Can’t get no PR satisfaction?

imageIn PR one of our guiding principles ought to be:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

That would appear to be the case with the Susan G Koman vs Planned Parenthood crisis this past week.  Or the issue of bankers’ bonuses in the UK.  In fact we increasingly live in a world – fuelled by the ease of expression offered by social media – in which publics can be outraged about everything and anything at the click of a Tweet.

Not only are PR practitioners faced with an increasing number of digital grumpies, but they demand instant gratification.  If it has taken them just a few minutes to set up a Facebook group, organise an online poll or start a Twitterstorm, then the clicktivists expect a positive PR reaction in nanoseconds.

Indeed, organizations such as 38 Degrees are established on the basis of getting online publics to take action and effect change.  It’s the power of the crowd noted by Le Bon in 1895 – which remains relevant for PR practitioners.

The psychological crowd, which experiences a “complete transformation of the sentiments”, seems as recognisable in social media as in early 20th century black & white newsreels of hysterical mobs.

The online crowd has other significance for PR practitioners with recent research from Carnegie-Mellon University supporting crowd sourcing.  There would appear some interesting potential here to engage – such as with the Dickens project that involved thousands of volunteers helping digitize his journals.

The immediacy, feedback and collaborative potential of social media can present either an opportunity or a challenge.  Either way, its noisy persistence can get in the way of more considered and rationale responses or actions.

Reputations can be made or destroyed with a few clicks – so not surprisingly, strategies are developed to keep ahead, even game the crowd.  Take the National Student Survey for example.  This has an increasingly high profile with top scoring results used by Universities for promotional purposes and poor performance generating negative headlines.

But the significance of student satisfaction goes beyond publicity as the UK government is determined to address perceptions of the increased cost of going to University by putting students at the heart of the system.

The message is: if you’re happy and we know it… Already Universities have reacted by focusing attention on keeping students satisfied, and trying to increase participation in the survey to avoid the tendency for those with extreme opinions to influence results.

Going further, the TES reports greatest dissatisfaction (with the assessment and feedback process) occurs because students’ expectations are not being met.  This reflects the increasing ‘teaching to pass’ approach at schools whereby students are coached to get the best grades.  That’s what they want from their University education experience.

Consequently, when encouraged to explore knowledge for themselves and develop their critical faculties, many students feel let down.  Rather than arguing for greater educational independence at a younger age, the TES article presents the views of academics that greater learning support is required.

This indicates a Sense of Entitlement generation, which Twenge has indicated as a Narcissism Epidemic where external solutions are expected to any situation not to their liking.

Dissatisfaction can be a useful driver to change, but not if it is used to avoid discussion, debate or self-responsibility around key issues.  If PR practitioners simply pander to satisfy irate masses they’ll find they end up pleasing no-one.

There are times particularly when being unhappy is necessary for publics to participate more fully.  In the case of University students, figuring things out for yourself is much more helpful in most cases than having a tutor hold your hand across the tightrope of complex thinking.  If the knowledge you are gaining is worth having, then it ought to involve a little mental pain in assimilating and reflecting on new ideas.

In our finger-clicking world, it is easy to complain and provide a kneejerk reaction.  But ultimately taking a more constructive approach to improve a situation is far more satisfying.

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4 thoughts on “Can’t get no PR satisfaction?

  1. Wow- talk about excellent timing! Once again, Heather, you hit the nail right on the head. I have an MA team agency working on a student feedback project right now, and it is challenging. Trying to change the culture of “me first” or the “student as customer who is always right” is scary, particularly when prospective students shop around for “value for money”- which presumably means in these days “which Uni will give me a 2:1 and still let me party as much as I like; after all, I am paying a lot of money”. As an external examiner, I also find it intensely irritating that an otherwise excellent teaching programme is flawed by a “fear of failing” students who are patently poor, lest they be given a bad NSS score. It’s a slippery slope indeed!

  2. interesting stuff as ever and I think the next few years will be a challenge – are students consumers of education? And what of the parents who my regard themselves as paying for this education. I do take issue about the ‘fear of failing’ link to NSS though.

  3. Thanks guys – I remember a student once saying to me about Bernays who sought to turn citizens into consumers that he wondered if we could ever reverse this. I feel we need to have far more communal rather than simply exchange relationships in society – albeit with a genuine responsiveness where appropriate but built on respect rather than entitlement.

    • Agreed about more communal relationships in society. But the pass has been sold since the 1980s with the introduction of neo-liberal capitalism and ‘turbo capitalism’ in the UK. Two slim chances of getting some of the pass back. First, crisis makes for quicker reform than normal working. Second, the co-operative version of exchange may be a point of reform.

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