What’s the shelf life of the PR selfie?

saycheeseIs it a trend, a craze or a band-wagon? Regardless, does the selfie as a PR tactic have a limited shelf life like charity wristbands, naked calendars and any similar idea that works the first couple of times and then becomes increasingly irritating?

The problem becomes how the first few examples are touted around as ‘successful’. In social media terms, perhaps it started with Cadbury’s Wispa and Facebook (thanks Mark Borkowski!), where everyone who subsequently created a Facebook campaign expected the same results (instead of generating likes from a few pets or other random followers). Same with clicktivism campaigns and so called ‘viral’ videos.

So the past week has been all about the #nomakeupselfie – which according to Sophia Moir was actually not the PR brainwave of Cancer Research UK, although it has supported the attention and fund-raising that has been generated. It has a group on its website and used the hashtag for search engine advertising. Add in a bit of controversy regarding the initiative’s relevance or the sense of ‘lazy social media marketing campaigns’ (as Kristina Egan writes in Huffpost students), and there’s a story with legs here.

Cue the #cockinasock testicular cancer selfie awareness campaign (not sure I am recommending clicking onto the Facebook page) to give the guys a go at the pointless personal pictures (yes, puns intended!). But another good cause that’s generating plenty of social media talk and maybe increasing awareness of the issue and some research funds. Again, whether or not the hand of charity PR is involved here, seems to be debated.

There’s no doubting that the #drivingselfie story was originated by the insurance company, Confused.com – of course with a disapproving air whilst touting statistics that reveal this is just the age old pretty standard publicity tactic of the PR survey. And, yes, it continues to work in catching the attention of journalists as an easy story – who cares that the same story generated coverage back in November? It will undoubtedly be around again before too many months. Goldfish PR anyone? To be honest, I cannot be bothered to look up which PR agency suggested the idea to Confused.com this time.

Does this all mean there is actually a long PR shelf-life for various selfie-stories? Or will we soon get so sick of them, they’ll be tired and dusty ideas within weeks? Well, I can guarantee PR practitioners (consultants and in-house) will be pitching selfie ideas to their bosses over the coming months – and in fact, there is likely to be an inverse correlation between the likelihood of generating interest in the selfie story and ideas getting the go-ahead. That’s because many managers are social media laggards and by the time they’ve heard of the trend/craze, and approve hopping on the band-wagon, it’s rapidly losing momentum.

Originality and creativity are important in public relations. An ability to be opportunistic and spot an emerging trend or opportunity is equally valid. But so too is timing – and having a strategic purpose. It is easy to use the fizz of today’s word of mouth idea to come up with extensions for clients. I’m anticipating for the toilet roll promotion or bowel cancer awareness version, alongside dozens of April 1st selfie spoofs next week. dynamic agenda

But to be honest, what I’d rather see is real agenda setting within public relations. Let’s not rely on being able to launch a me-too idea off the back foot. Rather, we should be leaders in driving forwards critical issues that capture public attention and really make a difference.

Whether you are delivering public relations within a charity or cause-related organisation or have commercial motives in mind, the real art and science is in achieving your objectives by harnessing the public, media and political agendas to your organisational one – with the added energy offered by the ever-changing social media agenda (as proposed by my Dynamic Agenda Setting model – featured in the Public Relations Strategic Toolkit).

UPDATE: Yet to see the on-the-toilet selfies, but the #AfterSex Instagram ‘trend‘ has got the mainstream media in a bit of a lather at the start of April.  And somehow I’d missed the promotion of the ‘couplie‘ around Valentine’s Day by One4all 


Au revoir Roquefeuil – the psychology of place


Where are you from? The second question that anyone is likely to ask you, after your name and before your occupation. So it is surprising that within public relations we rarely, if ever, consider the importance of place. As Edward S. Casey writes in his pioneering study of the importance of place in people’s lives:

Where we are – the place we occupy, however briefly – has everything to do with what and who we are (and finally that we are).

In a world where globalisation and online communications have opened up our vistas and life experiences, perhaps we think that a sense of place is not important. Within marketing, one of McCarthy‘s classic 4Ps is place – but that is a focus on distribution channels and strategies, not consideration of the psychology of place. It doesn’t consider how place affects our identity, our feelings, our behaviour – which are important aspects particularly for public relations.

Today my mother has left her home of the past 12 years – a small French village called Roquefeuil. Half way up the Pyrenees, on the plateau, Le Pays de de Sault (land of the pine trees) which is renowned for its potatoes. It was a home found by chance by my parents when they decided to move abroad after retiring. Then it was a just a house – or as one young French girl  recently called it, a bijou maison. I like that  - a small, delicate jewel or trinket.

Over the years, my parents planted a garden in a very English way. They were “les rosbifs” of the village, but this was used affectionately not as an insult. The local villagers took my parents to their heart, and after my dad’s death in France nearly six years ago, my mother has become embraced and welcomed within the local community. She is more a part of the place than many nationals who only visited periodically.

Roquefeuil is also a part of my sense of place for lots of different reasons. And it is about sense – the feel, look, smell, sound, taste and whole experience of being there is something I can recall and relive at any time. It is a lovely open place with a huge sky and real weather – hot in Summer, snow in Winter, full of wind and leaves in Autumn and coming alive in Spring. It has a history that is full of stories, a present that is a lively community and perhaps an unknown future in the way of many French villages, although I am confident it will survive. My mum’s house has been bought by a young French couple who work in the area rather than by incomers or holiday residents.

Les Bascules, as her house is called, is also a final resting place for many of our much loved pets, cats and dogs, whose lives are entwined forever with Roquefeuil. Some were born there, some loved to visit, some only went there after death. Their corner of a foreign field.

Where were you born? – is another of those important questions used to situate us in life, even if only when completing forms. A discussion of place is commonly used to make connections with others, to build relationships, to discover how we are similar, or different. Benson claims the self is a locative system, observing: we cannot imagine being nowhere.

But place is more than simply sticking pins into an interactive online map or checking into a location-based social networking site. Place carries meaning for us as individuals, and as groups – people affiliate themselves with places as fans of football teams, or through the names they use in identifying themselves as coming from somewhere, and others use to insult them. The use of Okies in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, being one example. A book that uses place as a central character in its story of dispossession, migration and social change.

This wider societal context of place is one reason why it is important in public relations – look at the current issues in Crimea and this year’s Scottish referendum as two salient examples of where place is a critical aspect of the public debate. We see place in relation to where organisations are located, and any change in this can be hugely contentious. The nature of the buildings an organisation chooses to occupy convey something about its reputation – modern or historic, city-based or rural, etc.

For public relations itself, it tends to be dominant in cities – at least that’s where the major consultancies choose their place. This is part of its image, particularly in attracting young practitioners who may be looking for an exciting career. They also commonly crave travel in their careers, and increasingly opportunities to gain international experience, as Katie Sheppet shared on a recent series of Public Relations Conversation posts.

In our work, if we are seeking to influence or engage people, we need to understand the place where they are located. Not just in terms of targeting communication channels or researching geodemographics, but how the places where they live, where they work, rest and play, reflect on who they are as individuals and communities, and help us understand what they care about.

Today I care about my family members – literally my public relations – my mum, my brother and my nephew who are loaded up, like Steinbeck’s Joad family, and on the road heading north up through France and back into England tomorrow morning. I have driven that route dozens of times and each mile is in my head, so I can empathise and vicariously experience their journey, especially the parts where the memories are strongest. She is ‘coming home’, and we will find her a new place to live – another family place – which will become important in our narrative and our everyday interest if it is in the news.

Place is something I think we should consider further in public relations, to understand its symbolic meaning, how place plays a role in being powerful – and powerless if we don’t have a home or a job, for example. The actions of the protest movement Occupy can be related to the places they chose to demonstrate and the responses of those who felt their places were being invaded. We can use ethnographic research to get a greater understanding of society and culture by studying ‘the naturally occurring setting’ in which our communications and other public relations activities take place.

So au revoir Roquifeuil – you will forever be in my heart.

Loving or loathing LinkedIn

linkedinI’m in two minds about LinkedIn both personally and professionally. In some ways it is the most irritating of social media networks, but also it can be highly useful.

I tend to feel LinkedIn (the topic of my second January post reflecting on Social Media) doesn’t really know what it is any more and is trying to be a bit of lots of other social media channels, but not necessarily very successfully.

The recent additions of prompted endorsements in my view has undermined the value of this aspect of the site. Yes, written recommendations can still be helpful, but I’m not sure anyone really places much store in them do they? Aren’t they just mates’ puffery?

Other automated ‘updates’ such as job anniversaries I find equally annoying. And most of the group discussions are pretty pointless – or maybe it is just the groups that I’ve joined (and often wish I hadn’t). I reckon most groups are largely dormant or are dominated by a few voices.

I also dislike how many people use LinkedIn in a ‘look at me’ manner which is mainly about self-publicity or promotion of their work, company or activities. Some people I see in group discussions make me laugh with their bragging, especially when they lack any self-recognition that their pomposity in writing about how successful they are is the antithesis of good public relations.

Other people seem to use groups as a lazy short-cut to original research. I don’t mind a good discussion around a topic that is of wider interest, or seeking recommendations for suppliers or such information. But too often I find people are looking for others to do their job for them. And, undoubtedly these types of posts recur frequently. Isn’t there an easy way of people finding previous threads rather than asking the same simplistic questions over and over?

And, I hear so many examples of recruitment companies relying on LinkedIn to find candidates without any knowledge of the competence or qualities of those they trawl up. Mind you, it is amusing to think of the recruiters and boasters finding each other in an ever repeating circuit.

However, LinkedIn does genuinely make accessible dozens of job vacancies and enables you to find – and check out – people for speaking and other employment opportunities. This is where I think LinkedIn does work well i.e. as a professional contact database – which is where it started. Locating and connecting with people you know (and don’t but perhaps could and should) is simple and effective. Yes, too many people still abuse the networking, but they can be ignored quite easily.

For individuals, it is a straightforward way to have an up to date online profile, with both a CV/resume and other useful information. It can be a helpful professional place to share useful information and enable effective online networking particularly with existing contacts. I do find it works in terms of getting faster responses than emails from busy people. For students and young PR practitioners, it can be a good way of establishing contacts especially using its ’6-degrees of separation’ nature.

It is also easy for organisations to set up pages where basic information is often easier to find than on their own websites. A post at Forbes argues companies should encourage all employees to use LinkedIn rather than blocking access. The argument is that employee activity in LinkedIn increases visibility for a company. Actually, the point being made is that employees should be using LinkedIn as ‘brand ambassadors’ and generators of LinkedIn search juice.

Seeing employees as primarily ‘good news’ distributors is cynical and smacks of that terrible concept: internal marketing (which is not the same as employee engagement or internal communications). And, I can’t be alone in envisaging dozens of ‘cut and paste’ corporate posts by individual employees as a great way to annoy lots of people rather than engage them.

A similar questionable attitude is expressed by Dan Schwabel in another Forbes post. He is arguing that you should accept all requests to connect on the basis that this helps increase your Klout score and general profile. Again a quantity over quality focus.

Perhaps what I’m finding irritating about LinkedIn is common among other women as I note from Michal Clements post that women are not using LinkedIn as much or as regularly as men. She argues that this means women may be missing out on the career development and relationship building potential of engaging with LinkedIn. Recruiters using LinkedIn will be missing out on female talent if women are not using the channel as much as male counterparts.

Is it just me? Is LinkedIn operating mainly in a male way that doesn’t engage women? Is it really a useful professional network – and a valued recruitment channel? Does it offer real public relations benefits to organisations or is it another clogged up channel of puff and nonsense?

What I learned about PR and blogging in 2013

2013-2014Before 2014 kicks into gear and accelerates away, I thought I’d take a look in the rearview mirror at 2013 and present six things that I learned last year about PR and blogging.

Blogging isn’t dead

As Stuart Bruce writes, blogging still matters for public relations. In the 12 Days before Christmas, I decided to blog each day as an experiment (see previous dozen posts). This was a real learning experience for the following reasons:

  • Although it is quite hard to dedicate time to blogging on a daily basis, it is possible and rewarding to do so in terms of reflecting on something of timely relevance and honing the blogging writing muscles
  • Setting a theme is restrictive but did stimulate some creative thinking on my part and also enabled me to connect real life experiences to the general theme of Christmas.

Although I’m not promising to blog on a daily basis in 2014, I do intend to write more frequently and also produce other series-related posts.  I’d like to signpost other blogs and posts that I enjoy or have found interesting – which returns to the community approach that was established in earlier blogging.

No comment!

Blogging in 2013 (again as Stuart notes) tends to generate social media links rather than comments (as was the case when I started in 2006). Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+ for example all increase the reach of a post – with the endorsement of those who promote via their own profiles. But with few comments, it is hard to benefit from the input of others’ thoughts on your writing, let alone use the medium for dialogue and debate. This is something that has happened at PR Conversations as well which was always a blog that stimulated often quite robust debate.  I feel this is a shame and will try to comment more on other people’s blog posts this year.

Social media is more important than SEO

The top referring sites to this blog were Twitter and Facebook, with two blogs (wadds.co.uk and prconversations.com) also driving readers along with an Australian education Moodle site (I’ve had readers from 144 countries apparently). This is a shift in 2013 from Google and other search engines which have traditionally found this blog. I’m not sure if this indicates that more people are using social media search and recommendations or a change in Google’s search approach – or maybe fewer posts being published here.  This is something I’m going to look at more – but not simply to chase hits as that’s not my style ;-)

PR practitioners seek ‘how to’ advice

The leading post for views on PR Conversations continues to be Using Twitter for PR Events from August 2011, which has a life of its own with regular Tweets when found by various individuals. To date it has had 4,192 page views – 82% of which are from unique site users.

The leading post for views on this Greenbanana blog is one called: Is choosing a public relations dissertation topic really that difficult? from July 2008.

Both of these have a practical focus in contrast to more reflective or academic posts.  I think that I can offer more of this type of post, particularly in drawing from chapters in The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit.

PR students are using blogs as part of their academic research

Again, drawing on the WordPress annual report for this site, I can see that other popular posts are those which look at terms commonly studied on PR courses. These include The PR Model of Excellence (May 2009), The difference between evaluation and feedback (June 2010), PR, propaganda, marketing, publicity, communication – is differentiation important (February 2009) and my reflection on the Toyota product recall case from February 2010.

Although it is great to welcome students to this site, I hope they are supplementing their perusal of blog posts with journal articles and books. My experience as an educator is that many students do not recognise a difference in the quality of different sources.

Whilst I try to bring the same rigour in my production of a blog post as I do to more academic publications I have written, the media are not equal (journal papers are peer reviewed and books tend to go through an editorial checking process). Other PR blog posts may be interesting and valid to check as sources, but students need to remember to be critical about what they read – and also read my Plagiarism post.

Again, I will continue to write about topics that should be of use and interest to students and PR practitioners.  There are many interesting areas from PR literature that do not get a lot of attention and like to use this blog to connect theory and practice by highlighting some interesting thinking and theorising.

Many posts stand the test of time

As noted above, many of the most popular posts date back several years (when I posted more frequently). Whilst the context of my musings needs to be taken into account, I’m pleased that most of the posts still have relevance.  It was never my intention when I started blogging to be creating a useful resource of my thinking, but I believe that it has been useful to write about my core principles in respect of PR (and education) and where these have been developed and enhanced (although I’d say not fundamentally challenged) over the past seven years.

In 2014, I intend periodically to look back at previous posts and update or reflect upon them where relevant. I do worry that the repertoire of posts isn’t as extensive as I’d like, but then again, I find myself revisiting ideas without necessarily recalling that they have been of interest to me – and relevant to PR practice and academia – for some time.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of blogging in 2013 was my decision to post on a monthly basis the chapters from a 1948 book, Your Public Relations at PR Conversations. The blogging platform has allowed me to bring the fascinating insight and views of senior executives to a modern audience. I’ve 30 more chapters to go having published three so far.

It is helpful to have this format to look ahead and plan future blog post – something that I want to develop more for Greenbanana where I have written more from personal or professional interest than to a structure or schedule.

Other aspects of blogging that I wish to develop in 2014 again echoes Stuart Bruce’s resolutions. As well as blogging more frequently, I wish to incorporate more multimedia. I’m particularly interested in exploring podcasts as well as video and other imagery. I am also developing some other online resources which are intended to encourage me to experiment further and blog on other topics. More on this to follow.

Here, I aim to use the Greenbanana blog to connect more to my PhD studies and research which are a priority for me this year.

The key to blogging I believe is to have an authentic and original perspective that resonates with others, whilst remaining interesting enough to you as the author to think about, research and post.

One major thing that I have learned is that blogging will continue to be my preferred social media.  Indeed I’m thinking of stepping away from some others.  LinkedIn in particular I’m finding quite annoying – but that’s a topic for another post as part of a new series reflecting on different social media opportunities for public relations which will be part of my January 2014 posting.

Christmas PR advice – follow that star

starAs PR practitioners, we’ve all probably got ambitions or thoughts about the direction we wish to travel in our futures. However, we might not have set specific goals. The Star of Bethlehem was the goal that inspired the three wise men (magi) seeking the new born Jesus in the traditional nativity story and this inspires my final 12 Days of Christmas post.

In my PhD studies, I am researching career strategies in public relations. Definitions of careers generally include a temporal aspect (i.e. developments over time) and/or progression (often viewed as moving through a hierarchy of increased benefits and responsibilities).

This allows us to think about a period – say the next year or longer, and any progress we wish to make in that time. We can stipulate specific goals and objectives as personal equivalents of the star that we will set out to pursue.

Incoming CIPR president, Stephen Waddington set out a set of 10 pledges for his tenure in 2014. This public statement serves several purposes which are useful guidance in following our own stars:

  • Putting our goals in writing enables us to think clearly about them and makes them more explicit
  • Sharing our goals with others increases our motivation to succeed, and allows others to help us on the way
  • Specifying our goals precisely provides a target or measure against which we can assess our progress and achievement of the destination

Many of us may set our goals out as New Year resolutions – and that can be helpful (although it can be easy to forget or abandon these). Others perhaps have a life path with ideas of what they would like to achieve by the time they reach certain age milestones. Or maybe we have dreams that we are not sure we can realise, but hope we could, with a bit of luck.

Our stars should be a stretch to achieve, so that we can benefit from the experience and development in reaching out and up. But they should not be impossible or achievable only at the expense of something or someone that we value.

A star can also illuminate our path – continuing to shine ahead and act as a navigational reminder when the going gets tough along the way.

Scientifically, stars can be of different sizes, grouped into constellations and are a source of energy. Each of these can be applied to our own goals. We can set ourselves small and large goals and link these as steps or complimentary achievements. Knowing what we are aiming for in life can be seen as energising too.

Incidentally some biblical scholars apparently argue that the three wise men arrived several months after the birth – whilst others believe the story is a fiction by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. This reminds us both of how goals do not necessarily have to be achieved at a specific time (especially if we are setting out our career aims before reaching a crucial age, for example) – and also how it is often the narrative around the goal that is important in influencing behaviour.

Being open to the emergence of new stars is as important as setting a set goal for ourselves. So as we head into Christmas – and I end my 12 Days series (there will be one reflective post to follow), my advice is to look for your star or stars and and take the next step on your journey to reach your chosen destination.

Happy Christmas – may all your dreams come true.

Have your selfie an app-y little Christmas – fragmented PR narratives

bauble-smashedThis is the year of the selfie – which the Washington Post illustrates with some great examples.

For post #11 in my 12 Days of Christmas series, I’m situating the selfie within a broader trend of 2013 – the great use of photographs by online publications (and social media) which work superbly on tablets. On Friday, the BBC broadcast a fascinating review of 2013 “Moments in time” which celebrated both the professional and citizen photographer. It is interesting that although television works in moving images, it told the story of the past 12 months through static shots.

What I found of great value as a PR practitioner was insight from newspaper picture editors – who Luke Korzun Martin, the programme’s Assistant Producer, reports receive over 25,000 professional photographs every day supplemented by amateur shots. Indeed, he states:

2013 is apparently expected to produce more photographs than every previous year in the entire history of photography combined.

Phil Coomes, BBC News picture editor reflects in a post on the 10 year history of user generated images as part of capturing breaking news, and also how it gives a greater access to events both on a personal and a public basis.

Two interesting aspects of social media emerged from discussion of the Boston Marathon bombing. The first relates to how a journalist knows there is a breaking story when “a Twitter feed lights up like a firework”, the second was reflection on how an amateur iPhone image of the Boston Marathon bombing led to a hunt for someone spotted on a roof:

There is a saying that Twitter is at its best five minutes after a disaster and at its worst in the next 12 hours.

This quote seems to originate on Twitter from Matt Roller (@rolldiggity), who describes himself as a Writer on Community.

Again a building trend as the source of quotes, news-breaking images and odd fads can come from anywhere, or nowhere. I didn’t make any PR predictions for 2013, but reviewing my 2011 and 2012 thoughts , I noted an ever short-crisis cycle and how’everyone’s a celebrity’ – although I didn’t actually anticipate the selfie.

Imagery is undoubtedly of increasing importance in story-telling and PR practitioners absolutely need to understand and use photography and other graphics much more from the perspective of brand, news, semiotics and an ability to be memorable and remarkable (in ways that words often cannot be).

The second major trend of 2013 also needs to be evident in the PR Toolkit. That’s mobile and apps. Again, this is an ongoing trend, which is led by games (Apple reports Candy Crush as its #1 download free app). I argued in The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit that gamification is of increasing relevance in PR. I’m not convinced this has actually proved to be true so far, but the potential is there.

Snapchat and Vine have been among the most popular apps of 2013 – largely driven by personal use, but also with potential for PR practitioners to use for professional communications (and not simply the wacky). The opportunity does not yet seem to have been developed by brands.

Not only do these app-based technologies require digital competencies (or at least the ability to conceptualise and contract specialists in these), they need different story-telling and narrative skills.

Talking about narrative in gaming, Jennifer Cover discusses a narrative economy where people:

might take bits and pieces from several related narratives told in multiple media in order to form a full view of a particular story.

This requires familiarity with a nonlinear, disjointed or disruptive narrative technique where the story is not controlled temporally and may be harder to follow or understand. People may only access part of the story – which may be historic, inaccurate or lacking in context. Indeed, it is likely to be told by different sources, from different perspectives, with different communicative aims.  That seems to me a new dimension of narrative where PR practitioners could and should learn from literary and film scholarship.

A Winter’s Tale of story-telling, organisational narrative and content marketing

Story-telling and organisational narrative have been discussed in relation to public relations for some time (see PR Conversations posts by Judy Gombita: Constructing the organisational narrative and me: Plotting PR narrative in social media). But it is in 2013 that the concepts have really gained a higher profile – making these the focus of post #10 in my 12 Days of Christmas series.

Ira Basen’s CBC radio documentary which Judy also profiled at PR Conversations (Exploring “A Brand New World” radio doc) made a connection to ‘brand culture’ from content marketing, brand journalism, sponsored content, owned/corporate media, and other such terms that have sprouted wings this past year.

In October, Robyn Adelson argued that PR agencies should lead on creative development on the basis of telling “more powerful stories, filled with emotion, tension points, and real, vibrant characters“. She, and other commentators, are advocating that PR is taking over from marketing in this regard.

The counter-argument is evident in the prevalence of the term “content marketing”, which is used by those working in a number of communications areas. I must say that I dislike this term as much now as when I wrote: Contending for content – PR, journalism and marketing (again at PR Conversations) in May 2012. Here’s a definition proposed by the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Here, the purpose of content marketing is clear – it is simply attention grabbing ‘stuff’. Stuff, that seems to be proliferating – even polluting – the online environment. But there are two aspects of content marketing that seem at odds with the story-telling, organisational narrative dimension that I believe is more inherently reflective of public relations.

  1. The focus on brands as publishers – often in competition with traditional or new forms of more independent publishing
  2. Emergence of specialist content marketing agencies

The first idea which is essentially about direct rather than mediated communications isn’t really something new to PR as revealed in my series of monthly posts at PR Conversations taken from a 1948 book: Your Public Relations. PR practitioners, especially those with a journalistic background, can apply their story-telling abilities to ‘owned’ publications. Organisations can employee internal expertise or contract out the creation and publishing of self-interested magazines, video, news-driven apps and so on. Those with large and loyal communities, such as major football clubs have proven the success of this approach, see for example Manchester United‘s website and own television channel. Through social media, Coca-Cola has managed to create a large community – although of 78 million Facebook likes, only 1.3 million are engaged (talking) on the site.

The problem when this is seen as only as part of a marketing-strategy is that others are positioned as engaged only from the perspective of the organisation. The brand may own the territory on the face of it, but still needs to earn the acceptance, endorsement and willingness to share that are the core aspects of public relations communications. More importantly, when things go wrong, without goodwill, such communities can readily turn and hijack either the medium itself or set up counter-communities that draw on the powerful connections already established – with or without the organisation’s involvement.

My objection to specialist content marketing agencies (CMAs) is that they appear entirely tactical in their aims – which admittedly is what many clients want. So they are good at doing things – and generally are happy to pay for achieving specific aims. This approach is ironically evident in a sponsored feature: What does content marketing mean for the PR industry? via the Guardian website. The various opinions expressed here are not contentious in my view, and on the face of it, this is a pretty familiar style of article. But it is paid for by Outbrain – with a caveat that “all editorial is controlled and overseen by the Guardian”. Hence it is advertising, advertorial or sponsored content, not editorial.

Yes, it generates needed income for the Guardian, and perfectly acceptable copy (in this case), but it is another step in removing the more natural relationship approach that PR practitioners and journalists have developed. This is not in any sense independent information although it does reflect transparency, which perhaps it could be argued the traditional PR approach did not.

In other areas, the ethical aspects are more questionable with CMAs ‘seeding’ YouTube videos which involves paying for initial hits, treating bloggers as advertisers whose online space can be bought (or simply demanded for ‘cut and paste’ content), posting fictional online reviews (good or bad) and gaming social media popularity as examples.

The Content Marketing Association – strap line: editorial engagement for brands – states the industry is “now worth in excess of £4bn in the UK alone”. This values the nascent content marketing industry at around 40% of the £9.62bn worth estimated for the UK public relations sector (by the PRCA’sPR Census 2013).

Interestingly, it traces the industry’s history to the John Deere magazine, The Furrow from 1895 – although that is fifty years later than the employee publications that Kevin Ruck and I researched in our International History of PR conference paper: The rise and rise of internal communications.

The CMA clearly advocates a strategic perspective which it argues uses content marketing to “sell without the obvious sell. It forms a relationship between brand and customer in which the customer receives useful, practical and entertaining information in return for their undivided attention, attention that can last up to 40 minutes in a single setting.”

Whilst I can support the first part of this claim in terms of the benefits of relationship building, I question whether that is really done through attention grabbing activities – particularly where those are really about a subterfuge of selling.

To make a Christmas analogy, it seems that much content marketing is about the wrapping paper, the tinsel and the glitter – but uses this commercial narrative at the expense of recognising any real Winter’s tale that should be at the heart of any organisation’s story.

Undoubtedly this topic – and the dance of the story-tellers, organisational narrators and content marketers, plus the brand journalists and increasingly less-independent publishers – will continue into 2014 and beyond.

The above image is one of the wonderful Winter inspired creations of artists Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz who produce the most intriguing snow globes which invite you to expand on stories evoked by the surreal impressions contained (trapped, frozen?) within the glass.  I urge you to visit their website to look at more images, read the editorial pieces about them (http://www.martin-munoz.com/press.html) and consider the art and science of story-telling as more than content marketing.

Why the digital Christmas card is not good PR

henry coleWhen I began researching the origins of careers in public relations, I came across Sir Henry Cole, who I argued in my 2010 presentation at the International History of PR conference (subsequently adapted for publication in Public Relations Review), should be considered as one of the originators of our modern occupation predating much of the US-history as his era was the mid 1800s.

This remarkable man has inspired post #9 in my 12 Days of Christmas series.  Cole was an innovator with a natural ability to develop ideas that captured the public imagination. He designed Summerley’s tea service, co-founded The Journal of Design and Manufacturers, conceived the Great Exhibition of 1851, became the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum – and commissioned the first ever commercial Christmas card in 1843.

christmas cardThese cards were sold for one shilling and enabled Cole, who had come up with the idea for the worlds’ first postage stamp, the Penny Black, to promote the first Penny Post public postal service which had begun in 1840.

This is an interesting infographic about Christmas cards produced by Moo.com: MOO Christmas Cards

Queen Victoria is noted here to have been the first Royal to have sent festive cards – and undoubtedly a large percentage of the millions of modern Christmas cards continue to be sent by organisations following her promotional lead. Somewhat surprisingly, I read that the first ever official White House seasonal card wasn’t sent until 1953 by President Eisenhower. The 2013 pop-up equivalent, signed by Barack and Michelle Obama, has just been posted – all 1.6 million of them – and is apparently already selling on eBay.

Today, many organisations have opted for an e-card rather than incurring the time and expense of printing and posting paper versions. Questions of the etiquette of sending Christmas cards are hotly debated – here is the BBC’s advice. The topic of the impact of corporate Christmas cards has been robustly discussed in the CIPR LinkedIn group.

Personally I’m not convinced that the digital Christmas card is good public relations (I’m not fond of the mass mailed type either though). Most lack any originality or personal connection with the recipient. Some seems to be sent as marketing messages to general lists rather than even to an organisation’s actual customer base. The ease of creating an html design via Mailchimp or similar services encourages their mass distribution at pretty much zero cost. Others opt for a more interactive experience – although I tend to be too bah-humbug to bother to click on these, whilst those with a more generous spirit advise us that they are donating to charity and sending this emessage rather than spending money on physical cards. Ironically, the decline in posting Christmas cards is probably one factor leading to privatisation of the Royal Mail service – it might have been a more charitable act therefore to have kept sending them – and supporting charity cards (although there’s another argument there about the income actually generated for causes).

Regardless of your views on print, digital cards or no cards, one fact is that none will ever be worth anything (unless of course you are famous). I love the fact that last Saturday one of the original Cole Christmas cards, which had been owned by the same family for 170 years, was sold at auction for £4,200.

My argument to champion Sir Henry Cole in our PR history is further supported by this achievement over 131 years after his death. What a true PR genius he was.

Popular culture, Christmas and PR

290px-Charles_Dickens-A_Christmas_Carol-Title_page-First_edition_1843Popular culture is a key part of Christmas and talking with a friend yesterday, we shared a love of classic Christmas movies, and spoke about the number of new seasonal themed CDs that have been released this year. So this gave me the idea for post #8 in my 12 Days of Christmas series of posts.

As children we grow up with old and new Christmas stories. There’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Night Before Christmas, The Elf on the Shelf as a few examples.

There are Christmas television programmes that we remember as memory milestones – whether special comedy shows, seasonal editions of favourite shows, big stories in the soaps or even the Royal Christmas Broadcasts which have been delivered since 1932 when the Queen’s grandfather, King George V responded to an idea by Sir John Reith of the BBC.

Popular Christmas music tracks the passing of the years when we are able to link a song to a period in our lives. But as favourite tunes are played annually in the run up to the holidays, we recognise songs over the past decades. My personal favourite is Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Power of Love, although its presence on Christmas playlists is more about timing than content. Then I’d opt for the Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and the wonderful Kirsty MacColl, who was tragically killed in a pre-Christmas accident in 2000.

Then we have Christmas carols which are connected closely to all sorts of other aspects of popular culture – from shared experiences to inclusion in films, for example.  The  spectacular show offered at Thursford in Norfolk including carols sung by different choirs – and the audience –  is a magical element of my own Christmas past.

I have eclectic tastes in Christmas movies – from Die Hard and Gremlins, which are situated at the time of year to Miracle on 34th Street and Elf which are all about Christmas, and too many others to mention.

I adore the Nutcracker ballet, which is unbeatable as a Christmas treat. Then we have the great British tradition of Pantomimes, which are the epitome of audience participation. Oh no they’re not, oh yes they are!!

When it comes to adult literature, I could only immediately recall Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which was first published 170 years ago. Goodreads has a number of Christmas related lists of books and Wikipedia helps out with a category of Christmas novels, which has a surprisingly small total of just 36 books.

It is interesting that film, music, television, children’s books and a specific genre of theatre dominate Christmas popular culture. I wonder if this reveals more about how Christmas is a group social phenomenon rather than an individual adult experience.

For me, popular culture is relevant to PR practice in many ways. In September, Elena Weinstein made the connection in a post on the Holmes Report site, linking to a New York Times magazine piece: What It Means to Be Popular (When Everthing is Popular) by Adam Sternbergh. This argues for a fragmentation of popular culture and considers whether or not popularity means mediocrity.

I’m not sure that popular Christmas culture can be equated with mediocrity as it seems to me that it is the best that lasts the test of time. I’m not sure about the argument around fragmentation as I feel we do need the mass connections for Christmas popular culture to retain any social meaning.

In many ways, those who operate primarily as publicists (see Judy Gombita’s PR Conversations post: Declaring Piffle on those traditional PR publicity arguments) view Christmas as a marketing opportunity. Their holy grail is to have the big seller at Christmas (in the toy world this has often seemed to be the “can’t get item”). Getting your promotional artefact accepted within the Christmas popular culture narrative can mean long-term repeat sales.

Connecting to popular culture ought also to be relevant for issues and causes. But apart from Dickens, who always had a strong social message, most of the other items I’ve discussed seem to lack that dimension. The Band Aid project, Do They Know It’s Christmas could be seen as an exception as a charity fund-raiser that responded to a BBC report of the Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s. This song seemed to also establish the popular culture approach of the celebrity charity single.

This song coincided with two other memorable Christmas singles – my favourite Frankie Goes to Hollywood track and Wham’s Last Christmas, the royalties of which were also donated to the Ethiopian famine appeal.

I think that PR practitioners are frequently involved in providing guidance when certain issues are tackled as strong story-lines in soaps over the holiday period. But overall, I wonder if perhaps PR practitioners are missing a trick here. If popular culture is connected still with a mass of people in an age of increased fragmentation, doesn’t it offer an opportunity for an impactful connection to an issue, cause or brand?

The importance of kindness and goodwill for PR practitioners

kindnessThe focus of #7 in my 12 Days of Christmas series of posts looks at kindness and goodwill. Within the professionalisation agenda of public relations has been a focus on being more businesslike with PR activities directed to achieving organisational objectives, and clear measures of the benefits to the organisation. This approach seems to advocate a WIIFM (what’s in it for me) or self-interested perspective to everything we do. If we accept that PR is “necessarily partisan” (as stated by L’Etang) because practitioners are paid to advocate the perspective of their employers, there would seem little room for kindness within practice, unless there is a payback for being nice.

As goodwill is commonly recognised as an intangible asset on the balance sheet for accounting purposes, it is possible to argue that being kind is of benefit by enhancing the bottom line. But this would need to be justified in relation to the financial assessment of reputation, brand or other key factors.

From a public relations perspective, we could argue for enhanced social capital within the relationships we create and manage among stakeholders or publics. There are supposed advantages to be accrued – for example, within the guidelines produced in 1999 by Hon and Grunig looking at how to measure such relationships.

This formal investigation and assessment of organisation-public relationships identifies key constituencies with the implication that these can not only be measured but managed. Whilst appreciating the value of understanding what constitutes successful relationships and being able to demonstrate the value of PR, I feel that something of the natural essence of human relationships is lost by such a deconstruction.

Yes, the notion of communal relationship (Clark and Mills’s concept) is one of the key constituencies, but if you are measuring whether or not someone feels an organisation is doing something without expectations, there still seems an assumption that this is beneficial to the organisation.

It may be an inherent aspect of any relationship with a corporation that we have a sense of cynicism about what is expected in return. Indeed, critics of CSR or corporate philanthropy would advocate there has to be a value in any act of kindness, that pure altruism is not welcome or possible.

But, when we talk about individual PR practitioners, I believe that kindness should be a trait evident in how we operate. According to Wikipedia, kindness is:

a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and recognized as a value in many cultures and religions. Research has shown that acts of kindness does not only benefit receivers of the kind act, but also the giver, as a result of the release of neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of contentment and relaxation when such acts are committed.

This presents a real feel good outcome from acts of kindness. But consideration of kindness is that it can achieve much more – Dr Albert Schwitzer is quoted as saying:

Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.

As PR practitioners, kindness is part of the process of building genuine relationships where mutual understanding can result. That’s not to say that kindness is used simply as a tactic to achieve what we want, but that we should recognise its importance as human beings. Also, I don’t believe this is about delivering more than is promised in a contractural or other professional relationship to exceed expectations (ie not just good customer or public relations as is often blandly stated). It is something more.

Recently, and over many years, I have experienced some wonderful acts of kindness from fellow PR practitioners – whether that is in expressing sympathy and empathy, going out of their way even when that is inconvenient, offering help that was unexpected and more than generous, or little gestures that mean a lot to me because they were honestly given and demonstrate real care.

I hope that I have similarly reflected kindness to others – but I’m sure I’ve not done this as often as I could have done and that like most of us, there have times when I’ve not been kind either deliberately or through lack of thinking.

So an early New Year resolution I am making is to demonstrate personally the importance of kindness in PR practice. I cannot see that it would make me any less professional to do so.