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.

America

ellis-island

I first went to Ellis Island in New York in 1980. This was my first time in America – United States of…

The last time I travelled to the US was in April 2001 when I stayed in New York with my mother to celebrate my 40th birthday. The one place that I really wanted to see again was Ellis Island.

By then, the gateway for millions of immigrants had started a journey of restoration, thanks to public generosity in response to an appeal launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. The Island of Hope, Island of Tears is a modern educational resource, now known as the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

From my second visit, I remember the mix of people representing the myriad of races and nationalities that comprise the history of US immigration. Barely a week earlier, the American Family Immigration History Centre had opened up arrival records to everyone.

We watched with fascination the reactions of young and old visitors as they discovered details of their relatives on the new electronic database recording details of 22 million immigrants, passengers and crew members who had been processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.

I’d been to the US several times in the intervening years but the first and last of my visits are the most memorable.

When I started University in 1979, my room was next to an American spending a year in England. She lived in New Jersey and studied at Boston University. We became friends and she invited me to visit her family and the University. My parents managed to find the money for my airfare believing that this would possibly be my only chance to visit America.

I experienced a country that was both inspiring and depressing in equal measure. I remember huge shopping malls, noisy television gameshows, the thickness of McDonalds’ milkshakes and themed restaurants. I recall being bombarded by questions by people who were fascinated to meet someone British. They wanted to hear news of the Iranian hostages.

Their interest spoke to the concerns of a nation in a presidential election year that Ronald Reagan would win on a promise of restoring confidence, with a slogan of Let’s Make America Great Again.

After spending a few days with my friend at BU, I returned alone to New Jersey by train. This meant making a change in New York, at Grand Central Station. I was 19 years old and New York public transport had a somewhat gritty reputation. I was bewildered by the crowds of people rushing purposefully around me as I stood with my small blue suitcase like Paddington Bear trying to locate my connection.

A man wearing a suit came up to me and asked where I was headed. He gave me his briefcase and took my luggage. Quickly he took me to the right platform and disappeared into the crowds. The good side of New Yorkers.

This memory of a fleeting moment makes me think of the disorientation of those arriving in a strange country. Of trying to find your way and being unsure who to trust.

The Ellis Island that I’d visited a week or so earlier taking a ferry from New Jersey had conveyed this feeling through its haunting decay. Standing in open halls amongst the remnants of furniture, paperwork and peeling paintwork, I could feel the ghosts of millions of hopeful adults and children seeking a new life.

Shuffling in lines after an ardurous journey. Climbing the stairs of separation. Fearful of a cough or other indication of illness that would attract a chalk mark and an immediate return voyage. Surrounded by noises and smells of different cultures. Holding fast to precious dreams of the wonders that America may offer to those willing to work hard for a new future. The respite it would provide to these huddled masses.

A sense of the powerful decay of Ellis Island that I witnessed in 1980 can be gained from the stunning photographs of the Hospital Laundry building which completed its restoration last year.

Of course, immigration remains a global issue and January 2017 will be marked in history for President Trump’s suspension of the US refugee programme and plans for ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants.

America – particular the US – has a long history of immigration, as does Britain. Regardless of your position on the issue today, we all ought to empathise with the feelings that drive people to relocate – whether in hope or fear. Nothing has ever communicated that to me more strongly than my first – and in a different way, my more recent – visit to Ellis Island.


Image: HR-ART.NET see: https://www.saveellisisland.org

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.

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

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.

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.