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.

 

How I fell for the Great BT TV scam

10 Dec

I live in the country and never experience any doorstep selling.

I’ve learned to screen calls on my landline and mobile – and have never been prey to a sales scam.

I’ve been online for a long time, and have learned to become better at avoiding phishing attacks and protecting my security – though I have to keep continually alert.

So I’m shocked and angry that I’ve fallen prey to a scam from an unexpected source – from BT itself.

I’m a phone and broadband customer, and started paying my BT bill by direct debit nine years ago.

So I didn’t immediately notice that BT had started charging me a monthly fee for BT TV and for BT Sport – services I didn’t ask for, don’t want, and don’t even know how to use.

How did this happen? It seems that all broadband-only customers have started being charged for BT TV unless they opt out. In my case, when amending my phone and broadband package a year ago I accepted the offer of a ‘free’ TV box. I can see now that it may have been ‘free’ for 12 months, at which point charges of £25/month kicked in. I never even opened that box.

The month these charges kicked in was the first month in many years I went over my overdraft limit – but still I did not spot that BT was to blame.

I’ve called the bank to renegotiate my overdraft. I’ve called BT and demanded out of BT TV and BT Sport.

But those adjustments aren’t enough. How many others are paying monthly amounts to BT by direct debit for services they didn’t ask for and don’t use?

The expensive acquisition of Champions League football is headline-grabbing for BT Sport. But how many even know how to watch BT Sport? I certainly can’t given the speed of my rural BT broadband.

Why should loyal BT customers be taxed to pay for elite football and its overpaid players?

Are BT shareholders aware that profits are being bolstered by this racket and that there’ll be a price to pay when customers realise they’ve been scammed?

I confess I never found the Payment Protection issue all that concerning – but it certainly is now to the banks and their shareholders.

The Great BT TV Scam seems potentially a bigger deal. It’s magic money for now for BT – but there will be a price to pay.

Had I been scammed by overseas spivs I would have had to shrug my shoulders and hope to learn from the experience.

But to be scammed by BT plc, a business I’ve trusted with my bank details in the form of a direct debit, is a different matter. I want to tell others so they can check their accounts and take action.

I’ve taken action. I’ve cancelled my direct debit and have asked for paper bills (at my expense). I don’t trust BT with my bank details anymore. There’s a price to pay for loss of trust.

It seems I’m not alone: https://community.bt.com/t5/BT-Sport-on-the-Box/Bt-Sport-Letter-Getting-when-you-don-t-want/td-p/901662

Clue 1

17 Nov

See if you can work out who our guest will be in our class next week (hint: s/he’s a prominent public relations practitioner). The first clue is in this paragraph. For the next clue in our blog treasure hunt, you’ll need to head to:

www.thebettinsonblog.wordpress.com 

 

The power of public relations

3 Oct

Comms and caffeine 2I love teaching: it’s the hardest communication job I’ve ever had.

Let me explain this – first to practitioners who’d like to teach more, then to students.

To those who think university lecturers inhabit an ivory tower with endless free time for abstract research, let me put you straight. We’re much closer to school teachers with heavy timetables and endless admin and emails. We snatch time for study and research around the teaching, assessment and admin.

So why is it such a good communication challenge? Because teaching isn’t about you, the teacher. It doesn’t matter what you know or what you say. Teaching is all about learning, and your words can have unintended consequences.

I’ve given a version of an introductory lecture for over ten years. I show a range of definitions of and perspectives on public relations. That’s what I say. But what do students write in their essays?

They take from this lecture the lesson that it’s impossible to define public relations – which is the opposite of the intended message.

Teachers have to show, not tell. To encourage a culture of learning rather than imposing a rigid view of the world.

Sometimes metaphors help.

Some students and graduates tell me they struggle to gain work experience placements or job interviews. So I ask what methods they’ve used. It sometimes turns out they’ve been bombarding businesses with emails or (worse), hassling them through public channels like Twitter.

Is that how you’d try to get a first date, I ask. By emailing random strangers? Or by publicising your desperation?

How does this make you look to the recipient of your messages?

You need to start over and first make yourself attractive to your potential partner. In public relations terms, this means showing you can do PR for yourself before you offer to do it for someone else.

  • Do you have a blog or website? Is it up to date?
  • Check your About page and your Twitter bio
  • Scroll through your Tweets: what impression are you giving to a professional?
  • Are you a visual communicator? Then show off your Instagram, Pinterest or YouTube streams and channels

Ashley Keir-Bucknall did not believe that blogging could help her on the way to a career in public relations. Now that an employer approached her to offer an interview that led to a job, she’s a convert.

It’s a better lesson than I can teach. What’s more, Ashley’s never been in my classes; we’ve not even met, though we now work together on a spare-time project.

That’s the power of public relations. It can help turn strangers into friends.

Campaign of the century

14 Jul

This is a summary of a paper I presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference at Bournemouth on 8 July 2015.

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Is the anti-smoking campaign the public relations campaign of the twentieth century?

It scores on awareness of the link between smoking and disease; it has achieved widespread attitude change around the issue of passive smoking; and it has reduced smoking from a majority to a minority habit.

Some might argue that the campaign has not succeeded because almost one in five of adults (19%) still smoke. But those behind the campaign had a different goal – to make smoking abnormal in society.

This was not initially a government campaign. It was initiated by a professional group of doctors – the Royal College of Physicians – whose only previous public campaign had been to lobby for an increase in the price of gin in 1725.

Nor was it obvious that doctors should take a stance on smoking. Some still smoked in the 1950s, and many felt that it was not their role to campaign against cigarettes as they were not a disease (though smoking could lead to disease).

Change came with the election of Robert Platt to the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957. His greatest achievement as president was the report on Smoking and Health published in 1962. The catalyst for this report was a chest physician, Charles Fletcher, who had presented two BBC television programmes about health in the late 1950s and was a natural communicator.

Fletcher edited the report to make it comprehensible to the public and members of parliament (previous reports from the college had been written for medical practitioners only).

Smoking and Health coverThis report was launched on 7 March 1962 – Ash Wednesday – when the college held its first ever press conference.

The morning press conference was well attended and the press release from this event provides an early and compelling example of risk communication. How to present the mortality risks from smoking to a roomful of journalists? Platt is reported as saying:

‘Those who smoke 25 or 30 cigarettes a day have about thirty times the chance of dying of [lung cancer] than a non-smoker does. Of course you might say it is still only the minority, about one in eight of heavy smokers, who died of the disease, and this is true. But supposing you were offered a flight on an airline and you were told that usually only about one in eight of their airlines crashed, you might think again.’

The report received extensive and largely positive press coverage – and interviews were given to the BBC and ITV (the only two television channels in the UK at that time).

Journalists accepted the evidence, though some questioned what action government should take.

The Daily Mail editorial from 8 March 1962 illustrates this ambivalence:

Risk in a cigarette

Men and women must decide for themselves whether to continue smoking or not. For the Government to try to do it for them would be an interference with individual liberty.

That is our first reaction the latest report on the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It comes from the Royal College of Physicians, whose warnings should be taken to heart.

After years of argument there is no longer any doubt about the correlation between the smoke and the disease. The evidence is too overwhelming to be explained away.

We would strongly oppose the suggestion that the price of cigarettes should be made almost prohibitive. This is the wrong approach.

Smoking is a virtual necessity for millions of people and there would be widespread resentment (or pay demands) if a packet of 20 were put up to, say, 10s.’

To regulate smoking in public places is a better proposal. The foul atmosphere of cinemas and some theatres is a reproach.

But if restrictions are to be applied to tobacco, as they have to smoke from chimneys, why not also to car fumes? It is time some cleansing apparatus on exhaust pipes was made compulsory.

The tobacco manufacturers have spent a lot of money on research into lung cancer and have published the results without fear or favour. As they say themselves, still more is needed.

If they could find how to take the risk, but not the pleasure, out of cigarettes, they would do themselves and the public a great service.

The report presented seven recommendations for possible action by government:

  1. ‘more education of the public and especially schoolchildren concerning the hazards of smoking
  2. ‘more effective restrictions on the sale of tobacco to children
  3. ‘restriction of tobacco advertising
  4. ‘wider restriction of smoking in public places
  5. ‘an increase of tax on cigarettes
  6. ‘informing purchasers of the tar and nicotine content of the smoke of cigarettes
  7. ‘investigating the value of anti-smoking clinics to help those who find difficulty in giving up smoking.’

Looking back after more than 50 years, we can see that the aims of the report’s authors had been achieved. Indeed, in one case action has gone beyond what they had asked for (the health warning on cigarette packets has evolved into a blunt warning that ‘smoking kills’.)

The report sold well in the UK and the US and it received widespread and largely positive press coverage. But it did not initially lead to government action.

Some limited restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 1965 and the Health Education Council (now Health Education Authority) was formed in 1968. It commissioned anti-smoking campaigns from Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So the initial response was disappointing, and after a brief decrease, numbers of those smoking (especially women) began to rise again.

The Royal College of Physicians decided to keep campaigning. A follow-up report ‘Smoking and Health Now’ was published in 1971 (this described the deaths from smoking-related diseases as a ‘holocaust’) and the College established the campaigning group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Further reports followed in 1977 and 1983 – by which time attention had shifted to the issue of passive smoking.

Today, the UK has the strongest controls on tobacco of any country in the EU. Banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes, banning smoking in public places have all helped to make smoking abnormal – but government was initially slow to act.

The campaign against smoking is now seen as a model for other public health campaigns (only this week doctors have called for an increase in the price of sweetened drinks). It marked a shift from doctors focusing on treating infectious diseases to campaigning on chronic (‘lifestyle’) disease, using the tools of public relations and public affairs.

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).

Let us praise

7 May

Let’s stop to consider a group of people who are widely derided – and assumed to be liars.

Yet they’re natural communicators who take every opportunity to seek public engagement. They live with a high degree of job insecurity, yet they are strategic thinkers as well as doers, managers and activists. They believe in the power of ideas to effect positive change.

They work long hours (the job never stops), having had to put in long stints of voluntary work to build their CVs.

Public relations practitioners will recognise the description – but I’m thinking of politicians.

Most impressive of all, politics is not all about elections. The winners today (and even some of the losers) will have to start work tomorrow to form a government. Those in government will have to work hard to meet the goals of a balanced economy and a fairer society.

They will suffer from external events, from the news agenda, from public derision – and from the claim that they can’t keep their promises.

Yet they only retain their jobs with public approval. Many will be looking for work tomorrow – but you could write the damning article now about the revolving door between politics, business and public affairs.

Who’d be a politician?