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.

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.

Using social media to tell a personal PR narrative

social media narrativeThe idea of personal branding as a means of presenting an individual is not new (indeed Tom Peters wrote about it in Fast Company in 1997 – and I examined it here three years ago in Greenbanana brand me). Adoption of social media as an easy online presence has led to acceptance of the concept of personal brand management – indeed, personal reputation management as discussed in this post by Greg Savage from Huffington Post last week.

Karl Nessmann published Personal Branding and the Role of Public Relations in 2010 considering personality PR as an approach for staging, positioning or presenting individuals (celebrities, executives or other people). In the book chapter I wrote providing “The Public Relations Perspective of Promotional Culture“, I used a quote by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler, written in 1751, regarding how:

Every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the action of the world will be attracted; some quality, good or bad, which discriminates him from the common herd of mortals, and by which others may be persuaded to love, or compelled to fear him.

My point was to show how this idea, and the Rambler itself, could be considered as a promotional device that acted as a signifier in promoting Johnson’s personal fame, reflecting Wernick’s perspective on promotional culture.

But, as these ideas become increasingly commonplace, I’m keen to move on from the rather superficial ‘brand-me’ concept and the recommendations for promotion and reputation management of the self as if you are a product. From studying careers literature, I’m keen to consider the construction of a personal narrative, particularly through social media.

There is a huge body of literature considering theoretical aspects of narrative and narratology – little of which, perhaps surprisingly, has been evident in the academic public relations body of knowledge. The concept has been picked up in PR practice, largely in relation to story-telling, and Judy Gombita wrote a PR Conversations post (Constructing the Organizational Narrative) as a possible definition for PR in 2011, which I followed up with Plotting PR narrative in social media. I also included narrative (as a more useful approach than key messages) within The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit.  But these related more to professional PR practice rather than personal communications.

In the psychology literature, narrative is mainly connected to personal or cultural identity and related to memory. In sociology, a constructionist approach is evident around narrative discourse theory, whilst Savickas is one of the theorists who propose a narrative framework in career counselling literature.

If we accept personal narrative as a process of construction involving reflexivity and crafting meaning around individual experience, we are supporting an argument for authenticity in living our own history. This seems to me to contrast with ideas around creating ‘brand-me’ in a more superficial and cynical way. In terms of social media presence, the personal narrative approach would emphasise looking for coherence throughout our framework of social media presence and across the temporal flow of communication we create through social media activity. The idea is that we are the narrator, the director and the starring character in our social media narrative. We are constructing, curating and conveying a personal and a professional identity as PR practitioners through the narrative traces of social media.

In my PhD work, I am interested in how PR practitioners construct their career experiences, the strategies they use when making decisions (or in directing their careers) and how they reflect on these in hindsight. I’m considering various career constructs, such as ideas around PR as a profession or a craft, etc and how these translate into the narratives that people create.

In practice, I’m interested in what we can tell about PR practitioners career behaviour through social media usage. Are there ebbs and flows reflecting interest and engagement with seeking new opportunities compared to being consumed in a particular job or project? Undoubtedly your LinkedIn activity may indicate when you are job hunting, for example.  Are young practitioners more aware these days of the value of social media as they seek to build early career capital? And, what stories are they leaving behind them as they shift from entering the occupation with a juvenile social media record to crafting a professional narrative of their employability.

I think this is an emerging area where there is much to be learned – both from qualitative and quantitative analytical perspectives (although I tend towards exploring personal meaning rather than a Big Data approach).

Unlike managing ‘brand-me’ from a promotional or reputational perspective, I think that trying to manipulate a fake, false or fictionalised personal PR narrative will be more difficult. Like snails across a garden in the heat of summer, we are leaving trails that are messy and complex rather than a nice linear story or polished brand identity.  If your personal social media narrative looks and reads like a simple novel, it is probably not true or authentic.

That’s not to say that PR practitioners shouldn’t be aware of the narrative threads they are crafting in their career tapestry. But I like the idea that the image or patterns we are creating will emerge rather than being pre-defined. Also, our individuality rather than any notion of a prescribed career path, journey or ladder (to cite the many existing narratives), is likely to be visible in our online processions and progressions. So maybe our virtual presence will be more real than the face we seek to present as ‘brand-me’.

Public Relations education for free

There have been a number of posts (and Twitter discussion) over the past week regarding the importance of increasing the connection between public relations practice and academia. As someone working at the intersection of these two dimensions, I’m in favour of greater boundary spanning.

Indeed, I am reminded of Miriam Dobson’s fabulous ‘intersectionality: a fun guide” infographic. Drawing on it for inspiration, there are some people like me – we’re Bob – who are stripey blue triangles (or green bananas in my case). We practice public relations and also study its academic underpinnings. Those who are passionate about being stripey (practitioners) often dismiss our academic leanings, or just don’t know about this marvellous triangular world. Then there are those who study the stripey ones and dismiss them for not being triangular, or perhaps they feel their academic insight doesn’t need to be of value to those who are proud of their stripes.

This is silly – those who care about public relations should not seek isolation. Like Bob, I wish that the triangles and stripes could work together. And they can – and do.

Not only that, but there are many totally free opportunities for academics and practitioners to connect and work together to defeat the oppression of public relations (well that might be taking the analogy too far – but…)

Here are some ways in which the stripes and triangles can connect – which also demonstrate you can get a public relations education for free:

Universities offer seminars, guest lectures and other opportunities for those in practice to share their knowledge and experience, or learn from those who are arguably more open about their blue stripey triangular credentials. For example, today I am at Bournemouth University for a seminar by the Canadian practitioner/researcher, Fraser Likely who is sharing his study into how how PR Directors can present the ‘value’ of the function to senior executives. This is free of charge and practitioners have been invited.

Likewise, the University of the Arts, London College of Communication is running a Public Relations Lecture series on Thursday evenings. No charge to hear from Nick Jones (VP of digital corporate comms at Visa Europe), Mark Borkowski (author/media commentator), Simon Redfern (director of corporate affairs at Starbucks UK) and Jackie Cooper (global vice chair of brand properties at Edelman). Places for the first event, on 31 October (17:30-19:00) can be booked via Eventbrite.

Eventbrite is a great place to search for similar events, using the filter for free today brought up 50 events in the UK alone.

Look out also for groups in LinkedIn or pages in Facebook where you can learn about events (often free) and connect with other practitioners and academics. For example, the CIPR Diversity group can be found via Facebook and there are groups with special interests, such as PR History in LinkedIn.

On the academic side, there are facilities like Academia.edu which has a good community of those researching the field, who are very willing to connect and share their work.

You can also find out about work and thinking via social media, where many senior PR practitioners and academics are active – and often even intersect! Several of my students have had success in engaging with academics whose work interests them via Twitter and LinkedIn (or simply using emails found via their academic profiles).

In addition to events and other personal connections, there are oodles of online resources from blogs and discussion forums, to research papers and journal articles. Google books offers a huge library of PR texts that can be accessed for free – which as a published author means no income, but does extend the reach of my work (and potential purchasers). We shouldn’t forget libraries either – in the UK, most will order books for you and some Universities offer free access to alumni or other readers.

There has been a move towards open access in publishing academic work and although this doesn’t apply yet to many journals (as publishers apply a considerable charge to offer your work in this way), there are some excellent online journals that can be read for free. I recommend the PRISM journal which features full-length, refereed scholarly articles as well as commentary pieces, book reviews and much more. Likewise, you can find informed papers and research reports at the Institute for Public Relations site – including some great work on evaluation. On that topic, there are open access resources on the AMEC website.

Most of the major PR consultancies also publish reports, white papers and thought pieces. Edelman Editions is one example.

We can also be imaginative in our PR education for free. Exhibitions in art galleries and museums are often free or relatively low cost with topics that can fire our PR insight and imagination. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the British Library exhibition on Propaganda: Power and Persuasion this summer, and I also missed yesterday’s evening discussion, Challenging myths and understanding society. Both had a small charge, but undoubtedly were relevant in considering public relations more widely than simply doing the day job.

Perhaps the best free PR education of all comes from setting up a blog yourself and developing your ideas around various topics. The act of researching and thinking, connecting with others and responding to comments is very enlightening as well as challenging. I urge all PR students to blog as part of their academic education and professional development. No, I’ll go further and urge all PR practitioners and academics to write online too.

As the historian, David McCullough stated: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

It is hard, it takes time and commitment, but writing, thinking and connecting with your inner (or outer) blue stripey triangular-ness is well worth it.

See also:

Public relations in the real world

ivorytowerPublic relations is a social construct that reflects the time and place in which it operates. This is evident from looking at historical development along with current practice. It occurs in a physical (real) world where human beings interact – even when, or perhaps especially when, many in the occupation are arguing that it is all about online, digital or social communications.

This week, I’ve been involved in developing and promoting Lions Good Deed Week. The idea is to use a proven PR technique to help Lions Clubs International (GB and Ireland) communicate all the good work being done by members in local communities. Traditionally the week is branded Lions Awareness, but that concept struggles to mean anything to the public or media. In contrast, everyone can understand what a good deed means – and there are plenty of examples that can be used, or planned, that reflect this core aspect of Lions’ work.

We’ve been using Twitter and Facebook as a means of communicating such examples – primarily as a way of kick starting use of these channels within the organisation centrally. But the reality is that the good deeds occur when members of Lions Clubs do good work in the real world. That’s where true public relations takes place.

Similarly, when thinking about the interesting pair of posts that Judy Gombita has written about crisis management, we have this tension between the online and real world. Although Judy is emphasising the social business dimension of crisis, or incidents, as she illustrates, relatively few problem scenarios occur only in an online context.

Let’s take the example of Hasan Syed who bought a Tweet to complain to BA about lost baggage. It is debatable whether this is a real crisis for BA as most airlines  experience missing or delayed luggage as a matter of routine. They have operational processes for such incidents, and no matter how inefficient these may be (impacted in part by the outsourcing of baggage handling), primary responsibility does not lie with the public relations function.

Online media offer a more open means of complaining about the process when it fails or is frustrating to passengers. But a search this minute of Twitter will reveal dozens of tweets highlighting missing suitcases.

Why did the BA case generate interest? It wasn’t the crisis, nor BA’s tardy response via social media, but the fact that a bought Tweet was used. That was the news – picked up by mainstream media (that is print and broadcast, not just online) and talked about by real people in real offline conversations.

Undoubtedly this example will be added to the repertoire of cases cited by textbooks, bloggers, trainers and commentators as evidence of truths about the power of online PR (or poor practice of it).  But for every Wispa or HSBC Facebook campaign claimed as success of the power of social media activism (both dating from 2007 when such approaches were news), there are dozens, hundreds, thousands more initiatives that gain little if any traction.  The 2nd, 3rd and subsequent bought Angry Customer Tweets will not garner much, if any, attention.

Likewise, even the giants of ‘social media fails‘ (according to the online experts) such as BP and Toyota, may have been humbled and bruised (but not destroyed) by the glare that online activity shone on issues and crisis situations that would have been – indeed were – high profile offline too.  Their problems occurred in the real world of operational decisions, and the strategic work of public relations continues in the need to focus on reputation and relationships – again mainly in the physical world (especially relating to political, financial and customer relations).

Again, we can cite examples where online polls changed organisational strategy (such as the female on a British bank note campaign), but others where despite a substantial global presence, things never changed (Kony 2012 for example).  Of course, public relations practitioners should be monitoring potential and emerging issues through social media – alongside offline research, data analysis and listening processes.   They also need the strategic insight to know when bubbles of sentiment online need action and when they don’t.

I’m not saying that digital and social media are not important, but they do not operate in isolation. And anyone who believes that organisations should focus their PR efforts primarily online is missing both the importance of real world operations/experiences and the necessity to integrate online with offline.

We should never forget that most problems begin offline – even a stupid tweet or inappropriate video has its roots in the behaviour and mindset of people living offline. Likewise, the majority of promotional activities relate to actual products or services. Even totally online operations tend to have an output that we experience outside the confines of online. We listen to music, read our ebooks and watch streamed movies as 3D, living, breathing people.  Online is part of, not a replacement for, real life.

One other aspect of public relations that occurs in the real world is professional education and academia – despite criticisms of some practitioners (including those who are frequently the largest advocates of online communications). Research, reflection and theorising are pretty much exclusively predicated on a connection with PR practice. The real world of practice (online and off) is enhanced by greater understanding of what can be learned from connecting with this real world of academia and professional education.

Instead, it is alleged that PR academics live in ivory towers and don’t understand the real world of practice. My experience – and that of enlightened PR practitioners – is the exact opposite. As with integrating online and offline, we can only get a true understanding of the world by ensuring practice and academia are recognised as part of the holistic real world view of PR as we experience it, right here and now.

Who do you think you are? Respond to the PR Census 2013

PRCensusScoping the PR industry is an unreliable business – but the PR Census (undertaken by PR Week and PRCA) is a valiant attempt to provide some useful numbers and insight into who we are and what we do. That’s why I support the call to complete the census form: https://survey.yougov.com/vdfp0RlDDBKrdk.

The greater the number of UK practitioners who take a few minutes to participate, the more reliable the data and analysis that is produced will be.

Reviewing the findings from the 2011 PR Census, I summed up public relations as:

dominated by the young and female. In terms of age, only 20% of PR practitioners are older than 45, despite the fact that 28% of the general working population is over 50. Women account for almost two-thirds of the PR industry (64%) compared to 46% for the overall workforce.

It is doubtful that two years on, the PR industry is demographically greatly different – but we will have an opportunity to look at some trends and dig deep into the data to discover if some of the previous findings still hold true:

  • PR practitioners are not a greatly diverse bunch in demographic terms
  • On average, the female respondents had less experience than their male counterparts
  • There seemed to be a black hole of women leaving PR mid-career (and not returning after maternity leave)
  • Regardless of age or experience, there continues to be a noticeable gender salary discrepancy in men’s favour
  • With a relatively long hours culture reported by respondents, starting salaries in PR aren’t overly generous – which is even more important than two years’ ago given increasing costs of undergraduate degrees

If these aspects remain pretty consistent, it suggests little has been achieved since the last PR Census to address issues that should be of concern to employers, professional bodies, educators and practitioners themselves. Rather than simply focusing on where the results from the 2013 PR Census offer an opportunity for the industry to pat itself on the back, more needs to be done to future-proof rewarding careers in the field as the norm (regardless of gender, age, race, class, education, experience, entry point, etc).

Anyone looking to recruit PR talent continues to lament the shortage of really high calibre candidates. There has never been a better opportunity for public relations to secure its ground as a credible, valued professional discipline both as an in-house function and a bought in expert service. This is great news – but we won’t realise the potential, and attract or retain the brightest and best, if we simply use this important research to create infographics and generate publicity for PR.

Click click chicken – oven ready PR graduates

click-chickRecruiting a top notch PR graduate is as challenging as a quest to find hen’s teeth – as Richard Bailey wrote recently: “We’re in a recession, with high levels of youth unemployment. And yet the PR industry’s demand for bright young people appears to be insatiable.” Great news for all those A level students who will have had their places confirmed for a PR university course this week – but what kind of career can they expect to encounter in three or four years time?

Undoubtedly social media is going to continue to offer employment opportunities – but will we have moved beyond thinking of recent graduates as best placed to be the early career adopters of latest technologies? Currently that means that graduates are being sought in specialist positions such as ‘social media ninja’ – which B.L. Ochman has been tracking as an emerging social media self-descriptor.

Such creative titles often mask employment that is one step up from working in a click farm. The production of press releases has been replaced by a role of content creation and social media updates – but without the need to persuade a journalist of the quality or usefulness of a story. A role that involves activating pre-agreed organisational status updates, chatting (sorry, engaging in two-way symmetrical communications) with followers/fans, or pitching off-the-shelf promotional copy to online influencers could be better described as a ‘click click chicken’ job.

Clearly you don’t need PR graduates to fill such posts – but recruiting them helps justify the fees charged to clients. These roles are probably positioned as offering a first step on a career ladder, and can seem like a fun, easy job for a while at least.

This focus on tactical skills underpins the demands often expressed by the PR industry for, what Liz Bridgen of De Montfort University termed as ‘oven ready chickens’ at the London College of Communications PR & Disruption conference.

But the role of PR educators, students and the wider industry ought to be on ensuring young practitioners are equipped for life-long adaptive careers. The need is for innovators and critical thinkers who are prepared “for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet” – in the words of Karl Fisch’s Did you know? Shift Happens presentation.

My hope is that tomorrow’s PR graduates will encounter a more mature career market for social media competence, where familiarity and experience will be the norm as part of a continuous, long-term process of technological adoption. Understanding, utilising and managing digital technologies will no longer require, what Paul Holmes noted in 2007 as ‘rare and perhaps even contradictory qualities‘ as knowledge of new media opportunities will be more commonly found alongside the good judgement that comes with age and experience.

In looking at the longer-term value of social media in PR careers, I’m making a presentation and running a workshop at an event for a community of PR educators organised by Liz Yeomans of Leeds Business School at the start of September. I believe there is considerable ongoing potential for social media to offer valuable career capital for PR practitioners (and PR educators). But I think this means looking differently at future PR careers rather than modelling them on past ideas (such as profession, craft or management) or extrapolating approaches based on how many people ‘backed into the field, as it were, by accident‘ and worked their way up.

Returning to Richard’s post – vocational experience will continue to be important. However, I believe this requires a constructivist learning viewpoint where PR education and practice integrate more closely to offer life-long opportunities to support those who are active participants in their personal career tapestry of creating and challenging, thinking and theorising, and innovating and implementing.

This goes far beyond ideas of studying and practising skills in a classroom, supplemented by ‘on the job’ learning prior to graduating, or seeking a professional post-graduate qualification to underpin experience gained in the workplace. Instead we need a more seamless approach to learn-experience-learn-experience in a virtuous process throughout our careers. A bit like the chicken and egg circle of life – creating wise old birds of us all.

Sugar and spice – are women in PR too nice?

sugarspice“The position of women outside the dominant social power base suggests a need for more radical activism to enable their voices, and causes, to be heard.” – a view I expressed in a post at PR Conversations in December: Dissent PR – from suffragettes to slut walks. Well, the furore that has resulted from an activist campaign to ensure that at least one female (other than the Queen) appears on British bank notes, has certainly caused women’s voices to be heard on this issue, and that of trolling through Twitter.

Although I did sign the petition, I can’t say that Jane Austen would have been my choice (and why did the campaign seem content with just one woman on the notes?). The writer I’d prefer to have seen selected is Mary Wollstonecraft, not least for wider recognition of her appropriate feminist role as an advocate of women’s rights. (And, I share her birthday, although just over 200 years separate us in age!)

It strikes me, however, that women in public relations have been absent in any high profile way from either this campaign, or commenting on the Twitter abuse button issue. (Although it has resulted in numerous promotional oriented PR posts on dealing with Twitter trolls).

The key activist was Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, feminist campaigner and co-founder of thewomensroom.org.uk . This site highlights the lack of women experts featured in the media on a host of topics (not just female oriented ones).

You’d think that this issue was one where women in PR would prove supportive – after all, aren’t we the ones who raise the profiles of experts and often are their gatekeepers with our media contacts? Perhaps ironically, The Women’s Room does not allow PR companies to register for its expert search – although it does suggest getting in touch to book an expert speaker for an event.

The lack of women as experts is evident even within Public Relations, an occupation where around three-quarters of practitioners are female. Check any PR conference or trade publication, look at those featured in PR Week’s Power Book, or the membership of professional body working groups, and it will be dominated by men. I’m not saying this is discrimination (although it may be), but perhaps women in PR aren’t putting their hands up enough to be recognised as experts and commentators with valuable experience and opinions to share. Or is it enough to have a token one or two females represented? At the most, you’ll be lucky to find parity in gender representation – but why not have women dominating in an industry that is dominated by women?

A few week’s ago, Marian Salzman, wrote a post at The Holmes Report titled “America’s PR industry is too feminized and politically correct“. She correlated criticism of the PR awards at Cannes Lions as bland with the number of women working in PR; an argument that was flawed by her praise of an “Aussie-mindset” which she interpreted as reflecting “a great masculine energy” (despite the fact that Greg Smith cites data that a clear majority of Australian PR practitioners are female). In the comments, she did backtrack on her diagnosis, and called for “an injection of badness into our work — to spice up the creative produce and change up the game”.

If little girls are supposed to be made of sugar AND spice – where is the spicy side of women in PR?

Why don’t we see C.J. Cregg, the West Wing’s formidable White House Press Secretary (whose backstory is as a political science Masters graduate and highly paid PR consultant) as our fictional role model rather than more usual fluffy PR bunny or other unflattering stereotypes?

Suzanne Moore in her infamous (for her poorly considered reference to Brazilian transexuals and even worse handling of the resulting Twitterstorm) New Statesman article in January, Seeing red: the power of female anger asked:

Why are we not telling our inbred overlords that we are not as nice as we look?

She felt that “feminism as ‘a movement’ has collapsed in the West” – I would contend, it certainly doesn’t seem to be evident among most female PR practitioners. Whenever the topic of women dominating the PR industry – yet being a minority at senior levels is raised, two responses come up:

  1. Women are better at communications and/or relationship building and/or softer skills (supposedly reflecting emotional intelligence) – hence why they flock to the occupation
  2. Women aren’t as career oriented – they take career breaks, are less aggressive in pursuing professional advancement, don’t want to work the long-hours once they have families, etc etc (reflecting Catherine Hakim‘s preference theory argument) – hence why they aren’t the majority in senior roles.

When you discuss gender issues with PR students, especially undergraduates, they are concerned by the situation (Stephen Waddington noted the topic came up with US students visiting London earlier this year). When you introduce them to literature and statistical data (especially studies such as the Velvet Ghetto which noted a $1 million penalty for being a woman), lively debate ensues (and some great dissertation topics).

Similarly, I find female PR students, especially experienced practitioners, are energised by Dr Derina Holtzhausen‘s concept of the corporate activist. Indeed, public relations as activism is an increasingly common topic within the literature marking a shift from a focus on PR being seen as a force to oppose activism.

Does this suggest women in public relations may be getting a taste for slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails – which is what little boys are made of, according to the 19th century English nursery rhyme? One purpose of this childhood story of gender differentiation may have been to remind little girls to be nice and good, where it was acknowledged that boys should be independent and adventurous. Have women in PR adopted a similar approach in conforming to a professional stereotype rather than being feisty and challenging?

I don’t believe that to be true – but do wonder why they aren’t louder and prouder of the work they do and the issues and causes that affect women.

Whose PR work is it anyway?

copyrightThere was a lively debate at the recent International History of PR Conference (IHPRC) regarding open access online publication of the presented papers and what this could mean for their future journal acceptance. This may seem an academic issue, but it also has relevance for PR practice as the question of who ‘owns’ work or its ‘copyright’ is a hot topic.

In PR practice, this extends to aspects such as Twitter followers, where accounts are arguably both personal and professional. If a CEO leaves a post, is it okay for them to rebrand their account if it previously linked to the organisation and ‘take’ the followers with them? Or should this account be left behind for the new incumbent? Do the same considerations apply to PR practitioners who may equally have a high profile? Not a big issue perhaps if policies and contracts are in place, but if not, this could become a controversial issue – or similarly if someone joins an organisation with an existing online profile and community network.

In some ways, this extends the ‘little black book’ of contacts that was an issue of debate in the past for PR practitioners. Another long-standing matter relates to PR campaigns and who has the ‘right’ to use these for promotional purposes. Is it only the agency that was involved? What about if all personnel have subsequently moved on? Can they cite their involvement in CVs (resumes) or future pitching opportunities? And what about the client – isn’t the work theirs, and should agencies refrain from publicising their involvement if they no longer work for the client?

Which leads me to consider who ‘owns’ a case study? These are often no more than anecdotal recollections that appear online or in textbooks, or perhaps the result of an analysis of publicly available materials. Agencies frequently need the approval of clients to get permission to publish a case study, but once it is in print, can it be reported on (provided credit is given to the original source)? Personally I am not a fan of the anecdotal case study as I would like to see a more robust research methodology, even if that is based on memory (as per Toni Muzi Falconi‘s presentation at IHPRC).

What about in teaching, where I may use a case study example?  Again the issue of who owns any slides that we use can be a contractual matter – but what about when students have access to study materials, or clients, when we deliver corporate training?  I believe it is presumed that someone cannot simply use your work – but can they if they acknowledge the source?  If you put work on open access sites, such as SlideShare, are you effectively given up all rights?  I know some people who never share their slides – but this seems to go against modern communication and education practice.

Back to the academic discussion, where there is an interesting question. In the UK, work funded by the Research Councils is required to be freely accessible including outside the normal academic channels. At the same time, University personnel are expected to publish their work in high ranking journals – and most of these have strict criteria about exclusivity of publication.

These publications in turn charge institutions and researchers to access their journals, whilst not paying those who have originated the work. Academics write for free, and pay for access. Increasingly you can opt for your papers to be open access – but then the journals make a charge to the author (or their institution) to enable this.  There is a further debate led by the Intellectual Property Office at present about orphan works, where rightholders cannot be identified.

So perhaps as a writer, you choose to publish your work online in an open access source – a number of which have a good reputation (such as IPR or the online journal, PRISM).

There is an irony in how you might use work published online to build credibility and interest, as well as content, for a future book project. Even using crowd sourcing as part of your research process. But once you enter negotiations with a traditional book publisher, the issue of copyright is raised, and undoubtedly you sign a contract over rights to the work – and indeed, future publishing ideas. In turn, you need to sign up with the Public Lending Rights body and to the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (in the UK) to ensure you are paid any royalties you are entitled to receive. This may mean a few extra pounds income annually – on top of the often small fees (and advances) you receive for putting your experience and expertise into a published text, which may carry a hefty price tag.

For academic and some professional work there is perhaps the honour and reputation building benefits of being the owner of your PR work. In PR practice, you may well be invisible though. Even if you are able to promote projects that you worked on via your ‘own’ social media (e.g. LinkedIn profile), CV, or build it into a portfolio for interviews and pitches, your name will not be generally linked to your ideas or any innovative practices you may develop.

Indeed, much of what you produce may not be worth even this type of profile as you are likely to have crafted releases and other writing that has gone under someone else’s name. Think of those who are gifted speechwriters – we generally recall the person who delivered the speech with those who sweated over the words dismissed as advisors. A brilliantly memorable ‘key message’ or story may similarly never be traced to its originator.

But then can any of us truly lay claim to our work? How much of it is totally original as undoubtedly we all take inspiration from somewhere, or someone.

Nevertheless, these issues are important, particularly when you speak at a conference and find that you should not make the words delivered available in print (powerpoint, video or other recording seems a grey area) in case this affects your later ability to publish elsewhere.

It seems a shame to me if you cannot explore your ideas in public (even in print) and benefit from both the exposure and input from others (who you may or may not credit in future). So perhaps we need to have more creative ways of sharing our knowledge and participating in academic forums where our rights can be protected.

As for practice, I’m not sure what the answer is – unless we can perhaps formalise a process of ‘case studies’ which means they too gain from a process of authentication to add some veracity to claims made about work.

When is a press release not a press release?

Is this a press release? Ironically, this piece of puff for a potato puff arrived unsolicited in my email. It is from PWR New Media and as it instructs me to READ FULL RELEASE HERE >>> – I presume this company believes it to be a release.


Perhaps it is one of those SMNR things – the Social Media News Release – that Todd Defren of SHIFT Communications heralded back in 2006, as it contains links to social media and supplementary potato puff information.

The future of the press release (or media release if you prefer) – including its death or metamorphosis – isn’t normally something that I’m too concerned about. I do despair when teaching press release writing (let alone marking press release assignments) that the majority of examples lack any real evidence of news. My personal view is that I would not mind if I never had to write another one, but I realise that there is a need for a document of some sort to use for announcements, and particularly, for legal compliance, such as for financial results.

I’m yet to be convinced that most media, including bloggers and other online influencers, are that thrilled to receive an SMNR version, particularly when the big issue with the majority of releases churned out every day is that they are largely vacuous, poorly written, and badly targeted.

So it doesn’t really matter if it is easy to scan, includes elements that are easy to share and offers access to multimedia material (to paraphrase PR Newswire). That is all peripheral packaging if there is nothing of value inside the wrapping.

This is the main problem with probably 99.999999% of the releases sent out today – the content is increasingly viewed as less important than the drive to promote and seek SEO benefits. Indeed, a post on socialmedia today in March, states that “publishing news releases plays numerous other marketing roles” – most of which have nothing to do with the traditional role of a media release. Today the release is little more than a ruse to chase SEO and online ‘real estate’ – indeed the socialmedia today article claims the release creates “a visual sales page for your company”.

Also back in 2006, Tom Foremski stated: Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die! – spitting: “Press releases are nearly useless”, whilst arguing for a deconstructed version. In 2010, Advertising Age ran a piece by Simon Dumenco: RIP, the Press Release (1906-2010) – and Long Live the Tweet.

In February 2011, Mark Borkowski marked the rise of churnalism with a belief that “the press release is an endangered species, thanks to misuse”. Also in 2011, the opportunity for companies to break their own news was touted as another reason for killing the press release in an interview by CorpComms magazine with Nissan’s Dan Sloan.

By January 2012, we had Econsultancy discussing: The death of press release distribution services with “smarter ways to engage influencers online, such as social media newsrooms, multimedia content and real-time interaction enabled by social listening” argued as the choice of communicators.

In 2013, all these views seem to have been premature. But still the death knells sound – in February, the Irish Examiner reported a Social Newsmakers conference (no I don’t know what a newsmaker is either) with a quote:

“As a communications tool, the press release has become a garish neon light whose only objective is to interrupt and distract to gain attention”

Rather than a realistic assessment of fact, this was really another plug for social media as “a more direct and targeted avenue by which we can all work together to spread the message of what, where, why and how we are doing what we do.”

So the millions of pointless traditional releases, being sent out by email and news wires these days, are supplemented by millions more variants of interactive releases available through push and pull channels, as well as millions of tweets and other micro-announcements.

It could be viewed that the press release has finally morphed into a form of marketing – but actually, it always was. Despite the legend that Ivy Lee created the release in 1906 with his Declaration of Principles as an open, honourable form of communications, the release was at that time firmly entrenched as a publicity or advertising device – and the majority remained so.

So is this piece of puff a press release? Sadly, yes it is. It may look more like a marketing email – not surprising as it is from a “creative digital design and development shop”, and there is a distinct lack of news in its contents – again not surprising as the “shop” claims to “create digital assets”.

So perhaps it is time to give up on any virtuous claims for a press release – indeed, perhaps the only time when a press release is not a press release is when it genuinely has news or something of value to impart.

Die press release? Not a chance of it.