Whose PR work is it anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.