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My thoughts on Influence magazine

5 Feb

InfluenceI’d been calling for a publication for CIPR members ever since we lost our free subscription to PR Week, so I was quick to welcome the arrival of Influence magazine last week.

I chose not to pay for PR Week because I no longer wanted to read a trade publication. Yet there’s clearly a gap in the market for a professional publication.

So what has Influence done well – and where can it develop in future editions?

Good points

  • Editorial independence from the CIPR. We need a professional journal, not a house journal.
  • Strong production values. It’s well designed and well illustrated. The photoshopped images in the devolution article are superb.
  • Strong content overall in the launch edition.

What’s missing?

  • It lacks personality. Most of the articles are exercises in even-handed journalism. I’d welcome more opinion (along the lines of the George Pitcher piece in the launch edition). Who’d like to brief us on the lobbying register? Or on the new Barcelona Declarations on measurement and evaluation?
  • Where are the people? A profession includes people at all stages of life. So where are the obituaries? Where the profiles of those who’d received New Year’s honours (eg Sandy Lindsay MBE)? Where the lists of those awarded pass, merit and distinction in professional qualifications? Where the accounts of who the CIPR’s benevolent fund has helped? Where’s some insight into the growing number of PR apprentices (some as young as 17). Give us the whole profession, from cradle to grave.
  • Where is education and training? There’s a focus on CPD, but still no book reviews, or digests of conference keynotes, or developments in research and education. One Saturday last November, PR Academy ran six simultaneous training sessions in one London venue. That’s a lot of education for a lot of committed and ambitious practitioners. It may seem marginal to the day job – but it’s an essential pillar of the professional project. This magazine could be the perfect space to blend academic and practitioner insights.

 

Managing Online Reputation

16 Dec

Managing Online Reputation: How to protect your company on social media
By Charlie Pownall
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 236 pages

Managing Online ReputationIt seems to me there are two types of book about public relations: the analytical and the anecdotal.

Books by academics tend to be strong in the first and weak in the second. Books by practitioners are usually the other way round.

I continue to read on in the hope of one day finding the perfect balance between the two.

Before giving my verdict on this contribution, let’s review what Charlie Pownall does well.

He brings an international perspective (he divides his time between Hong Kong and London) and the case studies cover tourist boards, airlines and global brands.

He has real-world experience (he’s a consultant and trainer) and he writes well.

His chapter on activists v corporates is a highlight of the book. While Greenpeace v Shell may not be an original choice, the incident he illustrates (a parody attack) is fresh – and the conclusion he reaches (in praising Shell’s response) is surprising.

The book is well structured, reviewing the threats, then discussing the angry mob (customers, activists etc) before turning to handling crises.

But is this book needed? How could you write about managing reputation or about handling crises in 2015 without discussing digital and social media and 24/7 news?

If it’s a book about reputation management, where’s the discussion of reputation concepts (who owns it, how to measure it)?

If it’s a book about digital and social media, why no discussion of the principle and practice of editing Wikipedia entries, a major talking point this year?

Though useful to public relations students and practitioners (there’s a lifetime’s experience here, and the case studies are very recent), this book is written for senior executives who must have sleepless nights over the risks to reputation.

The message is that they need competent advisers to help them navigate the challenges ahead. So who can they turn to? Lawyers? IT experts? Risk managers? Management consultants? PR consultants?

The answer is all of the above, and the question is not answered about the role of the public relations adviser. Though the need for good PR advice is more important than ever, it’s not clear whether PR consultants will be the winners.

Pownall’s approach appears to be to avoid the term public relations. Though he’s worked for Burson-Marsteller in the past, he seems to find the term too limiting and too discredited. Here’s what he says when discussing Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks:

‘Many people consider reputation management to be a function of public relations first and foremost. Yet public relations people are closely associated with spin doctoring and the manipulation of the media, search engines, and anything else they can twist to their advantage.’

So how does this book score on the analysis-anecdote equation?

It’s of most value when the author gives examples. To pick one, who would have thought there could be anything new to say about Malaysia Airlines, yet Pownall has some insights into the early handling of the disappearance of flight MH370.

I find it lighter in analysis – perhaps because a consultant’s advice is necessarily specific to the circumstances and not readily generalisable. There is a chapter on defining online reputation threats, but I find Andrew Griffin‘s framework more practical.

This is a timely and sensible book, and the author provides a useful critique of reading too much into social media conversations:

‘It is … tempting to consider your online reputation as your reputation, a kind of mirror image of what people think about you in the real world. Tempting, but mistaken. An organization’s reputation is the sum of how many different stakeholders view it, from customers, employees, and investors to government, investors [sic], and suppliers, each of which can have very different expectations. But online conversations are usually dominated by discussions about products and services by customers and prospective customers, while other stakeholder voices are voiced less frequently. When was the last time you heard a high-level regulator, pension fund manager, or buy-side analyst actively discussing a company on Facebook?’

Is not this distinction between a customer-centric view and a stakeholder view a key distinguisher between marketing and public relations?

Pownall may protest, but this book demonstrates the continuing importance of public relations.

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.

 

Feline theory of public relations

5 Feb

A man and his moggy What's the connection between cats and public relations?

I've noticed many Twitter followers declaring that they're cat lovers. I am too, though men are much less likely to let this be known in public.

Consider a cat's characteristics. It's fairly inscrutable and discreet – but somehow always gets its way. How do we know what cats want? They're good verbal and non-verbal communicators – withouth ever having to spell it out.

They can be grateful and affectionate, but have their agenda and aren't quick to compromise with humans. They're funny – but hate being laughed at. They rely on us but never seem too dependent.

In a word, cats are charming. We want to please our cats.

Now, as any child knows, the opposite of cat is dog.

A man's relationship with his dog is so much more direct. They take instructions from us, they love to be in a pack. They show off and like to please us.

You will have guessed where my metaphor is leading:

Dogs are like advertising. Cats are like public relations.

Expenses scandal source named

24 Jun

The PR hand behind the parliamentary expenses story has been named. He's Henry Gewanter and his Positive Profile website proclaims his involvement in 'the story of the century'. So far, so transparent.

But there are still more questions than answers arising from this:

  • On whose behalf was he acting? Public relations can be a neutral force; it can even act in the public interest. But it usually acts on behalf of a paying sponsor. Profesional ethics and transparency require that we don't conceal or deny the sponsor's identity. 
  • Why has his identity emerged now, and why was a PR intermediary necessary in this case? 
  • How much did the Telegraph pay? It remains a big political story, but payment by the newspaper shapes our understanding of the newspaper's motives in the same way that it shapes our understanding of the PR agenda.

The limits of personal influence

28 Mar

It's a privilege to be in a position to influence young minds. I never forget this. But it's sobering to realise the limits of this influence.

In the past week, I've spoken to three groups at two different universities about PROpenMic to encourage them to join and participate. (This social network for PR students is a year old and has just passed 4,000 members).

As a result of this direct appeal, just one student joined immediately (no better than the one to two per cent response rate for unsolicited direct mail). I'm aware of the limitations of advertising, but had thought that personal influence would be much more successful.

I've noticed many students joining in recent days from another university I'm involved in (but not through my direct influence). I suspect they're joining because their peers are (third party endorsement and recommendation by someone they trust), but it's also possible that it's in delayed response to things I said months ago.

That's how education works. It's a much less linear and direct process than some people imagine. Just like public relations, really.

Attention food and drink PR specialists

24 Feb

An undergraduate student, who has recently written about a spectacular publicity stunt for a burger company, now needs help with her dissertation research in a related area. She's hoping PR people involved in the food and drinks industries will complete a simple questionnaire to gauge the effects of new Ofcom regulations on the promotion of fatty food. Can you help?