Researchers

MindthePRGap_Twitter_Banner_TextMind the PR Gap is a new initiative that aims to bring together research and practice in the field of public relations. It is open to PR practitioners, academics, researchers and students.

As I’m involved with the event taking place on Wednesday 12 July 2017 at Birmingham City University, this post is partly promotional. With tickets at £10, it will be a great opportunity to look at some critical issues. More details here:http://mindtheprgap.com/.

Topics for the inaugural Mind the PR Gap event include developing an academic-practitioner PR research agenda, update on the Global Capabilities framework, employability and a series of talking points with action plans that are being finalised.

Besides my own role in the employability session, what I’m most interested in is positioning research as a common denominator between PR practice, academia and scholarship.

Here are five reasons why I think that viewing ourselves as researchers is important, as it encourages us to:

  1. Demonstrate commitment to building knowledge and understanding
  2. Underpin our work with an informed evidence base – and linkage to scholarship
  3. Remain open to innovation and continuous improvement
  4. Develop competencies in critical thinking and problem solving
  5. Apply reflexivity as a professional practice

Far too often there is a failure to foreground the importance of research. For instance, the recent endeavours to change evaluation practices in public relations championed by AMEC, do not overtly indicate how research is required to inform objectives that in turn support measurement and evaluation.

In this regard, the work by Jim Macnamara is a welcome focus on creating an ‘architecture of listening’ in organisations.

Further, it is a weakness in the PR occupation that many practitioners – and too often the occupation’s professional bodies – make assertions and sweeping generalisations that are totally unsubstantiated or supported by research that frankly lacks rigour.

From my perspective of having studied career strategies in public relations in my PhD, I am particularly disappointed to see a tendency to present career advice based on little more than anecdote, individual experience or personal opinion.

Indeed this seems to be the norm in relation to careers, rather than an exception. A recent post published on the CIPR Influence blog is just the latest example.

Its argument that “talent comes second to character in public relations” is lacking on so many levels. From a career studies perspective, it is laughable to see emphasis on the “right attitude”, which is presented as an inherent and somewhat fixed personal trait. Indeed, based on her own research, Professor Anne Gregory has criticised work that lists the personal qualities required by public relations practitioners as “lacking precision”.

The idea that individual characteristics are inherent and unchanging was evident in the career studies field over a century ago. Initially such concepts were developed to help young job-seekers find a lifelong career, not to judge them. We no longer accept that career decisions made in early adulthood are irreversible. Yet other concepts dating from the twentieth century continue to be part of everyday career thinking. This is surprising given that they were derived from studies of the experiences of US males in white-collar corporate roles. Career thinking, Mad Men style!

To then tie fixed trait theory to ethics, trust and respect without any evidence is redolent of the types of attitude that can be found in the historical records of the CIPR held at the History of Advertising Trust in Norfolk.

The historical context reveals tensions and divisions between who was deemed to be the right sort of chap to work in public relations. Those in central and local government looked down on those employed in industry. Consultants were excluded if they worked in divisions of advertising agencies.

Women in PR were commonly discriminated against. In the 1950s/60s, not only were they viewed as dolly-birds but they were expected to have secretarial skills unlike their male colleagues, according to Dr. Jacquie L’Etang’s published research. She also found intergenerational tensions, echoed in my own research into female career experiences in the 1970s/80s, where one participant recalled dismissively that:

“a whole lot of young girls getting into PR roles ran around with Filofaxes and champagne glasses.”

Discrimination is just one of the problems arising from an emphasis on character as a proposed criteria for recruitment, let alone as a marker of ethical behaviour.

Judging character in this way commonly relies on indirect inferences and conjecture. The ‘right attitudes’ seem to be defined as characteristics held by those doing the assessment and hence only people like them match this ‘standard’.

It also leads to absolutist approaches that seek to include some people and exclude others. It creates a narrow cultural base of righteousness, and indeed, suggests a limited understanding of the nature of ethical decision-making. In comparison, Dr. Jo Fawkes’ (one of the speakers at #MindthePRGap) has written extensively on value based ethics.

I am reminded of the Channel 4 programme, The Trial: A Murder in the Family. Despite being reminded that assessment of guilt or innocence should be based on evidence, jury members were influenced by legal spin, personal experience, bias and whether or not the defendant reflected certain behaviour, body language or personality traits that they as individuals deem appropriate.

To return to the Mind the PR Gap initiative, I’d like to see this mark a shift to recognising ourselves as researchers regardless of whether we identify most as academics or practitioners.

A continuum between pure academic practice at one end and functional research at the other is, for me, a loop where the middle is of most interest. This encourages practitioners to draw more on robust academic research. Likewise, it helps academic researchers to realise the potential of their work to connect directly to practice and practitioners.

More research that connects those working in academia and those working in practice would improve our scholarship base, and reduce the reliance on ‘gut feel’ and anecdote.

If you’ve not already booked a place at the Mind the PR Gap event, please check your diaries and come along if you can (http://mindtheprgap.com/). We will also be using social media before, during and after the event. Please follow or like at:


References:
Fawkes, J., 2015. Public relations ethics and professionalism. Abingdon: Routledge.
Gregory. A., 2009. The competencies of senior communicators in the UK National Health Service. Journal of communication in healthcare, 2 (3), 282–293.
L’Etang, J., 2015. “It’s always been a sexless trade”; “It’s clean work”; “There’s very little velvet curtain”, Journal of communication management, 19 (4), 354–370.
Macnamara, J. 2015. Creating an ‘architecture of listening’ in organizations. Available from: http://www.uts.edu.au/about/faculty-arts-and-social-sciences/what-we-do/research/reports/creating-architecture-listening
Yaxley, H., 2013. Career experiences of women in British public relations (1970–1989). Public relations review, 39 (2), 156–165.

Grief

overhandknot

Nine years ago I experienced the depths of grief when my dad died. The words of the blogpost “A private tragedy” that I wrote then remind me of the immediate pain.

I generally don’t acknowledge this “stop all the clocks” moment, when a solid knot was tied in the thread of my life. But I recognise my grief in a sentence by Seamus Perry in discussing Auden’s poem that:

Often the true immensity of love is learned through realising the enormity of its absence.

For me, there’s a silence in grief. Words fail us – and those we encounter in the days, weeks, months and years that follow. Yet we need words to help us reconstruct what we’ve lost. To make sense of our love and hopes and their absence. We are tied to the knot of our loss and words help us continue, with a strand of what’s missing woven into our pastpresentfuturedness.

Talk about loss and grief is having its moment in April 2017. I’m sure it is helpful to hear those who may appear to have everything sharing their experiences of what have been public personal tragedies.

Such expressions helped to inform the Languages of Grief model designed to illuminate the perspective of the bereaved and “the pain of the griever”.

Language of Grief

I think this framework would be helpful for those in public relations whose work involves communications concerning death and loss. This includes those working in the emergency services, charity sector and in crisis management situations, for example.

The Languages of Grief model includes four modes of expression:

  • Verbal responses (written or oral)
  • Nonverbal responses (silent or reflective)
  • Physical responses (somatic or expressions)
  • Physical activities (rituals or objects)

And four types of language:

  • Narrative (storytelling)
  • Symbolism (representation)
  • Metaphor (figurative)
  • Analysis (concretising)

As professionals we should be aware of these dimensions and how they combine to create “distinctive approaches” for communications. The model also considers the importance of being a “skilled listener” by including contingent factors that help us determine the most appropriate response. I contend that empathetic listening needs to be a more central component of public relations strategic practice.

Three types of contingent factors are proposed:

  • Internal factors (personal experiences, emotions and expressions)
  • Interpersonal factors (social support and set of expectations)
  • External factors (the nature of the loss and cultural expectations including authoritative discourse and power relationships)

In public relations practice or scholarship, I’ve seen little consideration of the importance of languages of grief. I suggest that research could reveal the habitus of professionalised speaking by public relations communicators. Also, I propose that attending to the elements of the model would help to develop a more appropriate response framework that reflects the polyphony of human grief encountered within public relations work.

I feel we should also study the biopsychosocial aspects of grief, loss and trauma as part of the recent discussion within public relations around mental health issues.

biopsychosocial

The work of McCoyd and Walter is a useful starting point. They explain how a biopsychosocial perspective helps us consider the biological impacts of loss and grief as well as psychological experiences and social contexts. I argue there are interconnected physical and mental health consequences for public relations practitioners who are involved in stressful situations that may be described using Hughes’ sociological concept as emotional dirty work.

When public relations practitioners are employed as spokespeople they are enacting a role that may suppress their own ability to express emotion in traumatic situations.

Likewise, the culture of public relations work may not allow room for discussion of personal difficulties such as coping with loss. The concept of ‘disenfranchised grief‘ concerns the expected norms of response within a given culture where support of others may be lacking or withheld.

The occupation also needs to allow room for attending to physical health which can be compromised under the pressure of long-hours, an intense working environment and the “emotional labour performed within the job“.

Given the relatively young age of many practitioners working in public relations, there is a responsibility for employers, educators and professional bodies to offer support mechanisms and address any structural causes of unhealthy grief and stress.

Similarly in an ageing society, organisations need to recognise the impact of ambiguous and nonfinite or chronic grief, where loss is uncertain – such as with those affected by Alzheimer’s. Likewise, coping with financial or other problems following the death of a parent or partner add fear to grief. There are many such issues that seem to be of particular relevance to those specialising in the field of internal communications/relations, for instance.

My own research into careers in public relations has identified issues concerning employment volatility particular in the consultancy sector. Further modern careers lack the stability and reassurance provided by the traditional linear corporate trajectory. Expectations that individuals will be entrepreneurial, nomadic, boundaryless and personally responsible for their professional development in an age of decreasing career volition can be immensely stressful. This has potential for a significant biopsychosocial effect on individuals that cumulatively can impact the wider occupation.

There are many strands of grief that affect us as individuals and in our work as professional communicators. We can look to scholarship to understand and improve the frameworks of communications in traumatic situations as well as developing better understanding and approaches to accommodate those who are experiencing biopsychosocial difficulties within, and indeed, because of, the occupation’s working environment.

If you find yourself in need of support to cope with bereavement or other forms of loss and grief, do seek professional help. For example, you could contact Cruse Bereavement Care, the Samaritans, or a charity such as Marie Curie that provides online help. Most importantly, find someone to talk with and don’t go through grief or feelings of loss alone.


References:
Corless, I.B., Limbo, R., Bousson, R.S., Wrenn, R.L., Head, D., Lickiss, N. and Wass, H. 2014. Languages of Grief: a model for understanding the expressions of the bereaved. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine. 2(1): 132-143. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345827/

McCoyd, J.L.M. and Walter, C.A. 2016. Grief and loss across the lifespan: a biopsychosocial perspective, 2nd edition. New York: Springer Publishing. Sample chapters available from: http://lghttp.48653.nexcesscdn.net/80223CF/springer-static/media/samplechapters/9780826120281/9780826120281_chapter.pdf

Other links are provided to sources in the post.

Image: Shinkichi Tajiri, Overhand Knot (1995)

Submission

iPad Wallpaper - 02

When we talk about submitting an assignment or other piece of work, this verb is often viewed as a process, the action of uploading or physically presenting something for assessment.

That’s what I’ve done this week with my PhD thesis. But in doing so, I started thinking about the concept of submission.

We’ve come to think of submission as weakness. We perhaps picture a dog rolling on its back to show its belly to a more dominant Alpha male in the pack. Or a defeated lion slinking off after losing a fight. Does submission means walking away from arguments or losing out in negotiations? Submission is for losers? Losers who are subjugated by winners?.

The word submission derives from the Latin, submittere. Its meaning relates to presenting for judgement.

Submission means asking others to assess us and our work. Presenting to people with the authority to judge – who are qualified to come to an informed decision.

There is a responsibility in such judging. This is not about being vindictive or seeking to humiliate as we often see with television talent shows.

When we submit to such assessment we are hoping for a fair hearing. We view those who are expert in making decisions as having opinions that are worth listening to. We trust them.

As such, it is a mark of achievement to receive a favourable outcome from our submission.

The same is true of the dog on its back. It is asking the other dog for permission – to use its power wisely, to be merciful in judgement. In fact, to go further the dominant dog is being asked to take responsibility for the dog that has submitted. To take account of the implications of its judgement.

As well as having my PhD thesis submission assessed, I have been asked to review the 2016-17 Behindthespin #bestPRblogs by Richard Bailey. I have the responsibility of selecting a winner from a shortlist of exceptional young PR bloggers. Moreover, as the first female judge of the four year old initiative, I seem to have an additional responsibility. There’s an implication that my assessment may differ from the previous male judges.

Yes, I bring a feminist perspective to my review of the submissions, but the only thing that affects my decision is the quality of the blogs. Not my gender or that of the shortlisted bloggers. That’s not to say that gender is not a factor in the quality of the blog posts, as I would expect the writers’ personalities to be evident in their work. I favour insight, integrity, intelligence and imagination. Those are gender neutral characteristics, but flavoured by individual identity.

My view is that in submitting their work for consideration, these talented students are not demonstrating weakness. I trust their strength of character will be evident in the work they present as their public face through their blogs. They are responsible for the submission they have constructed. I take responsibility for judging this fairly. Likewise, I take full responsibility for the work that I have submitted .

In life we are constantly submitting ourselves for others to judge. At the same time, we pass judgement all of the time.

In doing so we have a responsibility for ourselves as well as others. Or rather, others have a responsibility for themselves as well as us.

Of course, there are some things to which we should not submit. Many times when we should stand up and talk back rather than be judged in a way that is unacceptable. In such cases people may think that it is a sign of toughness to be able to take criticism. But it is not.

True character is evident in the things that we will not put up with. Whether that relates to when people judge others or when they judge us. Submission is not weakness. When enough is enough, the bravest are those who reject the opinions and behaviours of those who are unfit to stand in judgement.

This week I’ve experienced the lightness that follows from submitting your work for judgement. I’ve also witnessed the relief that results from walking away when others are not worthy of making judgements. Either way, submission is strength not weakness.

Understanding

word-understanding

This is the first in a series of posts with one word titles. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are over 600,000 English words, with new ones added each year.

Word: A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing

Any professional communicator needs to be aware of the meaning of the words they choose – and seek to understand the meaning intended in the words chosen by those with whom they communicate.

Comprehension, the ability to understand, is both vitally important, and a never ending process. It should be our basic learning outcome and the focus for continuous professional development.

We study comprehension when learning to read, or mastering another language. We question, what does this word – or digital code – mean? Semantics is at the heart of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Words are symbols, signifiers, they may be socially constructed, and have specific meaning in a particular time or place. They can be fluid and deliberately twisted. They can heal, or hurt. They are powerful things.

As a professional educator, I’m always asking students: “what do you mean?” and focus down onto individual words to clarify why it was chosen and used in a particular context. It is critical that the person assessing a student’s work understands what they mean.

This doesn’t mean a communicator has to dumb down, although simple words can communicate with great clarity. At other times, understanding particular words can be difficult, even though they are the right choice in the context. Putting in the effort to comprehend such words is essential if we are to be able to explain our thinking and arguments. I’m not talking about being pretentious or obfuscating, but simply recognising that there are less common words that have a place in the lexicon.

Understanding may require intellect, thinking and judgement. It may also occur intuitively – without much thought, when we rely on emotions, or familiarity and immediately empathise and understand.

In their paper: The role of comprehension processes in communication and persuasion (subscription or academic login required), Wyer, Jr. and Shrum focus on cognitive processes rather than literal meaning of a communication.

They consider how verbal statements (written or spoken words) can spontaneously create a mental picture, but linguistic coding of pictures requires time. That is, words can trigger immediate visualisation, but we need longer to process what we see before translating this into words. In addition, both recall of a narrative and emotional reactions are affected by the mental imagery generated by particular word choice.

Words have power in stimulating visualisation, although that means we tend to rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) in forming understanding. In contrast, when faced with an image, we may not be able to find the words to express our understanding immediately.

We may understand that a picture paints a thousand words – but perhaps also need to consider that a thousand words (or even just one) can paint a very powerful image.


Image adapted from original via: http://dryicons.com

Is it time to step away from the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations?

pot plantsIf you’ve ever read a public relations textbook, you’ll be familiar with the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations. Those who’ve studied a PR qualification will have written essays on the construct, even squidging it into papers where it wasn’t necessary because it has to be included, right?

No – there’s more to the scholarship of public relations than this framework originally published in 1984. Grunig’s own work has moved on through the Model of Excellence studies, conceptualisation of generic principles and specific applications for public relations, and more recently into consideration of two ‘competing theories’ of the symbolic, interpreted paradigm and the strategic management, behavioural paradigm. This work has all been related to the ‘age of digitalisation‘ by Grunig in 2009 (including a great ‘infographic’ originated by David Phillips).

Clearly there’s more to Grunig than the four model framework of two one-way models of communication (press agentry, public information) and two two-way models (asymmetric and symmetric). A fraction of the attention it is given has been devoted to Grunig’s Situational theory of publics, which in my view is a more interesting concept echoing the work of Dewey and Blumer.

But educators, students and even seasoned PR practitioners such as Stephen Waddington (who wrote his CIPR Chartered Practitioner paper on Grunig and digital communications) hone in on the 30+ year old framework.

Indeed, as we have our biggest ever intake for the CIPR qualifications at PR Academy starting this Saturday, the framework will undoubtedly be introduced to dozens more practitioners as students.

Of course it’s had its critics – and there’s a Pavlovian response in presenting these whenever the two-way symmetrical model is mentioned. But rather than liberating PR scholarship from the four models, the critiques appear to have anchored the framework further into the text books as a dominant paradigm. In education, we teach the four models to students who have never heard of them, and then we offer up critiques. But their central position remains the hub around which students’ understanding of PR theory remains.

PARADIGM: In science and epistemology (the theory of knowledge), a paradigm /ˈpærədaɪm/ is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field. Source: Wikipedia

The Grunig & Hunt construct needs to be put in its place within a rich body of work that existed before, and has developed after, the four models were presented in 1984. That place is not as the fulcrum around which to lever open a theoretical underpinning of public relations practice. Rather than being positioned as the ‘best’ way of examining or explaining public relations, it is just one of many options within our academic and practitioner toolkit.

It shouldn’t be placed at the beginning of a student’s journey into the academia, nor be the only thing that is remembered at the end of a course to apply to the day job. It fits somewhere in the middle – but not the centre – of a substantive range of theories, models and ideas that stretch way outside the boundaries of public relations texts.

My call to step away from the models isn’t because they lack relevance, it is that other concepts offer greater, or at least, further potential for interesting and fruitful exploration of the links between PR academia and practice (a topic that is the focus of a CIPR Facebook ‘Community of Practice ‘group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/1536282756627129/).

To return to my favourite rhizomatic metaphor, the four models sit like a neat row of little pot plants where we need to get our hands dirty in the wider public relations field, which offers many interconnected and varied roots, flowers, fruits and weeds worthy of our attention.

Public Relations is a tradition of practice

brains

I’m very interested in how we think about and study public relations – and how this conceptual understanding connects to what we do in practice.

I believe in questioning the accepted wisdom, arguments, actions and assumptions that are inherent in public relations practice (and theory) using reflective and critical thinking.

Only by being mindful of what underpins our theorising and behaviours can we know what works well, what needs improving and what we should stop doing.

In academia, such an approach reflects a tradition of interrogating ideas and theories, research and opinion – even, or perhaps that should be especially, our own.

In sport, science, medicine, engineering and many fields, this idea of seeking to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘how’ informs practice.

This does not necessarily mean that we have to dive deeply into theory, although we should at least know that public relations has a substantial body of knowledge to draw upon. Many studies are intended to be highly practical, but equally valid is academic work that helps to stretch understanding – and critical examination – in different directions.

Psychiatrist, Professor Steve Peters illustrates the linkage when discussing his Chimp Paradox model, which has been credited with contributing towards the success of British cycling.

A model is not pure scientific fact or a hypothesis. It is just a simple representation to aid understanding and help us to use the science. It may also help us to make sense of how we have been in the past, how we are now, and how we can manage ourselves better in the future.

The public relations tradition of practice however, has tended to be skeptical of theory, academia and scholarship, deeming it to be irrelevant impractical, out-dated and too intellectual.

Indeed, many practitioners prefer to draw more on their own experience, and that of others, alongside narrative examples of practice, rather than analytical and objectively-researched case studies, theories or even more representational models.

Consequently, ‘laws’ of public relations practice are commonly derived from, and advocated on, personal beliefs or single examples; with little consideration of the specific or situational aspects pertinent to the social, organisational or temporal context of the particular case.

This means the tradition of practice is a story-telling one, built around the ‘truths’ of particular examples. This tends to mean relying on recollections and the fallibility, or selective interpretation, of memories. Or presentation of examples to illustrate particular ‘lessons’, much as we seen in mythology or parables.

Scratch the surface of ‘rules’ of crisis management and you’ll find these are predicated on the tale of the Tylenol tampering case from the 1980s. Over several decades, this example has been crafted into an exemplar narrative of how crisis situations should – indeed, some argue, how it must – be handled. This ignores the nuanced reality of that case, let alone differences in circumstance for other  crises that may well necessitate alternate preparation or response.

I am bemused that the PR tradition of practice commonly promotes prescriptive rules of engagement or operational norms, yet routinely rejects study of theory.

If you are arguing in favour of a ‘best practice’ approach, you should be prepared to work out hypotheses or propositions that can be assessed to confirm the validity – or otherwise – of the recommended courses of action.

That’s essentially what a theory does in going beyond describing what practice is (or should be in the view of certain people) to include ideas and theses that help to explain the practice, and make predictions for future action based on evidence and/or logical deductions or inferences.

Theory should not be viewed as absolute and fixed, but is open to challenge, development and change.

Further, theory can be developed around situational variables, offering more nuanced insight into practice. Indeed, as a qualitative researcher, I support interpretive and other research approaches that enable in-depth examination of subjective experience. However, this is still a robust process not simply anecdotal reportage.

Many other disciplines build practice on a tradition of theorising, studying an existing body of knowledge and gaining qualifications.

Public relations continues to advocate construction around learning ‘on the job’ (i.e. passing on the way things have been done previously) or attending ‘how to’ training courses.

Increasingly it seems that Twitter, Facebook, infographics or LinkedIn discussions are viewed as the best way to gain insight into the tradition of public relations practice. I’m all for social learning methods, but there’s more to improving competence than online surfing.

Likewise, guidelines can be useful, but instead of being presented as a single lodestar or exemplars, they can open up directions that may be fruitful to examine.

Public relations is not simply an occupation where we can be trained to do our jobs. Rather we are encouraged to be thoughtful and creative. A broad theoretical underpinning is a liberating platform from which to develop an evidenced-based set of informed solutions and/or conceive original options.

What is missing in public relations seems to be a culture of  reflective practice. This approach is increasingly common in many professions, particularly  education and healthcare.

From this perspective, theorising is seen as part of a dynamic process that is alive to the changing world of practice, and reflective, critical and analytical thought. It is open for debate and discussion within the community of practice as well as the scholarly literature and the spaces between the two.

This ‘middleness’ space between academia and practice is inhabited by models that are systematic representations to help us to understand the world, explore concepts and clarify complexity – although they risk being oversimplification of reality.

For example, here is a simple model to illustrate a conceptual framework of how PR is, and should be, practised:

PR practice

Of course all the elements of PR practice cannot be readily placed into one of these four categories, and it is undoubtedly a matter of debate what should go where. But that’s the point. The model offers a technique to facilitate discussion and reflection on the tradition of practice.

Viewed as a reflective tool, we can consider traditional, contemporary, emerging and potential practices and viewpoints and map these onto the model.

Critical and reflective thinking allows consensus, differences of opinion and situational considerations to be considered. Research can also be undertaken to assess the typology, and accept, adapt or reject it on the basis of evidence.

Applying such conceptual frameworks and critical thinking encourages practitioners to:

  • Shape the research they employ in investigating a situation or informing a campaign
  • Analyse possible causes or limitations in tackling problems
  • Challenge habitus (ingrained practices and dispositions)
  • Understand the context of their work, and others’ frames of reference
  • Develop an evidence based practice
  • Identify a range of approaches to address issues
  • Contribute strategically to decision-making and planning processes
  • Structure credible arguments for practical recommendations

As an example, an analysis of media discussion earlier this year around mitochondrial donation (commonly termed the ‘three-parent baby’ issue) suggests a number of ways of thinking about the topic:

scientific, medical, healthcare, procedural, ethical, religious, economic, political, legal, socio-cultural, humanitarian, historical, personal, rhetorical and so on.

Each of these individually, and through comparison and synthesis, suggest conceptual frameworks that can be evaluated and considered in researching the narrative and arguments being made by others, helping us to establish an informed position, and recommend a response. Or they may suggest a gap or new way of looking at the issue.

The concept of ‘tradition of practice’ is one that I came across within the anthropology and healthcare literature. To my knowledge, it hasn’t been applied to public relations, but I am interested in exploring it further. In these fields, a large body of theoretical knowledge has been accumulated, but it is acknowledged that learning does not take place exclusively in the classroom.

Systematic and critical examination of the way things are done, using a variety of conceptual frameworks and theoretical perspectives, can both encourage and challenge a more improvisational, intelligent practice.

The idea is to better connect how we think about, and how we practice, public relations. The goal is to pass on a tradition of practice that is enhanced by virtue of combining the strengths of reflective, critical insight, with real-world experimentation and application.

A brainiac guide to digital and social media trends

brainiac-guide

Keeping up to date on digital and social media trends is a challenge given how fast the online environment develops and changes. One minute we may feel confident in using various technologies – the next, we hear about something new, and aren’t sure how, or indeed, whether, we should be using this in our professional or personal communications.

Helping communications practitioners improve their digital communications and social media self-efficacy – essentially how confident someone feels to enact behaviours online – is one of my goals as course leader for the PR Academy Social Media and Digital Communications Certificate.

So, six months ago, I produced my thoughts on six social media and digital communications trends for 2015 – drawing on the core areas that we cover in the course.

As we take a student-focused approach through our online learning portal, and accompanying workshop day – we are able to accommodate such trends into to the six core areas that we cover. This enables students to add the latest knowledge to their existing understanding (at whatever level that may be), and apply a reflective approach in assessing and applying what they feel will improve their competencies and improve the impact and effectiveness of their organisational communications.

Ahead of the next course starting in September, I have taking a half-year look at what’s going on in the current online climate and again used the six core areas as a framework, to produce A Braniac Guide to Digital and Social Media Trends:

1. Smart Personalisation of trusted, shared news

Online behaviour and social network recommendations are increasingly personalising the reach of stories offering new opportunities, and also threats, for professional communicators in getting their news out. As one example, the redesigned Pulse news reader shares professionally-relevant “news bites” that are driven by trusted contacts, and users’ LinkedIn behaviour such as reactions in saving or removing stories. Understanding how individuals interact with such personalised news digests, highlights barriers in trying to change attitudes, opinions and behaviours, but provides great opportunities to increase communication traction within trusted networks.

2. Trendiness & 4Ts – techniques, tools, technologies, terminologies

Social shopping tools are undermining some of the biggest online brands with photo-led, friends-focused, independent mobile marketplaces offering fun alternatives to the monolithic ebay and Amazon. Backed by technology incubators, venture capital and crowd-sourced funding, relatively recent start-ups such as Depop, Wavey Garms, Polyvore, Chictopia and Vinted are growing quickly as the places to learn about new products, ideas and trends, get advice and trade with like-minded others, and enjoy user generated editorial and banter. They also enable professional communicators to reach and research subcultures of online users, and their new influencers.

3. Netnographic multi-dimensional profile research

We’ve all heard of ‘big data’ with huge volumes of quantiative data generated every second online. But netnography, ethnography on the internet, is revealing some unexpected trends by offering rich qualitative insight into online discussions. For example, researchers have identified a lively and growing group of older adults discussing sexuality issues. With pension-age transgender Caitlyn Jenner, breaking the Twitter record to reach 1m fans in 4 hours, here’s proof that being a digital natural is more about mindset than age. Applying a netnographic approach in a profiling playbook enables a more developed understanding of those we are looking to communicate with online.

4. Attributing value from strategic planning

Let’s talk about attribution, the search to identify the exact value that each element of your digital communications – or indeed any supporting offline activity – is having. You may know something is working – but finding out exactly what is the most effective, or where the biggest return for budget spend can be found is proving increasingly difficult owing to trans-media and device-swapping behaviours. Two planning aspects are essential: setting up Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and investing the time and resources in analytics (much of which can be accessed for free). Big budget brands are praising ‘people-based” technology such as Facebook’s Atlas mobile ad platform. But it’s not just about tech, as attribution needs communicators to break down silos, identify touch-points when outcomes can be credited and ensure an overall ‘lifetime value’ (LTV) metric is included in the strategic plan.

5. Content leadership depends on trust

To Pay or Not to Pay is the big content creation debate emerging so far in 2015. As marketing and advertising experts continue to power their work through WOM (word of mouth) communications, so PR practitioners are securing budgets to integrate social network advertising in their activities. But, it’s not so much about blurring PESO (paid, earned, shared and owned) media as ideas that work – both for the communicators and those who engage with them. The key word is TRUST – with the UK Competitions and Market Authority opening an investigation into manipulation of online reviews and endorsement, brands falling foul of Google’s rules over seeking to game its SEO, and Google itself under fresh investigation by the European commission for favouring its own vertical search products. Can anyone trust what they find online? It’s getting tougher – especially as ‘sponsored content’ challenges traditional editorial independence and integrity. Building and maintaining trust is essential both when generating content, and when evaluating the best channels through which to share it.

6. Risk, issues and crisis management – standing up to online moral outrage

Organisations of all shapes and sizes are being forced to face up to growing waves of moral outrage through social media and communicate with value driven, robust responses rather than knee-jerk, sacrificial strategies. The apparent brutal treatment of the eminent scientist, Sir Tim Hunt by UCL and the Royal Society following a twitter storm over his poorly considered ‘joke’ has led to calls for organisations to kick back against cyber-bullying and online shaming and stand by their principles rather than cave to the baying mob.

Most of these trends reflect that developments in digital and social media communications are building on existing practices, but require continual review and adaptation of these to stay ahead, and apply a pragmatic and informed understanding that is appropriate to the particular organisation and situation it faces.

Click here for further details of the September 2012 PR Academy Social Media and Digital Communications Certificate which is now enrolling.  The course involves an intensive, immersive study period, where learning is derived from tutor-supported activities, independent research, social learning techniques and an individually developed portfolio assignment. It combines emerging and established knowledge with a focus on developing insight into strategic, and effective, social media and digital communications, that complements and integrates with existing organisational communications plans.