s about effectiveness. When you can name your existing and potential customers, and be specific about who influences them, PR can go beyond broad promotional activity and become much more personal. You’ll already be beyond the awareness-raising level and adopting a thought-leadership approach.

With corporate clients, the language shifts from concerns about promoting brands to concerns about protecting reputation. Target groups include employees and local communities. You are now speaking the language of PR, not of marketing, and learning lessons about the wide variety of corporate PR roles available.

You will start out as a hired writer – of media materials, website and blog content. Finding content requires you to become adept at taking an issues-led rather than product- or company-led approach. You will need to be able to explain and justify this approach to those who seek to change your copy into a crude advertisement.

You may continue in this role into senior posts and become a speech writer for senior executives. Or you may become a leader who can advise senior management on strategy and manage colleagues to deliver the tactics.

But how do you find interest in niche products with no broader appeal? You have to consider the business environment and the impact on jobs. Stop thinking of the product as the story, and start focusing on the issues.

There’s a sweet spot of course where business products crossover into the consumer space. This has happened with computers and telephones and is about to happen with battery technology in cars.

In a word, change is a great driver of PR activity. What’s boring about that?

Lies, damn lies and Unistats

5 Sep

I have a good sense of timing (though others will find my decision baffling).

I have just left a university job having helped put a new course on the map and having achieved a 100% student satisfaction score.

What was I thinking?

I use these stats so no one can accuse me of sour grapes for what I’m about to say.

I should also say that I was a reluctant convert to the current fees arrangement because I believe that universities should be properly funded and feel that a system that is in effect a graduate tax is fairer on everyone than raising general taxation so that a lawyer’s daughter can train to become a doctor at everyone else’s expense.

So I’m not opposed to everything that’s happened in HE in the last decade. But ‘student satisfaction’ is a monster. Let me explain why.

Once you create a market, you unleash the power of marketing. Just look at the amount universities spend on media advertising.

What a marketing-led approach to HE means is that all energies must be devoted to student recruitment (putting on a smile at open days). Once recruited, these students must be retained (so no low marks or fails, please – and do avoid being so boring in lectures). Ultimately, they must be kept happy for three or more years in preparation to the annual National Student Survey taken by final year undergraduates.

It’s true that these are best placed to evaluate their course across three years. But it’s also true that they’re focused on getting the highest degree classification with the lowest amount of risk. So no low marks or critical feedback on semester one assignments, please!

Look around our universities. The bright, primary (school) colours are all about the ‘student experience’. The higher fees have resulted in a building boom to improve facilities – and there’s a huge industry making large profits out of student accommodation in our big cities (again, look for the brightly-coloured buildings in city centres).

The safe spaces, no-platforming, puppy-petting culture is another sign of our student-centred world.

Now, where do lecturers fit into this? To university managers they are a cost. To many students they are the difficult people who set challenging assignments and give critical feedback. Why don’t lecturers simply explain how to do the assignment well?

In a perfect world of student satisfaction and university profitability, you’d do away with them. Except…

I’ve told bosses that you can either have high student satisfaction or be a university. Education is messy; it’s challenging. It involves asking difficult questions. It demands risk taking. It’s wasteful.

So much easier to put the money into marketing.

Then there’s the use of the stats. Every course at every university will look through their NSS results and cherry pick the high marks. So everyone’s a winner!

I share these stats because they look exceptionally good. But look down and there are some concerns:

Marking and assessment has been fair: 62%

‘It’s not fair! I tried really hard and you didn’t give me the mark I wanted!’

So, in order to improve my NSS results I’d have to allow students to mark their own work (that’s only fair). Now you see why the number of Firsts have increased year on year.

If I were in the same job next year, I’d be sitting in front of some university managers explaining why my student satisfaction scores had gone down. I’d have to show the plan I wrote this summer to improve on 100%. No, really.

There are good courses out there; there are good universities providing a supportive environment for good teachers. But you couldn’t tell that just from the student satisfaction results.

In a world of university marketing, everyone is putting on their best show. For prospective students and their parents it’s a case of ‘caveat emptor’.

Sorry, I shouldn’t use archaic language (think of student satisfaction).

In world of marketing, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Now, was I good at explaining this? I have a 100% score to maintain. How was my teaching today?

When I were a lad…

20 Jul

I was teased the other day for lapsing into Four Yorkshiremen* territory.

The context was a discussion about the purpose of higher education and how we should free students from timetables and assignments and coach them towards solving big problems.

The problem – as it seems to me – is that secondary education is going the other way and students would feel adrift without the constraining structures we provide in higher education.

Assessments were indeed harder ‘when I were a lad’. My university degree was achieved entirely on the results of a series of three-hour closed-book exams. Luckily, I am good at concentrating for short bursts and rose to the challenge. But I’ve never since been required to hand write an exam script. So was this a valid form of assessment?

My students have it easier at one level. But there’s more to life than grades and exams, and they have to negotiate different challenges.

A typical degree course has multiple modules or units each year. Each of these may have several different forms of assessment at different times in the university calendar. Multiply four modules by three assignments and you have 12 assessment points in the year, say. Miss any of these – or mess up on them – and passing the degree becomes much harder.

Keep this in mind when you read the headlines about grade inflation.

We now have the statistics to back up my sense that there are more Firsts being awarded.

It’s said employers can’t make sense of these awards. So what if a First is no longer an indication of a genius (and a red flag to many sensible employers). Instead, it’s a mark of supreme organisational skills – so becoming a useful guide to a skill employers should admire.

Setting aside the problem of handwriting (I’ve lost this skill after decades of typing) – I’d still choose to be assessed by an exam than by continuous assessment. I’d find it easier to perform well the once than to be as well-organised as the best of my students.

When you consider in the challenge of growing up with the pressures of always-on social media, we clearly had it easy ‘when I were a lad’.

I’m meeting some very switched-on graduating students tomorrow. I have high hopes for them and because of LinkedIn and social media I’ll know whether my judgement is vindicated by their performance in the workplace in the coming years.

My degree showed I was good at monotasking. Now let’s praise the multitaskers.

*I already knew I had Bailey ancestors from industrial revolution Yorkshire (see photo). I learnt only this week that my mother’s Sibson ancestor was born just a few miles from me in sheep farming country.