Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

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Teaching quick, learning slow

15 Dec

Education is ripe for disruption. The expense, the waste, the disappointment, the frustration.

I see this first as an educator and describe it in this paradox: the more I teach, the less they learn. But if more is less, does it necessarily follow that less is more?

Large fees and the pressure for high levels of student satisfaction mean that higher education is in danger of offering less just as paying ‘customers’ are demanding more.

So I’m not surprised that the entrepreneurs are circling. I’m glad that Richard Branson sees the irony of speaking out on education, but welcome his challenge to what we do.

Of course education can be speeded up (I’ll give some examples); but it’s growing up that takes time.

I have taught in two weeks a postgraduate course that would normally take a whole semester. We had classes from 9-1 five days a week for two weeks (that’s 40 hours of ‘contact time’) and assessed students before, during and after the teaching. It was intense; it was exhilirating. We were all in a foreign country which added to the richness of the experience and ensured near 100% attendance.

I also teach on professional qualifications which are taught over several days within a year (or by a mix of online and face to face teaching). This reduces costs and increases effectiveness.

Both approaches work well. But in the former case, these were sophisticated, older postgraduates. In the latter cases, these are practitioners who can apply the lessons to real-world contexts.

The challenge comes in the traditional space for HE – the 18 year-old school leaver. For them, HE still needs to provide a rounded education if it’s to provide value lasting a lifetime. Independence, resilience and team working are some of the soft skills that students gain by leaving home and attending university. That’s before they start gaining any specific vocational skills.

So training can often be quick, but education is necessarily slow because it proceeds at the pace of the learner, not of the teacher.

Besides, time is the most precious commodity we have. We deny our children time by over-scheduling their lives. Adults are denied time by the demands of work, living and family. University students are granted a special opportunity in being allowed time to develop.

Sure, much of this time will be wasted – or spent working to pay the bills. But some of it will be used to dream up a better future or new business opportunities. Creativity demands this cognitive surplus, and that’s surely something Richard Branson would applaud.

Without creativity, we’re just drones.

 

 

What’s your relationship with education?

11 Aug

the unseen powerUp to aged sixteen, our relationship with education is defined by compulsion. Up to eighteen by coercion since there’s pressure to stay on at school until 18 and young people are still strongly influenced by parents and teachers.

When students then go on to higher education, many assume their relationship with their university changes to that of a consumer (since they’re paying for a service).

In reality, it’s something else. A consumer is entitled to the product or service they have paid for, but a student is not entitled to a (good) degree just by paying. They have to earn it by demonstrating attainment over a succession of increasingly challenging assignments.

So educators view students as collaborators in learning. Without the levers of compulsion or coercion, we rely on encouraging a culture of collaboration. Among postgraduates and professionals, it’s even possible to achieve a community of learners who can gain as much support and motivation from their classmates as from their lecturers.

Compared to the simple transaction of a consumer paying for a product or service, this may sound nebulous. Some good graduates do not even recognise the role of their lecturers and tutors in collaborating in their progress. But greater autonomy is the outcome of this collaborative process and educators do not necessarily seek recognition. They are, like public relations, an unseen power.

Delayed gratification

21 Jul

tweetsOne of the most important measures of performance in Higher Education is ‘student satisfaction’, as measured through the annual National Student Survey.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with gauging student satisfaction after three years of (expensive) education. But in practice final year students tend to be satisfied with manageable assignments and high grades. So higher student satisfaction can only be guaranteed by lowering educational standards, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction…

Wouldn’t it be good to gauge a student’s response to their education over time? My Twitter timeline gave some clues this morning.

One noted how far he’d come in five years since graduating, and how well his year group were doing.

Another blogged about his experiences in the workplace one year on, and polled some classmates for their experiences.

This isn’t scientific or statistically valid, but education should be a long-term investment – just as student debt is a long-term commitment. So a longitudinal study of graduate achievement and satisfaction would be valuable addition to the snapshot provided by the National Student Survey.

I’ll leave the final word to one of last year’s graduates who’s degree has been less directly useful to his emerging career.

As for working in PR, that didn’t really work out for me. I’m happier carving out a new career in Digital Marketing and SEO. I do still feel, however, that my degree has come to some use as it taught me to be more analytical and inclined towards finding concrete facts as opposed to swallowing assumptions whole.

I don’t know whether than amounts to a satisfied ‘customer’ or not – but it sounds like an acknowledgment of value.

 

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.

 

Getting in, or getting on?

13 Jan

Junior doctors have been in the news this week. It’s a reminder of how high the barriers to entry are in medicine. Years of undergraduate and postgraduate study followed by an extended spell working long hours as a junior doctor.

Only then can medical practitioners expect to secure a stable and well-paid role as a hospital doctor or general practitioner.

So in medicine, it’s hard to get in but the rewards for success are high.

Compare that with public relations. Broadly, the opposite applies. It’s easy to get in – but hard to get on.

Students often don’t get this. They assume the challenge is securing the first role. They need experience for this, but how to gain experience when you don’t have any, they ask?

Here’s how it looks to me. The public relations business is dynamic and fast-growing: consider the growth in internal comms and the emergence of ‘content marketing’ – all roles that fit broadly within my understanding of PR.

 

There must be more positions than available candidates because a day rarely goes by without me becoming aware of someone sharing their vacancy or opportunity. Take a look at these sites managed by Sarah Stimson and Rachel Miller for numerous current vacancies.

Then consider that not only do PR people work in consultancies and in-house within larger organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors – but many choose to work for themselves (as freelance or independent practitioners).

Despite the many degree courses that have been offered for the past 25 years, despite professional courses like the CIPR Diploma (over 15 years old), there is no single point of entry into public relations. School leavers can become apprentices; non-PR graduates can apply for graduate roles in PR; digital and marketing teams can offer PR services; mid career professionals can take on PR responsibilities.

Yet there’s still an apparently insatiable demand for new talent. So it’s not getting in that’s hard. The challenge is getting on. Here are some tips on how to succeed:

  • Be curious.  Never stop learning about the media, about different business sectors, about technology. Show that you’re curious and ambitious (graduates don’t have a monopoly on curiosity, but your degree is more useful as an indication that you’re capable of learning than as evidence of what you’ve already learnt).
  • Be strategic. Entry level roles are not often well paid, but they may be worth taking for what they can teach you and and for the opportunities for training and development. Being strategic also means seeing the bigger picture: what does your boss do all day? Is this something you could aim to do too? While your entry-level role may require you to crank out press releases or blog posts, these activities do not define public relations. So are you gaining an understanding of how press coverage or social media shares contribute to business objectives?
  • Plan your own career.  Only the largest consultancy firms can offer interesting graduate roles that give you experience in different sectors and of different PR specialisms across different countries. If you’re not in a graduate programme, can you broaden your own experience and avoid becoming a one-trick pony? You may have to do this by moving between jobs, sectors and even countries. Have you joined a professional body? Are you attending training courses or further study? Are you collecting CPD points?

Remember: graduation should not mark an end of study. Rather, it’s a platform that shows you’re capable of further learning.

There are many opportunities out there; there may be riches and other rewards to a career in public relations. But you will need a plan to get on – not just a plan to get in.

Being strategic means being adaptable and playing the long game.

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.