What’s the shelf life of the PR selfie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Au revoir Roquefeuil – the psychology of place


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Friday 13th – why luck and hard work are not correlated in PR

peppie-thumb.jpgAccording to superstition, Friday 13th is an unlucky day. This suggests that luck is something that is outside our control – a deterministic force that sets out our destiny or fate. Luck can also be seen as the result of chance, with a feeling that some people are more likely than others to achieve fortunate outcomes in life.

In contrast, there’s the statement (attributed to various people in different forms) that the harder you work the luckier you get. Here, luck is seen as directly in our control with good fortune correlated to the effort we put into achieving our goals.

In public relations, working hard often equates to a long-hours culture; where again the ethos is that effectiveness is related to time served rather than outcomes achieved. This seems a good time of year – within my 12 Days of Christmas series of short posts – to consider working hard and good fortune in PR. At the end of 2013, more and more PR practitioners appear to me (anecdotally at least) to be clocking up more and more hours. If true, this may be the result of social media extending the working day, cutbacks in resources, greater expectations on what PR can achieve, fear of being seen not to be chained to the desk or, as lifehacker considered, one-upping over being busy/slammed/buried by work.

So are PR practitioners luckier as a result of their increasing workload? Is the strategy of trying to do more and more in the fixed time we have available (we can only stretch as far as 24 hours in any day or 7 days a week) paying dividends?

I am not convinced it is. What is likely to happen is that stretching ourselves in this way is counter-productive (something that Sheryl Sandberg notes in her excellent Lean-In book – as recommended to me by Judy Gombita). Another lifehacker piece discussed the Cult of Busy and how complaining about our stressful working lives doesn’t change anything. Indeed, as the article notes, one consequence of being ultra-busy is that time spent with such people feels unsatisfying. I support the advice offered in terms of “press pause” and “do less and feel more joy”.

Also, there are certainly technologies and other tactics you can employ that may help you become more organised and achieve more in the time available. But this is a short-term fix, especially if you fill the time gained with additional responsibilities.

The cumulative effect of so many individual PR practitioners reporting being busy is likewise not a resolution – or indeed, better luck. In fact, it may be the opposite as we devalue what we do achieve by rushing to squeeze more into our busy schedules.  Our bosses just see PR practitioners rushing round rather than focusing on what we achieve.  How can we make the argument for greater resources and strategic responsibilities when we appear to be rushed off our feet with what we are doing?  Or if we simply absorb the additional demands and make everything look really easy, why would they bother to spend more money within the PR function?

What we do is worth taking time over, doing right and doing well. It doesn’t need to be perfect (so we can save time there) but it shouldn’t be rushed so that its value is, well, devalued. In PR much of our work is charged for by the hour in one way or another – shouldn’t we instead be measured by what we achieve or the value we bring to our organisations and clients rather than how long, or how little time, we spend on that work?

In the same way that taking a superstitious approach to hoping for good luck is unlikely to be successful, we are not really likely to get luckier just by working harder, nor by working smarter. If you wish to improve your fortune (however that may be determined), you need to consider the best approaches to achieve that aim. Chances are, it doesn’t involve black cats, friggatriskaidekaphobia, or extensive working hours.

Perhaps it’s time to break the worst superstitions of all in PR – that what we do is ‘free‘ and anyone can do it (compared to colleagues in other functions who make rational arguments for more resources before taking on more work), or that everything is achieved, and billed for, by hours spent. To get lucky in PR, we need to show the value of the work we can do in the time that is paid for – anything more isn’t down to luck.

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.

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.

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.