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.

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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.

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