Public Relations as a Rainforest

ID-10080659In writing about T-shaped career decisions for public relations practitioners at PR Conversations, a comment by Natalie Bovair suggested a tree trunk for the vertical stroke that grows thicker and deeper, but needs (along with its main branches – the horizontal stroke) to bend to the winds.

This is a useful metaphor, which can be extended to consider public relations using the analogy of a rainforest – one of the oldest, and most diverse, land based ecosystems.

Within our rainforest, we can represent clients and employers as the fauna, those animals (birds, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians) seeking survival within what we could term a jungle (allowing for multiple definitions of the term).

Some of this terrain may be dense and impenetrable, parts of it may be lawless or unruly where only those who have adapted to be the fittest survive. It may at times be confusing and threatening – or considered as a fragile, spiritual place full of exotic and exciting mysteries. Whether menacing or magical, our rainforest is the home of the flora of public relations.

The analogy works in terms of specialisation as many of our animal clients are found in particular rain forests – and are vulnerable to extinction, being dependent on their eco-system. I also like how the nutrients (necessary for survival) are found in the plants within the rainforest – showing the importance of the PR practitioner to the client.

The rainforest comprises several layers – and in these, we can locate our PR practitioners.

Emergent layer or over story: The pinnacle, where it is windy, the air is hot and the clients are agile monkeys (The Jungle VIPs). A few trees reach these lofty heights and stand tall above others with both long trunks and extended limbs that have adapted to function at the highest climate. But they may be distant and need to withstand all extremes of weather. To thrive above the canopy, plants and animals (PR and clients) must adapt to a bright, open and changeable world.

At these heights, the trees are tough and take full advantage of the resources available here. They spread their foliage (their generalist skills in the original T-shaped concept) to catch as much sunlight as possible. They use the wind to disperse pollen and seeds – akin to ideas and followers in PR terms. Indeed, these emergent trees are likely to produce seeds with wings to fly out of their shadows and thrive on their own.

Our clients at this level are often sizeable, such as the harpy eagle – a fierce hunter. It blends with the surrounding forest perfectly, and relies on excellent vision and hearing. Showing close integration of PR and client, and a competency in boundary-spanning.

Other clients, such as the pygmy gliders, use a different strategy – secretiveness. Where the confidentiality of the relationship with the PR consultant is paramount. And, there are the largest butterflies in the world, Morpho peleides. They reflect light to appear a vivid, iridescent blue colour, although their underside is a dull brown colour providing camouflage against predators. They fly at the highest level to warm themselves and attract mates. Such beautiful clients live hard and fast, so need careful PR handling.

Canopy layer: Home of tall trees, with thick trunks and branches and lush foliage. The environment attracts more wildlife than elsewhere in the rainforest and has a refreshing breeze and dappled sunlight. This can be considered as our professional or community of practice layer in public relations. Where our connections form a tight network to cope with rain and sunlight. Here, life is less changeable but more humid. Canopy trees are remarkably similar to each other. The biggest threat comes from lichens, algae and mosses that steal the light and block the tree’s breathable surface. Are these the competing forces that are challenging the dominance of PR in its traditional communications and relationship domains?

Here the plants (PR) rely on the animals (clients) for survival (seed dispersal) and often need to attract them using succulent fruit. It is amusing to read how fruit here may need a tough cover to pass unharmed through the animals’ digestive systems. And, the animals are fickle and move from tree to tree following the fruit. I’m sure in PR, we’ve all had clients or employers who make us feel like that!

There is variety in clients (fauna) in the canopy – most of whom are large and strong enough to be safe from most predators. They are predictable in their behaviour, vocal and exist in many varieties within species, although they may be vulnerable to threats from predators. Changes in the environment can cause instability and stress to plants and animals, although those remaining may close ranks or saplings may thrive. Although other species emerge to fill any gaps, the status quo is likely to win out.

Understory layer: Underneath the canopy is a layer comprising young or short trees, a tangle of shrubs and woody or soft-stemmed plants. Here the specific rainforest environment is an important factor, but in general it will be dark, less windy and more humid. Perhaps our tactical-only PR practitioners can be found in the understory – where it is hot, damp and the air is still.

The flora here grows in the shade of the taller trees and needs to adapt to survive. Species that do well include many forms of houseplants. Understory plants have to find ways to advertise their flowers to attract animals and insects in the dim light. The fact that the flowers are frequently found on the tree’s trunk rather than in its foliage suggest a focus on the specialism of PR rather than any generalist or strategic competencies.

Understory flowers are strong-smelling and suited to the tastes of the animal the plant depends upon – which again emphasises a willingness to bend to the client rather than challenge in any way. The analogy is reinforced by observation that clients may adopt disguises, pretending to be something they are not. Plants (PR) may be complicit in this deceit providing camouflage as protection from predators for reptilian and other clients. Not only does this approach offer sanctuary but enables the animal to capture its prey.

The understory is a more open place where some clients are able to fly freely – but where others set traps to capture them. It suggests a murky world, full of challenges and risk.

Forest floor: At the base is a dark place where the humid air is still. The vegetation is mainly fungi and other plants that live off decaying leaves and other matter fallen from the trees above. It this the unethical underbelly of PR practice? Here the clients include small invertebrates, living under stones, leaves and logs, alongside animals who forage for survival. Everyone here is vulnerable to surprise attacks – crises maybe – and need to hide until threats pass. Our publicists who will say and do anything could be seen as the plants providing that vital cover.

But let’s not forget that it is within the roots of the emergent trees or those found in the canopy layer where some animals hide. It is a rich place where there is great interdependence.

The rainforest involves interconnections with many plants growing on other plants for support – we can think of these perhaps as our students looking to find their own way in the world. I like the idea of them as Epiphytes, non-parasitic air plants who start life in the spot where two branches meet in the sunshine of the upper canopy. They produce their own energy and obtain moisture and nutrients from the air. Ephiphytes are also incredibly diverse and include species such as bromeliads (eg pineapples) and orchids. The former of which support their own plant life – young entrepreneurs. Mind you, there are also dangers for established trees in the rain forest from epiphytes.

In summary, as an occupation, we should ensure that those in the overstory and established canopy do not block the sunlight from the understory and prevent the growth of the plants there who are looking to grow and adapt. We need to provide room for both young shoots and those students who are epiphytes. But in accommodating the young saplings and air plants, mutual respect is required so the host isn’t damaged by its accommodating nature.

And the fauna (clients) and flora (PR) need to work together for survival of the eco-system, but recognise that there are threats both from within and outside our environment.

I’ve largely drawn on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution website for information about the Rainforest. The image for this post is Earth and Tree by njaj; courtesy of

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?

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.

The PR meaning of Christmas

costa christmasThe meaning of Christmas can be analysed through studying its signs, symbols and stories, many of which could be considered from a PR perspective.

So #4 of my 12 Days of Christmas posts considers the semiotics of Christmas to examine symbolism of the season and how this is applied by PR practitioners.

Religious signs, symbols and stories are evident primarily through the Nativity narrative. However, the essential elements have been adapted for both commercial and social purposes. For example, many school nativity plays remain a festive tradition but have been professionally scripted to make them more inclusive, contemporary and/or fashionable. The meaning of Nativity plays has changed with greater competition and commercialisation according to media reports. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest schools need to undertake PR risk assessment in the face of media interest in signs, symbols and stories that make nativity plays controversial.

For others, the semiotics of Christmas are less about the traumas of childhood performances and more about spotting commercial signs of the season. Christmas adverts are not a new phenomenon, but today’s versions are a long way from this late 1970s’ Woolworths‘ television ad which features celebrities, but otherwise is all about products and prices. I’m sure many a dissertation will be written on the semiotics of supermarket advertising in 2013.

The master of symbolic associations at Christmas is Coca-Cola creating and conveying adverts where idealised family scenes are closely connected to the brand’s icons. In particular, the imagery of Santa Clause is seen as symbolic of Coca-Cola at Christmas, with the company acknowledging its “role in shaping the jolly, rotund character“. Taking the adverts into the experiential field, with a tour of the ‘Holidays are coming’ red truck offers a more personal connection with the brand’s Christmas symbolism.

The coffee shop brands similarly offer an experience of Christmas with seasonal drinks and recognisable cups. The Costa Coffee ones have been particularly noticeable. Indeed, a student recently told me that her friends see the emergence of the Christmas coffee drinks as an earlier indicator of the season.

These may be examples of marketing but are often promoted with PR campaigns and also act as symbols that build relationships and reputation of the brands.

We also create our own Christmas culture with rituals and symbols that relate specifically to our families or friends. We may not notice where this involves connection with organisations’ PR functions but this could be the case in terms of our shopping, entertainment and other celebratory habits. From pantomimes (featuring television personalities) to the holiday editions of television listing magazines and the battle of the Christmas number one single (increasingly manipulated by X-Factor), there is evidence of commercial symbols dominating the culture of Christmas.

The symbolism of Christmas is so strong that it is not surprising to see it evident in many different ways. Arguably an understanding of semiotics ought to be key to PR practice, although it is not given a great deal of focus in literature or qualifications.

It is not just in relation to marketing that the benefits of applying semiotics can be realised. Charities also use the season to associate their causes with the meaning of Christmas. Emotional imagery, heart-tugging images dominate the narrative. Other PR campaigns similarly connect to Christmas iconography for issues management. For example, fire safety and drink-driving campaigns use a range of semiotic principles.

Similarly, I recall a successful campaign by a student who worked for a housing association a number of years ago that used strong Christmas imagery to highlight the necessity to avoid debt (and pay rent) over the holiday period.

PR ideas from a fall

cat-fallAt the end of October I fell down a small flight of stairs at home. As I believe all experiences are learning opportunities particularly for public relations practitioners, I’ve been thinking about the PR ideas I can take from my fall.

First is that it’s not the fall that matters, but how you land. In PR things often don’t go as we expect or plan and we should understand that it is natural to fail, or fall short, in this respect. What counts is the landing and ensuring that isn’t where bigger problems start.

Sometimes in PR we are responsible for managing the landing rather than the fall. A situation, issue or crisis is instigated by a fall. If we land like a cat on all paws, we can nonchalantly dust ourselves down and move on. Or maybe we roll like a stunt performer, enacting our practiced moves as a professional. Or others who empathise with our stumble come to our aid and help us avoid squashing our nose or denting our reputation.

My landing wasn’t elegant. I hit my leg on a plastic packing case although luckily didn’t break it (the container or my leg). So the second PR idea relates to problem avoidance. It didn’t take a risk assessment to know that this box didn’t belong where it was. Maybe not in the league of “an accident waiting to happen” rhetoric, but it definitely should have been upstairs – or maybe downstairs – it had been in-between two flights for so long I can’t actually recall its direction of travel. Such ‘mean-to’ things become invisible after a while, but how many of us as PR practitioners could write a very long list of items that require our attention but aren’t urgent?

Post-tumble, as with any organisation recovering from a reputational fall, I was a bit battered and bruised. This sometimes necessitated pre-emptive communications to explain my increasingly evident damage as the bruises were noticeable shades of black and blue. On other occasions, wearing trousers avoided unnecessary questions.  The third idea to transfer to PR is where honesty is important and when covering up is okay.

Like many experienced PR practitioners, I believe the show must go on. I’m also self-employed so throwing a sickie isn’t easy when you’ve existing commitments. But this evidences a fourth idea for PR practice. There are times when putting yourself first is more important. We have to prioritise the longer term over the short to ensure we can continue to do a better job.

Keeping going soon became impossible and a visit to my osteopath identified a pinched nerve. So my fifth lesson or idea for PR is about knowing when to call on experts. Many organisations rely on a DIY approach to PR or use their in house / consultancy team on a tactical basis. Self-diagnosis and problem resolution can be great but it is no substitute for making use of the expertise of those who are qualified, trained and experienced.

Idea number six relates to recognising there are few (if any) textbook cases. The osteopath felt I had enough symptoms to support his diagnosis but not everything was as expected. Pain and swelling in my lower leg was unusual. My friend said it wobbled like a ballon filled with water. The GP was equally fascinated having never seen anything like it before. But drawing on his general knowledge, he drew a conclusion of fluid remaining from a haematoma.

In PR teaching, I’m often expected to give specific rules, instructions or direction where the reality requires a more reflective and interpretive perspective. Avoiding a fixed view, or jumping to conclusions is PR idea #7. We can, and should, draw on previous knowledge and experience but be aware that things change and need to be monitored with a personalised rather than a generic solution advised.

Idea 8 is that time is an important consideration. In PR we are increasingly urged, especially from a social media viewpoint, to respond immediately. It is all about speed of response say the experts. This can be true also in health matters. But what is really important is knowing when fast is essential and when time is the best healer.

This relates to idea 9 and being mindful of the benefits and limitations of online communications. I resisted setting up a Twitter account, posting Instagram images, a wobble Vine or YouTube video, or Facebook status updates on my leg’s condition. It didn’t need a fan base or community. I do appreciate when online group support is important and getting information online is a modern marvel. But there are potential issues. Finding what is helpful, reliable and authoritative is becoming harder and harder. Also, the world doesn’t need more pointless quirky personal accounts IMHO. And, I don’t need to record every second or incident in my life.

Indeed my final idea (#10) is about the value of time away. I’ve not been responding to digital communications, checking feeds or generating online stuff much over the past weeks. The world hasn’t ended. I’ve not missed much and people have coped without me. In PR we tend to think we are indispensable but stepping away can be equally important. I feel more rested and ready to prioritise what is essential and what doesn’t matter. I also know I juggle too much and have to change this.

In fact, this incident has given me some space to think more and through a conversation with the osteopath about his career decisions, I’ve a new perspective to research and incorporate in my PhD work. As I’m still not fully recovered, I will make the time for this exploration over the next couple of weeks.

BTW if you’re wondering why I’ve selected PR ideas, it is an attempt to link to PRide comes before a fall. I can’t blame pride for my situation but felt I could link to PR as an idea for post-fall blogging!

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:

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.

A disruptive week in PR

disruptionIt’s always good to disrupt your normal routine with an opportunity to learn new things, gain different insights and meet interesting people. Last week was a disruptive one for me to this extent.

The main event was the inaugural PR and Disruption conference at the London College of Communications, followed by the annual MIPAA “soirée” @Goodwood Festival of Speed and then the CIPR Fellows lunch at the Waldorf hotel (disrupting the normal choice of the House of Lords).

The disruption motif was evident at the conference in a number of different ways:

  • How PR can help organisations adapt to a disruptive world
  • Whether or not social media developments are disrupting PR practice
  • Disrupting the way in which we think about PR – particularly drawing on social theory
  • Using PR as a disruptive force

There seemed general acceptance that PR operating at a strategic level is essential in managing the various disruptions happening in the world. Likewise, debate around social media developments which sought to present these as disrupting the modus operandi seemed to indicate more that digital PR is a core aspect of practice and needs to be reflected as generalist social media competencies (including arguments for T-Shaped employees).

The third perspective on disruption was instigated by Øyvind Ihlen of the University of Oslo. For the practitioners attending the conference, his billing as an academic seemed to be disruptive as the stereotype that this is irrelevant to practice came over strongly. I’m a big fan of Øyvind’s book: Public Relations and Social Theory and particularly his chapter On Bourdieu, which I used when discussing PR knowledge management systems in The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit. So for me, practical linkage between academic and practitioner work is not disruptive.

The main argument that Øyvind put forward related to seeing PR  as social constructivism – that is, that human beings co-create meaning with communications as a reflective and discursive process, involving polyphony (embracing multiple opinions and voices). As such, this disrupts the normal management perspective of public relations.

It was in this respect that the most disruptive comment was made in response to a question about evaluation of such an approach to PR. Øyvind responded that he did not believe in measurement which set Twitter alight as this is now heresy as the practice has become evangelistic in propagating a measurement gospel.

Personally, I find much PR measurement tends to be reductive and illusionary as it reflects the ideas of rational management i.e. that we can command and control within a premise of a logical and linearly ordered world. As I’ve said many times, the world is messier and more complex than that.

Indeed, I would like to have heard more during the conference that related to using PR as a disruptive force – both within organisations (as per Holtzhausen’s work, PR as Activism) and in wider society (the Dissent PR concept we’ve been exploring at Bournemouth University).  There also ought to have been more diversity in the demographic of the speakers as it is questionable how disruptive the views of men are – although they may be the outsiders in a female dominated occupation.

On the face of it, there wasn’t much disruption evident at the MIPAA get-together at the end of the Moving Motors day of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The event itself has proven a disruptive force over the past decade as it has developed as a modern alternative to the traditional motor show (and totally replaced this in the UK). From the PR perspective, it is perhaps ironically disruptive to hold a ‘pop up’ soirée as the traditional schmoozing or socialising aspect of PR is being squeezed out as practitioners are under increasing time pressures.

This is a link between all three events I attended this week as it seems disruptive to take time out to catch up with colleagues in the PR world unless it is instrumental to practice. I felt this very much at the CIPR Fellows lunch where although there was a good group of attendees, the retired contingent was less prevalent than in previous years (perhaps preferring the House of Lords venue) and most of us there seemed to be self-employed and so able to justify disrupting our days by attending.

The speaker at the lunch was Toby Young, who presents himself as a disruptive force, in terms of being opinionated and rather controversial.

His talk made an interesting connection to social theory as he presented a post-modern critique on public relations (or rather publicity and spin doctors) with a reference to Foucault (although I doubt he’d read the chapter by Judy Motion and Shirley Leitch in Øyvind’s book).

For Toby Young, Foucault was evidence of the disruptive influence of PR on society. From the publicists’ ability to create totally false discourse about their clients to the spin doctors’ control over political narrative, PR was to blame. Instead, we were urged to look for those with integrity and strongly held beliefs (he held up Margaret Thatcher and Michael Goves as shining examples of conviction politicians).

For me one of the challenges of trying to present or critique post-modernism is that its characteristics mean any discussion ends up being post-modernist. For example, what Toby Young presented was not an absolute truth, but his perspective and interpretation, particularly of who was credible and authentic and who was not. He criticised Twitchunts when mobilised against those who wrote things he agreed with, yet cited social media as a positive force against the false nature of PR-manufactured stories.

Again, what he succeeded in doing was stimulating attendees to take to Twitter to offer a polyphonic account of the talk. So, with wonderful irony, it is this negative discourse that enhances the persona that Young portrays – with or without PR support.

Whilst these three events disrupted my normal routine, each succeeded in introducing me to some new things, insights and people. Which has to be a positive outcome – although I’m not sure quite how to measure it.

Do the CIPR presidential candidates appeal to women?

genderBoth candidates standing in the CIPR President-Elect 2013 elections (who will become President in 2014) are white, 40+ years old and male. As men comprise a minority of PR practitioners, perhaps it is time to throw into the debate, a question about how appealing Stephen Waddington and Dr Jon White are to women?

It is a relevant consideration given that the UK PR Week-PRCA 2011 PR Census, revealed the occupation is dominated by the young and female.   Also, CIPR “aims to develop an inclusive culture, raise general awareness of diversity within the public relations industry and to increase the number of public relations practitioners from all backgrounds”.

What are some of the issues that face women working in PR that the candidates should address?

1. Salary disparity – women in PR are paid less than men at all levels according to the data from the PR Census study. Nearly 30 years ago, US researchers released the Velvet Ghetto study noting a million dollar income penalty over the course of a woman’s career in PR. It isn’t difficult to argue that things haven’t changed much.

2. Mid-career chasm - there also appears to be a black hole with women leaving PR in mid-career, possibly as a result of a lack of flexible options for combining family and work commitments.

3. Friendliness trap – academics have claimed that women working in PR are expected (particularly at the start of their careers, and specifically in agencies) to adopt overtly feminine behaviour, which serves as a trap to their subsequent credibility and career progression.

4. Female dominated education – the majority of PR undergraduates are women, with men often less than 10 per cent of a class. A gender imbalance is frequently notable among cohorts studying the CIPR’s professional qualifications. The willingness of women to seek qualifications (perhaps buying into the professional agenda of career development) does not seem to be generating them greater career rewards.

5. Marginalisation of women as communicators – women have traditionally occupied technician roles in PR, with claims made that they have softer skills best suited for a communications-dominated position and function. In the past, women were employed to target female-oriented media and organise parties. This continues today, but additionally, they dominate specialist areas such as internal communications and lay claim to relationship building.

Of course, these issues do not affect all women and most apply beyond public relations.  We can also argue that with self-efficacy and personal agency, women are as capable as men of building successful careers. The current CIPR President is female, as was the one before. There have been a total of eleven women Presidents compared to 52 men. The first was Margaret Nally in 1975, followed by Norah Owen in 1981 and then Carol Friend in 1986. In the 1990s, two of the ten Presidents were women; in the last decade they accounted for three out of ten. This decade, so far it is three out of four, with Jane Wilson holding the role of CEO since 2010 as well.

So let’s cut the male candidates some slack – but invite them to comment here whether they believe there are specific considerations relating to women, and other sectors of society, in building careers in public relations. And how their year in office could help address some of the issues that I’ve mentioned above.

Over to you guys… how do you appeal to women in PR?

Who you know counts in public relations – avoiding dog bites online


There is an old proverb that you may know a man by the company he keeps. In public relations, a lot is made of developing contacts and relationships – but less consideration is given to the quality of company that we keep.

Another angle on the proverb applies to organisations regarding the associations that transfer from the company they keep (for example, in supplier relationships as has been seen with the recent horsemeat issue and discussed in Judy Gombita‘s Defining Social PR Byte post).

There are also considerations about how the organisations that PR practitioners work with affect personal reputations – and vice versa. As individuals we can enhance or harm our employers/clients, and similarly, their actions can have a positive or negative impact on our reputation and credibility.

The nature of our contacts is also important, particularly in relation to whether they reflect an equality or imbalance in power. This reminds me of the two ways to train a dog:

  • One is to dominate it and use your power as an owner to persuade the dog to obey your will. The dog will respond, often from a position of fear.
  • The second is to earn the dog’s loyalty when obedience results from respect.

This analogy extends further into times of crisis where the dog that is motivated by loyalty will take the initiative to help and protect an owner. The dominated dog will more likely respond by adding its bite to that of any attacker.

Power is at the heart of many relationships and we need to think about this in the company we keep, whether building our personal contacts or helping organisations develop strategic partnerships. If you (or your contacts) make connections only on the basis of WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), then the company you are keeping is vulnerable to the occasional bite.

This argues for a form of due diligence to be undertaken that considers strategic relationships from a public relations perspective:

  • What are the possible consequences for reputational damage as well as positive associations that can be gained?
  • Can co-orientation exist in times of possible conflict or will fractures occur leading to blame and self-preservation?

As people and organisations increasingly form coalitions to achieve their aims (proxy or collective agency), these issues need to be considered within public relations. Models of PR – and wider management – often look at stakeholders largely from the perspective of a single organization. Within organisations, stakeholders need to be mapped more universally and specifically by function, project and even individual relationships. When working in partnerships, stakeholders need to be considered from the shared position – identifying friends, foes, those with power, interest, saliency and so on.

Such relationships can also be considered in terms of the tangible and intangible benefits (and possible consequences) gained. Drawing on the work of Clark and Mills, we can distinguish between exchange and communal relationships.

  • Exchange relationships: involve a familiar, economic contractural approach where something of value is directly transferred between parties. This may, or many not, be a commercial or monetary transaction.
  • Communal relationships: are non-contingent, without any obligation or responsibilities between the parties.

Interestingly, this communal approach is asymmetric, in contrast to exchange relationships which are by definition, mutually beneficial. This seems to contrast with how Hon and Grunig view the typology, as they reflect a level of cynicism in exchange relationships suggesting people believe organisations only engage with them when they want something in return, and presenting communal relationships as evidencing a concern on the part of the organisation for others. Hence, they present communal relationships as symmetrical claiming both parties gain a benefit, which seems the reverse of Clark and Mills. However, Clark and Mills identify symmetry in communal relationships where the parties assume a mutual level of responsibility for each other, and asymmetry where there is variance in communal responsiveness.

What I find surprising is that there is little attention paid to educating PR practitioners in respect of relationships. The focus of training and qualifications tends to remain on communications, with an implicit belief that being competent in writing somehow equates to building positive relationships. Or the ability to build relationships is seen as personal and intuitive, something that is derived from a certain personality type, rather than a competency to be studied and improved, particularly in respect of organisational relationships.

I believe that the complexity of relationships in a modern, global, dynamic world calls for re-envisioning of the normative ideas that public relations is about dialogical, mutually beneficial communications predicated primarily on a simple, linear interface. Clark and Mills present further models of relationships, such as exploitative and a hybrid communal-exchange approach, and begin to examine various dimensions of the multiple relationships that individuals establish with others. There are many other areas of relationship thinking outside the PR literature that could be considered.

For example, social network theory considers how relationships develop within groups (formal and informal), which means grasping aspects such as culture, status, unwritten rules and inter-group dynamics. This is particularly relevant online where a pack mentality can quickly turn from tail wagging approval to a frenzied teeth-baring assault.

Online, the company we keep is likely to be out of our control. People can choose to associate with us even if we’d prefer they didn’t. When others engage with us or our organisations, we become connected to a wider network that extends the reach of influence, but also potential harm. Such contacts may increasingly assume a level of interest and indeed, power, that can have major impacts. They become publics, who form and act in relation to matters that concern them, and to which we may well need to react.

Taking this back to the personal level, it is seen in how social media have impacted on our relationships. Friends of friends suddenly can connect and take an interest in our affairs. This can be a benign comment or like, or lead to positive consequences. It can also result in harmful consequences. Perhaps this involves invading our privacy in a minor way, or more sinisterly opening us up to possible harm – 20,000 people invading a private party for example. The same ideas apply to organisations online – building a Facebook community may be attractive from a marketing perspective, but it is a ready made activist group if something we do – or are thought to do – incurs a negative reaction.

Something else we don’t always fully consider in public relations is how in the online territory, relationships are often very different from those built in the ‘real’ world. Common approaches to online relationship building are about making as many contacts as possible – with little regard to the quality or possible implications of the company we are keeping. It is all about the numbers or some unproven measure of influence. But the more contacts you have, the greater the potential risk (as well as opportunity) for negative consequences.

In the same way that the horsemeat issue raises the importance of understanding the full six degrees of separation in supplier relationships, so PR practitioners need to assess the nature of online connections – as well as those with other relevant stakeholders, influencers or publics.

We cannot possibly build in-depth personal relationships with everyone in our complex, messy online networks. And even though organisations have always had thousands of connections, and extended connections, these are amplified in potential impact online. Jokes and poor taste, let alone a disregard for convention and legal niceties, prevail online.

Entering this dog-eat-dog world, organisations may be seen as tasty snacks, rather than respected as an alpha dog in the pack. They need PR practitioners who are familiar with contemporary relationship thinking to avoid suffering dog bites online. This means much more than simply collecting connections to really understand the consequences of the company we keep.


The analogy of dog bites in this post is not meant to belittle the serious impact of canine attacks

Is public relations out of touch?

backsoonLast December, Judy Gombita wrote about the pressures on PR practitioners and social businesses to remain in touch throughout the traditional Western holiday season – or at least to provide information on their availability.

One year on, and it seems most PR people are out of touch at this time of year. Their email bounce backs indicate in some cases, they are away from the office for up to three weeks. Indeed, the holiday period seems to stretch from Friday 14 December to Monday 14 January.

Of course, email is only one element of PR communications and many people work in teams, so share cover. But there’s a distinct impression that even with the advent of social media, public relations is largely out of touch.

The latest news on PR Week is around one week old now. The most recent posts at PR Moment are even older. Does this indicate an acceptance that there’s no point in talking with PR practitioners once the party season kicks in?

When I began working in PR around 20 years ago, I viewed the period between Christmas and New Year as a key time for reaching people. Back then, it meant preparing ideas in advance which the media could fit into their schedules. When I worked for a vehicle breakdown company, we issued fun seasonal stories, various weather related driving facts and advice, or reviews and forecasts, for example.

When mobile phones became more common, it was possible to have out of office contact (before then, it was usual for home numbers to be included in releases or provided to key media). Email made it possible to issue stories even when away from the desk (rather than relying on unpredictable Christmas post). Laptops and ftp enabled uploading of topical stories onto the internet.

Today we have the immediacy of social media – always on, demanding hyper connectivity from PR practitioners, or so we are led to believe. Perhaps this time of year provides a valuable silence, which I wrote about at PR Conversations in September. We all need to relax, get away from the everyday pressures and allow for calm reflection. Silent night – or a month maybe – without the cacophony of PR communications?

However, Twitter (or Instagram) shots of ‘celebs’ in their Christmas jumpers, onesies or swimwear on Caribbean getaways, shows this shade of PR has not taken a break.

Our marketing colleagues have also tapped into the shopping season. There was a seamless shift from advertising (offline and online) Christmas gifts, to last-minute vouchers, to Christmas day online shopping opportunities to full blown Sales. Promotional PR ran alongside this linear process.

Undoubtedly – or hopefully, crisis plans are in place should PR be called upon to handle some unforeseen issue over this period. The crush of meetings before the wind-down actioned planning and budgeting for 2013. Some PR people will be in the office catching up or looking ahead, making good use of this quiet period.

Others will be working in countries where the year end/start is business as usual. This is increasingly important in a 24:7 interconnected world. We need to be aware of the holiday periods in different parts of the planet. Many of these now extend into holiday weekends, providing opportunities for engagement rather than simply staying out of touch.

There are arguments both for and against a rest over the festive season – although it seems a contradictory modern phenomenon to go slow for up to a month when globalisation, multi-cultural communities and social media challenge us to be ever available.

I’ve always felt that PR blurs practitioners’ personal and professional lives, but I’m not clear whether I am out of touch given the tendency for many to be literally out of touch over the holidays.