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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.

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?

Dissertation discussion

20 Feb

It's that time of the academic year again. I'm getting more comments and email requests (spam comments too from essay writing businesses which I remove as soon as I can) on this topic than any other. So here are some groundrules on my response to dissertation requests.

  • I will respond to your questionnaires and interview requests whenever possible. I've welcomed the chance to answer questions on the effects of the recession on the PR industry from a New York University student and on the ideal curriculum for a PR degree from a Leeds Met student in the last week.
  • I will not give anyone a topic to research. I can give general suggestions (see below) but your dissertation is your one chance to pick a subject to study. Don't give it up, least of all to a stranger.  

Good dissertation topics have the following characteristics:

  • There is an existing body of (academic) literature for you to read. 
  • It is a subject that allows you to contribute your own original research. 
  • It probably involves an element of novelty and change.  

Let's take an example. A student took the 'glass ceiling' as her starting point (well-established body of literature) but chose to ask about the barriers to entry for young men onto PR degree courses (involves change, very researchable).

Or another. I've not yet supervised a study into the use of Twitter in media relations (readily researchable, very topical). There's no academic literature though, so is this a show-stopper? Not at all, because there's literature on communications and public relations theory, social media, media relations practice and much non-academic chatter about Twitter.

Busy for some

29 Aug

There have been some mighty spats and some strong themes doing the rounds while I’ve been away. Here are some of them:

  • Well-known blogger Tom Coates hates press release spam. It’s fallen to Stephen Davies (among others) to stage a defence of PR.
  • Nobull_charnosI hate spam like the next person, until it’s personal and then it’s no longer spam. One news release I welcomed receiving was, interestingly, from Stephen Davies himself. It’s a social media news release. Another was from two recent PR graduates who’ve taken part in a photo shoot with their team (see picture) in support of ‘National Stockings Day’.
  • Senior industry figures have been thinking about the merits of young graduates entering the business. David Byrne, CEO of Weber Shandwick writes:

    We want people with good analytical skills and an understanding of how to make a case. We need people who can actually write – more and more important as PR and the media we deal with change – and we need people with a real interest in the world around them. We increasingly need people with specialist sectoral knowledge as content becomes more important than just contacts.

    And we need people who actually want a career in PR in its many forms, and see it as a profession rather than just a brush with glamour.

    As more kids with socially diverse backgrounds work hard and get good A levels, and more good quality communications-related degrees become available, this will help our business.

  • Meanwhile Edelman’s European President and CEO David Brain advises job seekers to go global in search of valuable experience.