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.

Delete and trash needs to be good public relations

Delete-and-trash

Have you ever stopped to count the number of enewsletters or other emails you get from organisations? Or consider their value as PR communications?

Have you ever checked the process of how they are sent – and why – within your organisation? Are they part of your PR communications audit – and do you evaluate the public relationship value that they are delivering (or aren’t)?

Even more importantly, have you ever tried to stop receiving these? Or checked the steps required by your organisation to end an email relationship?

Let me tell you, engaging with the humble ‘unsubscribe’ link is a public relations education.

Most of these emails are not really an indication of a fully formed relationship – I’m not talking about communication from organisations where I am a paid member or where I may know people or care about organisations in some shape or form.

But they aren’t unsolicited either. The majority originate from having registered on a site to download a paper or something else that has been of value, or when you’ve bought something and had to supply an email, or otherwise had a contact, not matter how fleeting or superficial.

Whether we label this as ‘relationship marketing’ or some other contemporary term, the truth is that the approach can quickly become annoying. It clogs up email boxes and rarely offers anything that would be likely to make me take action. But over time, I’ve allowed the emails to keep coming and responded with a 99.9999999% ‘delete and trash’ approach.

But these past few weeks, I’ve felt like I’ve had enough of the daily updates, the weekly summaries, the special offers, the Father’s Day promotions (ignoring the fact my dad died several years ago now), the latest news and all the rest of the malarky.

So I started unsubscribing – or trying to do so. I’m careful to only click on bonafide links so my action has been directed to credible organisations. However, they seem to do their best to prevent me from deleting and trashing our contact on a more formal basis.

Rather than recognising our ‘relationship’ is nothing more than the equivalent of having struck up a conversation with an employee in passing, they are reluctant to let me go.

Like Columbo’s ‘One more thing’ – they just keep coming back.

Are you sure you want to delete these emails, they ask? Just indicate on this multipart form why you want to end things? We’ll do our best but it could take up to a month to stop bugging you. We can collate to a monthly round-up instead, they wheedle… Or they acknowledge your request, but just keep sending them. How many times will I have to unsubscribe before they get the message I wonder?

As Englebert Humperdinck has been crooning ever since 1967, please release me, let me go.

My plea to all public relations practitioners is to check what happens when your organisation sets up a mailing list – whether that is going from a sales team, the marketing function, outsourced or your own PR activities. Surely it isn’t good public relations to never bother to find out if you are being irritating, or whether your missives are valued in any way.

Most importantly, if someone is trying to say goodbye, allow them to formally delete and trash. No hoops to leap through, no bells or whistles to ring or parp, just part on good, professional terms.

Being human – mental well-being lessons for Thomas Cook PR

dandelion-clock

This post started out as a critique of the response by Thomas Cook to the tragic deaths of the Shepherd children in 2006. It supported Andy Barr writing at The Drum who argued a failure to be human, and the FT conclusion that the company mislaid its moral compass in putting legal advice over the paying public.

In reading further about the terrible experiences of the parents, there were many opportunities for Thomas Cook to engage in genuine public relations. Not once did the firm appear to ask what they could do to help or protect the family during this tragedy or in the time since.

But it is easy to point out the limitations in the public relations response, especially when you aren’t on the inside. Critical reflection can be made on the mismatch between the promise on the Thomas Cook website that the company could be trusted and its behaviour when things went wrong. In contrast, the family has shown great restraint and dignity, whilst the company has shown a lack of empathy throughout.

But in thinking further about the case, I recalled a post I wrote last October (on World Mental Health Day) about public relations as dirty work that inherently involves stress and consequently may be expected to cause mental health problems.

It must have been stressful to work in the Thomas Cook PR function these past few weeks. Of course, the pressure is nothing like the anguish experienced by the parents of Christi and Bobbi. However, any human being should have found it hard to act in a way that contributed further to the family’s pain.

Yes, it is our job to protect our employers/clients, but this should be possible to do in a compassionate way. When necessary, we need to be able to advocate harsh truths to those with corporate power to ensure that sensitivity is the first priority. Not being able to take control of a situation or feel comfortable with the decisions of others, may impact on our mental well-being. To handle such feelings of cognitive dissonance, we rely on coping strategies.

In the case of Thomas Cook, perhaps the fact that the company was found not legally responsible dominated discussion rather than considering any moral, or even contractual obligation to its customers. Did collective decision making inure individual members of the in-house group PR, agency and in-house UK PR teams? Do they claim to have been pressured by the lawyers or corporate executives in determining the response – reflecting the narrative found in industry criticisms of PR responses (including Barr); although these may have been co-operative or collaborative relationships. Or maybe those involved are content with the  apologies evident on the company’s Facebook page or can assuage cognitive dissonance by blaming the Daily Mail which has led the media onslaught.

If you are a junior member of the team, however, you may not be privy to what went on behind closed doors, yet it is likely you fielded calls from hostile journalists and read angry comments online. At the least, you were one of the 27,000 global employees likely to have faced comments or questions from family and friends about working for Thomas Cook at a time like this. One wonders whether those tasked with internal communications and media relations were trained and helped to deal with any personal or professional anxieties they may have experienced or just expected to issue prescribed statements.

Ironically, Register and Larkin’s Risk Issues and Crisis Management book from 2008 relates as an example of good practice, how Thomas Cook Holidays handled a fatal coach crash in South Africa in 1999 by focusing “first and foremost on the needs of the victims and survivors of the crash and their families”. This suggests the stress of crisis management can be ameliorated by a value-driven response.

Perhaps the change in approach is cultural. It was only in March this year, that Thomas Cook announced it was using the Exonaut Risk and Incident Manager tool to “manage all forms of risk” including reputational in accordance with the international ISP 31000 standard. Such systems should help in decision making, although they can also focus on impersonal calculations of organisational consequences at the expense of valuing how situations impact real people.

As PR practitioners we need to be able to put ourselves in the position of others, and have empathy for their situations if we believe we play a role in managing an organisation’s reputation. In advocating ethical, moral, value-driven responses as the “conscience of an organisation” and a “buffer” for others, as CIPR President, Sarah Pinch advocates, it is natural that we will face competing pressures.

Earlier this year, the CIPR State of the Profession 2015 report noted “dangerously high levels of workplace stress” among senior managers in PR. At the same time, PRCA and PRWeek revealed research showing a third of the PR industry has “suffered from, or been diagnosed with, mental ill health”.  Both studies seem to present stress and mental ill health as problems to be addressed, rather than normal human conditions.

It is positive to see stress and mental well-being being discussed as I called for last October. Further, we need to promote positive coping strategies and normalise rather than stigmatise PR practitioners who experience mental health conditions, or feel the strain of workplace pressures. Let’s discuss drug and alcohol abuse within the occupation as well as depression, OCD, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, self-harming, compulsive sexual behaviour, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s and dementia. After all, PR practitioners are active in campaigning around these various conditions and many more as professional communicators. It is about time we publicly recognised our own experiences and take a lead as an inclusive occupation and community of practice.

I am addressing mental health issues and well-being in updating my chapter on risk, issues and crisis management in the 5th edition of the Public Relations Handbook.  When researching this blog post, I have searched dozens of crisis communications texts and whilst emotional intelligence is sometimes mentioned, consideration of the importance of our own mental-well being is lacking.

Within public relations, crisis management is commonly seen as the pinnacle of professional competence; positioned as a strategic role, carrying heroic connotations not often associated with the occupation. Interestingly, while the names of organisations deemed to have handled a crisis ineffectively face public opprobrium (and a legacy label of bad practice in PR textbooks), individuals involved in the situation may find such experiences are career boosting. Being able to share experiences as confessional lessons learned seem to be appealing to future employers, or for appearances as conference speakers. This suggests that the stress of a crisis situation is a development opportunity within a public relations career; something that makes you stronger.

As I wrote in my original chapter, such simplistic narrative tends to create “a mythology of crisis management and limits the depth of analysis and reflection regarding actual practice concerning managing risk, issues and crisis situations”.

Our modern risk society is one where PR practitioners are operating in a 24:7 dynamic global communications environment which brings with it increasing pressures for us both professionally and personally. If we are to operate effectively within such conditions, we need to be realistic about the impact on our own mental health and recognise the importance of what being human means in doing our job.

Election ennui – is PR to blame for boring campaign?

vote

I have a confession to make, finding the motivation to walk the two minutes from my house to vote in the UK General Election this Thursday may be a struggle.

My sentiments are summed up by Brian Wheeler, the BBC’s political reporter who asks: Is this campaign duller than usual?

His critique is that this has been too carefully stage managed, in part, one deduces by the public relations teams around the various campaigns. It has been hard to identify any strong personality politics, let alone dominance of policy in the bland rhetoric from any of the parties.

The pre-election dominance of Nigel Farage in the headlines (UK Independence party) has been replaced with a bit of a fluster over the SNP (Scottish National Party) leader, Nicola Sturgeon. But she isn’t standing as an MP and talk about a Braveheart surge South of the border depends on a complicated mathematical calculation of ‘what ifs’. And one wonders if we’ve all got the heart to get excited in advance about another Scottish result after last year’s independence referendum.

My feeling is that the following four traditional Ps seem to have lost their power this time around:

Polls – it seems we’ve grown weary of predictions around what might happen, as the potential for almost continuous, cheap online surveys has created overload and a real lack of credibility in anything the pollsters may say. You can even use online Poll Trackers to get a meta-analysis of the various results – which still tells you little about how people may or may not vote (if they can be bothered).

Personalities – rather than strong leadership traits or even narcissistic characteristics, apparently most political candidates have had a personality bypass. It’s like the zombie PR and marketing content curators around them have sucked out anything remotely engaging or interesting. And we’re all too cynical to be impressed by pseudo-stunts that lack any genuinely creative flair. Even the raging (or should that be aging) enfant terrible ‘revolutionary’ comic/actor/whatever, Russell Brand, is unlikely to have the influence the media is trying to claim. Likewise, any other celebrity or ‘influencer’ lending their endorsement to a candidate seems like a cliche.

Publicity – the days when you could unveil an advertising poster and make a difference are long-gone. Again, Brian Wheeler has claimed we’re witnessing the death of political advertising. That old favourite, the door-dropped flyer is hanging on, but apart from the occasional graphic-design faux pas, they are largely forgettable. Indeed, a collection of motley printed leaflets only came through my front door, or to be accurate, arrived as impersonalised mailings with the post, in the past week. And, despite social media being touted to be ripe for this election, nothing has really gained much traction. There is hashtag overload – but with little cut-through from any of the campaigns, media stories or attempts to get some viral interest.

Policies – undoubtedly there’s been a dearth of genuine ideology evident in the campaigns this time let alone much in the way of new ideas or even a strategy that might stimulate some voting interest. Indeed, there don’t seem to be many politicians or supporters out on the streets discussing what they are promising (or arguing against). Admittedly I live in a small village in a safe Conservative constituency (there was a Liberal in the seat in 1923, but that didn’t last long). With a population of a few hundred people our votes probably don’t count for much from even a local, let alone a national perspective. We don’t get the attention of a marginal or swing seat – although last time the majority result was cut in half, it doesn’t seem likely to be overturned. The most interesting fact is that the ballot paper will include King Arthur Uther Pendragon (druid campaigner and eco-warrior), who can’t be accused of lacking in personality, but probably won’t poll very highly.

Is it fair to say that election ennui is the prevailing mood of the nation? Is Wheeler right that it all just too safe, and over-controlled by risk-averse PR handlers? Are modern politicians just Cotton Wool Kids – fearful of doing anything that could generate a negative headline or a Twitterstorm?

I suppose it’s not too late for something to jump out and surprise us all, capturing the headlines and setting social media alight with the speed of an ice-bucket challenge selfie challenge.

Not sure that will really matter though. If you’ve made up your mind, it is unlikely to be changed at the last minute. And if you haven’t? Well, when you pick up the string on the stump of a pencil to make your mark for a single candidate, you will decide based on whatever enters your head at that second. Whether or not it will be influenced by anything you’ve seen or heard about in the past weeks, personal experiences or just gut feel is a matter between you and the ballot box.

The important thing is to vote – you may as well exercise your democratic right even if you feel blasé about the whole thing.

Why Public Relations practitioners should ensure they are registered to vote

Votes_For_Women

If you work in public relations in the UK – or are studying the discipline – I hope you are registered to vote, if you are eligible to do so. Today is the final day to register to vote in the general election and participate in the democratic process on 7 May 2015. It will take five minutes and can be done here: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote (by midnight on 20 April).

Here are five reasons why PR practitioners (and future practitioners) should register to vote:

1. Public relations affects society – and if this is your chosen occupation, you are involved in addressing societal issues. It doesn’t matter if your focus is a promotional marketing one, or internal communications, rather than at a corporate level involving issues management or public/financial affairs, your work is political. We seek to influence debate, set the news agenda, and our organisations are likewise affected back by what goes on in the world.

2. The right to vote has been hard-won by earlier generations of activists – and activism is evidence of how public relations can make a difference. Many people in the world are still disenfranchised. Whilst we have the option to choose not to register, and indeed not to vote, to me this seems an abdication of the rights that others fought so hard to secure using peaceful, and sometimes, more confrontational approaches, in the face of the more powerful in society.

3. PR is dominated by women – and women have only been able to vote in the UK since 1918.  This isn’t ancient history. We’re talking about when our grandmothers, or maybe great-grandmothers were born. At the end of the first world war, women over 30 were GIVEN the vote (that means by men!). It wasn’t until 28 that they had parity with men i.e. could vote when aged 21. Voting rights reflect a key step that has enabled women today to do so many things – and will enable us to challenge things we still believe are unfair.

4. If you were born between 7 May 1992 and 7 May 1997 this will be the first time you are able to vote in the UK general election. That means you will be marking a historical moment in your life. The first time I was eligible to vote was on 3 May 1979 – exactly 6 days after my 18th birthday. This was a momentous election as it was the first – and only – time that a woman became British prime minister. Registering to vote for the first time, and then actually voting, is an important life milestone and should be recognised and celebrated as such. We’ve only been able to vote (men and women) aged 18 since 1969. If we would like to see that right extended to 16 year olds for the next election, let’s prove how many of us take our responsibilities seriously.

5. Voting is a way of showing that you believe people matter. Individuals citizens are the foundation of society – not those who can enact or influence power in an unaccountable way. You may not live in a swing seat and under the current electoral system, you may feel that your vote doesn’t count as your chosen candidate is unlikely to win. But every voter and every vote is an important acknowledgement that politicians are merely our representatives. Whether we directly selected them or not, they are representing us. We matter.

According to the BBC, there are as many as 7.5 million unregistered voters, but over 1.7 million people have registered in the last 5 weeks.

So do check you are registered , particularly if you’ve moved house in the last year. Don’t assume you are eligible because you were previously. Changes in the regulations mean that individuals must have registered themselves (rather than previously being signed up by the head of a household). You simply need your National Insurance number and a few minutes before midnight tonight.

There is probably nothing more important you could do today.

Again, here’s the link:
https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.

A sinister perspective of diversity in public relations

Image: Hand to Hand wayfinding/art installation
Image: Hand to Hand wayfinding/art installation – SEGD Merit Award Winner 2010

I belong to a sinister minority group – I’m left-handed. We make up around one in ten of the world’s population, although apparently, about a third of people are cross-dominant, or ambilateral, favouring different hands for various tasks. I have no idea of the number of PR practitioners who may be left-handed as it isn’t considered a relevant fact in most surveys about the occupation. It isn’t a diversity factor in that sense.

If you are left-handed, on the whole you learn to orientate yourself to a right-handed world. I’ve never been one much for special treatment or left-handed equipment, but there are times when we face discrimination from presumptions of right-handedness (normally for minor matters, such as pens chained to counters).

I’m not equating being left-handed to the far more serious cases of discrimination for race, gender, disability and religion for example. But I am able to recognise ‘the other’ in a world that frequently doesn’t even notice that their way is not the only way.

Of course, things aren’t as bad as they used to be. I was never forced to write right-handed as was the case for many children. But left handedness continues to have many negative cultural associations. We are seen as awkward or clumsy (gauche in French), crooked (mancino in Italian), as linguistically, being left-handed connects to many insults. Indeed, the Latin, sinister denoting on the left side, became connected with malice, ill-will, unlucky, even illegitimacy with the ‘bend sinister‘ in heraldry.

As a minority, I prefer not to join a lefties club and have never celebrated left handers’ day (it’s August 13 if you’re interested) or pointed out those who are famous and left-handed (from Prince William to Barrack Obama if you care).

To be honest, I feel much the same about women’s groups and remain to be convinced that grouping people into various segments or intersections is always that helpful. The problem as I see it, is that segmentation is only a small step away from stereotyping, a term first used by Walter Lippmann in his book, Public Opinion.

Stereotyping is about seeing differences, which can then lead to prejudice and discrimination. Wikipedia‘s entry on stereotypes relates these three concepts as a tripartite of cognitive, affective and behavioural reactions – that is expectations and beliefs, emotional responses and action in response to attributing characteristics to particular groups of people.

Stereotypes don’t necessarily work in a negative way – and, that can be the dangerous thing when one grouping is seen as superior to another and hence gains favourable attention. So the world is set up to the benefit of being right-handed, and those of us who are ‘other’ need to accommodate to it. That’s frequently the case with being female, and any attempt to argue otherwise is negatively labelled as feminist, ignoring the fact that noting discrimination and advocating a feminist perspective is about equality, not favouritism.

Women should not have to be better than men to receive an equal position in society; women should have the right to be as incompetent as men if we’re being equal about things. No-one would ever argue that I should be paid less than someone who is right-handed, and I can’t think of a time when I have ever had to prove I am better than the majority norm because I write with my left hand. But that’s the position often articulated about equal pay and opportunity for women or other sectors of society that face discrimination.

It is quite simply stupid – and often illegal – to discriminate in pay or career progression on the basis of gender (and many other dimensions).

Talent comes in many shapes and sizes and should be recognised and rewarded accordingly.

If we return to the above hierarchy of effects model – we don’t really need a #MakeItHappen awareness initiative or special women’s editions of PR Week to know that discrimination occurs, in PR and wider society. To be frank, communications campaigns aren’t necessary for people to feel it is ridiculous that this debate about work based equality continues some 45 years after the Equal Pay Act became law in the UK in 1970. That only leaves action – and here I don’t mean setting up special groups, holding conferences and otherwise talking about the issue.

Despite Grazia claiming its Mind the Pay Gap Campaign has helped the UK government to introduce mandatory pay audits for organisations employing more than 250 people – this is not yet law and may get lost in the run up to the May general election. It will also not provide insight for the majority of employers, and will rely on public pressure and some legal action when gaps can be proven to be discriminatory.

Actually, as PR practitioners we have a better position than many occupations to address this issue where it matters – within organisations. We have access to information, and increasingly, have the internal influence to address issues. Let’s be corporate activists and investigate pay differentials within our employers and raise the matter with clients. Those in PR consultancies can directly address the matter as there can be little argument about the nature of work here that necessitates parity of pay and conditions.

We should refuse to be the voice of platitudes about treating staff equally until and unless we know this to be true. No obfuscating and rhetorical games to dodge the issue.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published an Equal Pay Audit Toolkit – a useful start although the most important part of which is missing, Step 6 – to implement an equal pay action plan to reach and maintain a fair system.

Intentions are not enough and we should stop side-stepping the issue and start today to pay fairly and equally the men and women that we recruit, and those we already employ. Anything less just wouldn’t be right.

In praise of the amateur in PR

Photograph: Vadim Trunov
Photograph: Vadim Trunov

I tend to refer to public relations as an occupation or practice rather than as a profession (although sometimes I use the term public relations professionals as well as practitioners). Bill Sledzik’s 2010 post Is PR really a profession? sums a lot of my thinking.

In 1969, Goode reported the “industrial society is a professionalizing one”, with sociologist Everett Hughes earlier arguing that a profession was seen as “the prestige show”, with middle class occupations seeking to achieve professional status in part for social advancement with “the collective effort of an organized occupation to improve its place and increase its power, in relation to others”.

I often hear PR practitioners along with journalists refer to themselves as professionals to signal a difference from others. In the case of media contacts, this is commonly to argue against bloggers or others they deem as untrained and amateur.

This superior attitude often seems to me to be misplaced.

I’ve illustrated this post with an image from the self-taught Russian photographer, Vadim Trunov, whose work I think is truly magical. All authors are amateurs until they get that break and become paid once published, although few make enough money to describe themselves as full-time professional writers. Likewise, musicians, actors and artists frequently hone their craft for love whilst dreaming of fame and fortune.

In public relations, it is not unusual to read criticism of those who seek to enter the occupation after studying for a specialist degree with experience and learning on the job often held up as more desirable. Not so much a profession as a group of people earning money whilst practising a craft, perhaps.

Various skills and knowledge employed within public relations certainly can be mastered by amateurs. For example, to gain publicity, change public opinion, secure support, build relationships and enhance reputations. Amateurs in public relations may be volunteering for an organisation (such as a charity or community group), championing a cause or acting on behalf of themselves or others. Their work may be of a high standard – professional even – but they are not PR professionals or likely to associate themselves with the ‘profession’.

But we should remember the etymology of the word, amateur, from the Latin amare meaning “to love”. As Wikipedia notes:

An amateur (French amateur “lover of”, from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover”) is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional or unpaid manner. Amateurs often have little or no formal training in their pursuits, and many are autodidacts (self-taught).

This contrasts with profession as deriving from the vows taken on entering a religious order, or in relation to work, professing (declaring openly) to be skilled in an occupation.

The amateur could be considered as more focused on improving their competencies than the professional who declares their formal identification with public relations. Likewise, why shouldn’t we praise the blogger or enthusiastic campaigner who lives and breathes their chosen passion, puts unpaid hours of effort into pursuing their interests and doesn’t invest energy only when they are being paid?

There’s more to being a profession than seeking status, more to being a professional than being paid, and much to learn from those who are true amateurs, that is, lovers of what they do.

N’est pas?