Normal

What is normal? It is something that is usual, typical, standard, average, unexceptional, routine, predictable, to be expected.

Normal is the way things are done, part of the fabric of society, everyday habits, the unnoticed, taken for granted, culturally embedded.

It defines the benchmark against which everything else is measured. The middle of a normal distribution curve. Average, in the middle, the most common. The mean, median or modal value. The majority view, the most popular, a brand’s cash cow. The ‘cookie cutter’ option – all the same.

It’s an established reputation, reliable, consistent, well managed, authentic, honest, desirable. Dull, uninspiring, mundane, dependable, run of the mill, one of the pack.

Winning or losing – both can be normal. Our modus operandi. Reflexive. Natural. Inherent talent. The result of hard work, hours of practice. What we make of ourselves.

A facade. What others see. Without seeing. Ethical. Unethical. Just normal behaviour – nothing to see here.

The stereotype. Aren’t they all like that?

In PR. In Hollywood. In politics. In fashion. In the art world. In business. In the media. In the past. In reality. In our imagination. In our nightmares. It’s normal. Why are we surprised?

Male. White. Privileged. Powerful. Entitled to harass others. One of the boys.

Female. Black. Underprivileged. Powerless. Subject of harassment. Just a girl. Not one of us.

A role model. An influencer. A victim. A hero. Someone like me. Who I’d like to be. Who I once was.

#MeToo #Notinmyname #Blacklivesmatter

#MAGA #Brexiteer #Remoaner

Stand for the flag. Kneel for equality, freedom. Patriot. Citizen of the world.

Is normal what we accept? What we put up with? Who we are? What we will not allow to define us? Is normal not being abnormal?

We’ll ostracise, exorcise, eliminate, deny that bad practice or bad behaviour is the norm. Will good practice, good behaviour then be normal?

Just like that. Happy ever after. One for all. All for one.

Is our normal a comfort zone or a place of uncertainty? Who creates normality?

Are we all the same? Normal in our difference? Inclusive. Diverse.

Blending in. Standing out.

Is the Other not normal? Not like us? Even when otherness is the norm, the majority?

Why does it seem that the normal is not to be female, a stay at home parent, transgender, poor, living with disabilities, recovered from a mental health condition? Why are these normal experiences made to seem an exception? Even when they are common? Even when rejecting someone’s normality is unacceptable?

Blaming the individual. Blaming society. Blaming those with power, with agency, with control. All to blame. No-one’s fault. If only she, they, he, we…

Time for change. What’s normal for some is no longer normal in society. Never was. Never should be. Change the rules. Abide by rules. Just don’t be disrespectful. It’s not a joke or banter or locker room chat or girls’ talk.

Call your public relations people to craft a narrative of ‘I honestly don’t remember the encounter’,’I didn’t mean any harm’,  ‘it’s an addiction’, ‘sexual chatter’, ‘just old dinosaurs’. Resignation, rehab, mea culpa – sort of. A partial or pseudo apology has become the normal PR-crafted response. Should this really be the norm in PR? Time we refused to play the game? Stop protecting those who forfeit the right to excuses?  Change this time-worn narrative of crisis management?

What is shown as normal become engrained in how people view their own normality. My PhD research revealed an ongoing belief that normal careers involve hierarchical progression, reflecting the 20th century Mad Man norm of popular culture. The fact that this never normal for most of society doesn’t affect the normalised narrative of onwards and upwards.

Rise to the top, accrue power, reward, privilege, the right to do unto others as you wish – no longer do as you would be done by…

My thesis argues there is no normal career. The strategy employed by public relations practitioners is not the professionalised norm that is written or spoken about. Yet, we’re told to aspire to achieve great heights, to look up, to admire – to do what it takes. Claw your way up to a position above, from where it’s normal to look down on others.

I heard career stories where ‘old boys clubs’ and ‘hedonistic macho agencies’ were the norm in public relations. Where some are invited to climb and others are not.

A normative hierarchical narrative is engrained even when individuals’ own experience is different. They feel abnormal, blame themselves, if they don’t achieve the idealised “normal career” that is defined by the experience of the minority not the majority.

Careers for the few are not the norm. Careers for the many are not a tidy linear progress courtesy of one employer. Job for life, gold plated pension, better salary, bigger bonus.

The normal PR career strategy is to craft our way with backstitches, knots, fragmented stories, messy lives.

Yes, for some their career norm in PR may be easy, a good life. For others it’s a gig economy, low waged, no contract, redundancy, obsolete, automated out of a job, outsourced, replaced by the internet of things. Perhaps that will become the norm.

Maybe nothing is normal.


Image: Emoji cookie cutter from Pampered Chef

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.

Personality

chameleon-abstract-378557_640

Everyone is different. Everyone is the same.

As professional communicators, should public relations practitioners focus on individual differences, segmenting people into chunks by age, gender, geographical location? Or categorise by attitude – friend or foe? Perhaps by behaviour – which way did you vote? Are you with us or against?

Stephen Waddington directs PR practitioners towards using data and algorithms, which can be useful. But it can also be our modern day equivalent of reading head bumps for understanding who we are and what we do.

He rightly indicates the ethical dilemmas raised by Derina Holtzhausen. I’m likewise concerned by the implications of people being increasingly divided into multiple, fragmented publics even as we share the same space.

This tension is inherent in my PhD study of career strategies in public relations.

Public relations as an occupation promotes an individualistic model of careers, reflected in practitioner surveys and academic studies that mention attracting a certain “breed of person” and recruiting those with a “good” or “right personality”. Reference to personality is found historically, in respect of contemporary practice, in relation to ethics and within gender studies literature.

A focus on traits rather than competencies can be found in job adverts, anecdotal career advice and silly “personality type” clickbait articles (including this one on the CIPR site “for switched on public relations professionals”: The top five personality types of PR people).

Personality profiling is not just for fun. Historical and contemporary studies of public relations have found that women in particular find their personalty is linked to appearance, and both viewed as “intrinsic” to their ability to do a job. Of course as any misogynistic troll proves, this is an issue way beyond PR though.

In career studies terms, this thinking reflects theories based on matching concepts and personality typologies that emerged in the early 20th century. They speak to the idea of congruence between a person’s characteristics and the requirements of a job or occupation. Despite initial intentions for such approaches to support individual career choice, they soon became used by military and big business as a winnowing process.

Profiling emphasises structural norms of  personality. Yet segmenting public relations practitioners on such superficial grounds when hiring and promoting is problematic for a number of reasons, including:

1. Trivialisation: Emphasising the importance of having a “bright, enthusiastic personality” gets in the way of presenting public relations practitioners as qualified strategic management advisers.

2. Occupational closure: Selecting by personality can lead to recruitment and retention on basis of homophily; recruiting “people like us”.

3. Discrimination: Judgements made on basis of personality may reflect prejudice about the types of people suited to work in, or progress within, public relations; and discriminate against those who don’t fit this notion of ideal fit.

4. Opportunity structure: Public relations becomes seen as an occupation that attracts, and offers opportunities to, certain types of people, which acts as a barrier to enabling greater diversity.

5. Labelling: Some people think, feel and behave differently as a result of personality disorders. It is important to understand mental health issues and how these relate to ability to function in the workplace and wider society. Even light-hearted personality-based labels can stigmatise people who are living with, or who have recovered from, various conditions.

Just because people are different, doesn’t mean that they aren’t also all the same. Just because we are the same, doesn’t mean we aren’t also different.

Focusing only on differences often leads to conflict. Indeed, technologies enable segmented groups to become increasingly divided and potentially dangerously cohesive thanks to the filter bubble of search engine algorithms, social network endorsements and confirmation bias (where people attend to information that is consistent with existing views and avoid contradictory information).

In public relations, we need to be open to difference at the same time as recognising similarities. As an occupation we should be adhesive, enabling different types of people to be able to work and live together.

And, when we talk about personality, as professionals, we should do better than rely on discriminatory euphemisms, outdated profiling techniques, or Cosmopolitan magazine style quizzes.

Kairos and the right time for public relations

kairos-1It is 3333 days since I wrote my first Greenbanana blog post on 21 September 2006. In terms of chronological time around 80,000 hours, 4.8 million minutes and over 288 million seconds have passed.

In numerical terms, this is my 1,000th post – meaning on average, I’ve written one every three calendar days. Although the pattern is less rigid than that – in recent years I’ve crafted one per month, meaning at the start, blogging was more of a daily habit.

I have no idea how much time I’ve spent blogging, but I’d suggest each blog takes an hour (or so) to think about, research, write, edit and finally hit publish. At least 1,000 hours, 42 full days or 6 weeks in 9 years.

Each post has a mean average of 288 views. The most popular post was called PR problems for Santa at Lapland New Forest on 3 December 2008.

The time spent on this blog can be measured and accounted for. Tick tock time as the hands move around the dial, or figures click over noisily or noiselessly in digital time.

In ancient Greece there were two words for time – chronos and kairos.

Chronos gives us chronology – the science of arranging events in their order of occurrence. Our lives are lived in chronological sequence. When we research history (such as for the International History of Public Relations Conference), chronology allows us to locate people and historical events and make connections about what happened when and what else was occurring at the same time.

Public relations work relies on chronometry – the measurement of time, or time-keeping – particularly in PR agencies which calculate the cost of their endeavours for fee charging. Neil Hackworth argues in the new book #FuturePRoof (available as a free pdf) that time is what is sold in PR to clients.

But are the hours spent ‘doing’ public relations what they are worth? Is a mathematical equation all that is important in costing the value of our labours?

Extrapolating across our working lives, time is how we spend our careers. We have a set number of years to dedicate to our life’s work. Only so many job moves we can make in that time. Using the traditional metaphor, how quickly can we climb the career ladder?

In my PhD research into career strategies in public relations, I have used a timeline method in my interviews (drawing on a method developed by Hanne Kirstine Adriansen). This reflects the centrality of time in career studies.

Wilensky’s 1961 definition doesn’t mention time, but it is integral to his statement that career is:

A succession of related jobs, arranged in a hierarchy of prestige, through which persons move in an ordered (more-or-less predictable) sequence.

Gunz and Mayrhofer propose a Social Chronology Theory building on three perspectives:

  • spatial (the social space where our careers happen)
  • ontic (that’s us – as the focal person or career actor)
  • temporal (time to make career transitions across spatial career boundaries as well as changes experienced by the career actor who learns, gets older, gains experience, over time).

But enough about chronos and the march of the hands of time. I’m more interested in kairos. The ancient greeks used this word to signify a more qualitative approach to time. This refers to the right or opportune time. It is surprising that kairos seems to have had little attention in the career literature.

The rhythm of our careers do not beat simply in a metronomic fashion. My research indicates that our experience of time in various positions is not the sum of the weeks, months and years spent. Recollecting the development of our careers, we focus on moments, the right time, opportunistic timing.

In our practice, public relations success isn’t necessarily about how long you spend planning and executing a programme or campaign. Our best work may occur in an instant when circumstances come together and the time is right.

The challenge is to spot the right time for a career move, to know when and how to craft a situation for our work to be most effective, or to take advantage of the propitious moment for our words and deeds.

March writes (in Classical Rhetoric and Modern Public Relations) that the right point of time can “both contract and expand” that we have to be ready and prepared to seize the moment.

In the hectic modern world, we all seem to struggle to find, or make, time. Our lives are spent rushing or taken up by the trivial. Everything seems urgent even when unimportant (to cite Covey’s ‘first things first’ time management grid).

Yet we have the same 24 hours a day that we’ve always had – chronos keeps us on track. But it is in the time of kairos that we are lacking. Where we are urged to be mindful, take the time to count our blessings, reflect and live in the moment.

Many people believe there has never been a better time to work in public relations. We probably can’t say if this is true, because it depends on our personal perspective. In considering kairos we are reminded to look for the right time, the critical moments, the decisive point at which we should act.

Shame of a blogging PR juggler

juggler

I’ve been shamed into writing this post by inclusion on Sarah Stimson’s list of 50 PR blogs chosen by graduates. It is lovely to know that your work is read and appreciated.

But, whilst there’s certainly a good archive of posts at Greenbanana for students and practitioners to dig into, I’ve not blogged here for over two months.

I’ve wanted to write something many times – and have composed some in my head, but never taken the time to type down my thoughts and upload a post.

I’ve been busy – as a freelance hybrid academic-practitioner-tutor-consultant, there’s always too much to do, and even more that you could be doing.

Of course, knowing that I teach at Universities, some of my contacts think I’ve been relaxing and enjoying the British Summer – but a break there merely allows time and space for other commitments.

The CIPR professional qualifications are now a year-round cycle of teaching, marking and supporting students through their assignments. Likewise my role in the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association is a packed calendar of different activities, management and administration – plus new concepts and redesigning the website among other things.

I’ve also been undertaking an exciting client project (more on that soon) which has been hours and hours of work. Being self-employed, I also have to ensure I have a good income to avoid a Mr Micawber situation. Then I have reading for my PhD (and research to start asap), as well as family and canine commitments.

I expect you know what it’s like as everyone in PR seems busier than ever.

No excuses and I’m not moaning as I like to be busy. But I also like to blog.

So thank you all those lovely graduates for including me in your list – and welcome to the new readers who may stop by as a result. Do nose around the eight years’ of posts that I’ve written previously and come back often as I promise that my PR juggling will again include writing here – and more at my other blogging home: PR Conversations. Posts may need to be short and sweet, but never compromising on my Greenbanana ethos of ‘if you’re green you’re growing’ as there’s always something new to learn, do or think about.

Can you help in my search for PR career stories?

weave

Can you help? I’m searching for 20 research participants for my PhD who meet the following criteria:

  • 10-20 years’ career experience in public relations
  • UK based (although may have international responsibilities or travel outside the UK for work)
  • Not well known to me – to avoid any possible complications arising from existing personal or professional relationships
  • Willing to undertake the research stages as detailed below

If you meet these criteria, please get in touch by email: hyaxley@bournemouth.ac.uk, and I will provide further details, including a short profiling questionnaire.

Otherwise, could you please pass my request onto your own colleagues or contacts – by word of mouth, email, social media or carrier pigeon, and ask them to get in touch.

My research project is seeking to identify how public relations practitioners make sense of their career experiences, examine the approaches they use to inform career decisions and determine how they are responding to a changing career context.

I need to reach as many potential participants as possible to achieve my goal of a diverse research population. This includes working in any sector, in-house/consultancy/freelance, varied points of entry and career choices, those who have spent their careers in a single organisation, had career breaks or moved frequently. Participants may be working in any kind of role. Male/female, married/single, parent or not, with a degree or without, happy with their career or frustrated, any and/or all demographic, psychographic or other variable, all are welcome to put themselves forward.

The study involves the following stages:

  1. Invitation to potential participants to get in touch by email: hyaxley@bournemouth.ac.uk to complete a short profiling questionnaire
  2. Identification of the research sample – from the above respondents
  3. Selection of 20 people who will be provided with full details of what is involved in participation
  4. Completion of a confidential, detailed career and personal profile by those who agree to participate
  5. Initial in-depth face-to-face interview scheduled with each participant (approximately 90 minutes in length) at a mutually convenient location
  6. Follow up process of correspondence with individual participants to develop their career tapestry (my chosen career metaphor) from the interview transcript and reflections
  7. Provision of summarised study findings to participants – and completion of doctoral study

This research process with selected participants will start in August and be concluded by end of 2014. So I’m looking for initial responses by 31 July 2014.

The research will be confidential, conducted with full participant consent and subject to Bournemouth University Research Ethics Code of Practice. Participation is entirely voluntary and may be discontinued at any time without consequence. No fee or expenses will be paid to participants.

Thank you for your interest in my research – and I hope that if you meet the above criteria, you will consider participating, or passing on details of my search to those you believe may be willing to get involved.