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?

Be careful what you wish for in your new year PR resolutions

genielamp

A great British tradition at this time of year is the pantomime, a popular form of theatre that tells (and retells each year) a range of family-friendly stories. These tall tales normally include a wish (or three in the case of Aladdin), ensuring villains and bad luck are overcome and a ‘happily ever after’ as the end result.

Public relations could be thought of as a mysterious, even magical, function which uses creativity to help achieve wishes. Sort of like the genie in the magic lamp called upon by Aladdin to grant his heart’s desire.

Often the aim of PR is thought of as an ability to magic up publicity, making people famous, getting individuals or brands talked about, and ultimately helping them to make money. But as with Aladdin’s genie, granting such wishes comes with consequences. We also have to remember that once the genie – and his/her wishes – are granted, they are almost impossible to put back in the bottle.

I’m not against the use of publicity within public relations, but believe it should be used to help achieve long-term strategic goals, not just to add a bit of Tinkerbell sparkle, misdirect public attention away from the bad-guys or to get noticed in a “he’s behind you” obvious way. When the curtain comes down on a campaign, we should think about what happens next – as with Sondheim’s Into the Woods (to quote from Wikipedia), we need “to explore the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests“.

As public relations practitioners, we should be aware that getting media or social media coverage is not the end of the story. Indeed, this tactical approach may not be the best way to achieve a desired outcome – we need more in our toolkit than a magic lamp. And, as with New Year resolutions, we should be careful what we wish for.

Looking forward to the year ahead, I have produced a Guide to using Social Media in 2015 drawing on my experiences leading the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate course (See my post at PR Conversations and course details at PR Academy). I wouldn’t describe my focus on six trends as wishes or even predictions, but looking at where things seem to be heading.

New year predictions can be found readily via any search engine, with CIPR publishing a crowd-sourced trends book #PR2015 (see Stephen Waddington’s blog).

It seems that integration (or blurring as it is commonly described) of PR and other functions such as marketing, is a trend that is predicted to continue into 2015. Indeed, this is the topic of our MIPAA PR Masterclass on 23 January. The theme of The Road Ahead, focuses on increasing congestion, convergence and questions about the continuity of traditional PR, marketing and journalism practices.

Over the past few years, terms such as native advertising, brand publishing, content marketing, corporate journalism, narrative storytelling, sponsored content, employee social media advocacy, brand hijacking and paid/owned/earned/shared media have emerged and highlight the increased blurring and overlap between what were once clearly distinct roads.

What the MIPAA PR Masterclass aims to do is step outside the day-to-day on-stage activities and consider the implications of trends, and identify possible directions of travel to take best advantage of the new opportunities and overcome the barriers to future success.

The challenge comes not in spotting trends, or making predictions, but in determining what these mean and what we should do about them. We also need to be mindful that envisaging the future is not the same as wishing it will come true.

In pantomimes, the happy ending leaves us with a good feeling as we leave the theatre with applause ringing in our ears. A similar buzz can be found in PR when we take our curtain call having supported a successful performance. But where the villains are vanquished or transformed on the stage, our challenges continue, year on year.

That’s why our number one resolution for public relations – should be to think ahead. Consider the consequences of our actions and wishes, and take the time to educate ourselves in the spirit of continuous improvement. If we wish the future to be better than the past, we need to take control of our story and our role in the pantomime. Traditionally fairy tales did not have happy endings and we rarely get to see what happens to the wish-makers in pantomimes. If we believe public relations should take a strategic, high profile role in the face of predicted trends, we’d better do more than just make a wish for this to be so.

Black Friday and the PR blues

black-friday-pr-blues

As  ‘awareness’ campaigns go, Black Friday was an undeniable hit in the UK last week. It has been bubbling under for a few years with Amazon cited as starting it here in 2010, the Mirror reporting £200 million spending taking place in 2012, followed by media focus on customers fighting over bargains in Asda supermarket in 2013 – and Visa predicted sales of £520 million on its cards alone for 2014.

Judging both by the volume of Black Friday promotional emails hitting my in-box and conversations with non-PR people, the concept had certainly cut through this year. Many have reported the event turned into a “PR disaster” – or as it is now known #PRFail – for Asda with round two of the customer brawls broadcast on live breakfast television, and wider negative media and public opinion around a lack of actual bargains being available.

Indeed, some major brands in the US don’t open on Black Friday reportedly in respect of their employees’ enjoyment of a long holiday weekend.

The term is alleged to have originated in Philadelphia in the 1930s or 1950s, becoming a national US phenomenon in the 1990s. Others claim the ‘black’ refers to profits generated by the day. Via PRNewser, are two 1966 pieces uploaded by Bonnie Taylor-Blake:

Cream Consultancy has an interesting blog post: Today is a black day for Britain, discussing the reputational damage to brands – and the contrast of ugly commercialism and the increasing importance of food banks for many charities this year. I’ve observed that many of the supermarkets who championed Black Friday as a spending feast are also holding or hosting collections for food banks.

What gives me the PR blues about Black Friday is how PR practitioners jumped on this bandwagon as a promotional opportunity for any brand (even the Public Relations Society of America offered a deal on membership – hardly the mark of a professional organisation IMHO). Of course, public relations tactics can be used to achieve marketing – and sales – goals, but for me, this should be undertaken with strategic insight. Not only are Black Friday discounts quite tacky in the main, but they also counter the longer-term focus of PR on building reputation, and likewise, for marketing on building brand equity, and for sales in ensuring profitability.

No doubt the ‘success’ of Black Friday is being evaluated in terms of media coverage and social media chatter by numerous PR agencies and in-house teams. They will be arguing for ridiculous advertising-value equivalent figures (or even more unscientific PR value) as they stack up the big data – even in a week where (unsurprisingly) problems in interpreting social media data have been noted. Marketing colleagues will be claiming credit for public awareness and the rush to purchase, whilst sales teams will be touting the volume of business done. Whether or not this reflects profit is another matter. Particularly for retailers who have relied on price cutting regardless of the negative impact on suppliers, customer relations or any of the other factors of a sustainable business.

Of course, it is hard to buck a trend and argue against the excitement of getting footfall and online clicks. But surely that’s what strategic public relations is all about – and if Black Friday means delivering a positive result (as opposed to being in the red), let’s hope a few more organisations boycott the hype and focus on delivering better service to all their stakeholders as we approach the season of goodwill.

I’m already aware of various firms that are planning to cut jobs as the end of year figures come in – short-term promotions are unlikely to deliver the type of financial turnaround that is necessary to avoid more families joining those foodbank queues.

Quirky Liddiment love

RicVic

Introducing Mr & Mrs Ric & Vic Liddiment
Meant to be together, as husband and wife
From a double “I do”
Signed and celebrated
Saturday 8 November 2014

All our world was a stage
Norwich Puppet Theatre
Converted medieval church
Saint James the Less
Apostle, messenger, patron of milliners

Joined in matrimony
Joined by family
Parents made asunder
Rejoined for love

Brothers and sisters
A favourite aunt
Of a favourite nephew and new niece in law
Glorious grandmothers
Ghosts of grandfathers
Rejoicing for love

An audience of friends
No Punch & Judy
No pretence
Real feelings, intense, proud, joyful
That’s the way to do it
The Ric and Vic way

Our man waiting for his bride
Not looking, anticipating
Turning
Eyes full of love, of tears
Grown men and women crying
In empathy and love

Tears and cheers
Applause and laughter
Why falling in love is like a dog
By Taylor Mali
“Love loves you and never stops”
Read by a brother, unprepared
Knowing the joke was on him
On love and owning a dog

Guest @Yohi_The_Dog is missed
Spontaneously toasted in French fizz
In the groom’s speech
Spoken in courage as words are hard
But you are loved and adored
Clearly, consistently
Unconditionally loved

A quirky, personal, lovely tribute
Drained by the truth of love expressed
With humour and honesty
Beards and tattoos
Kisses and hugs

A beautiful, bright bride
Glowing in angel wings and satin
A memory of meeting
A present of stuffed pants
Framed as survival
Life’s battles overcome

Under a heart of lights
Light in our hearts
A perfect wedding
Perfectly planned
By two people as partners

A magical marriage day
Communication of love
I love you both
Mr & Mrs Ric & Vic Liddiment