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

Dirty Work on World Mental Health Day

wmhd-2014

10 October 2014 is designated as World Mental Health Day – with a focus this year on schizophrenia. A serious issue but one that is using a tactic that is arguably one of the most common in the PR Toolkit.

This approach of the awareness day, week, month or year is used for health, environmental and other important issues, as well as to promote fun topics, or as part of a marketing campaign. Do they work? It depends on what the objective may be, but they are undoubtedly an opportunity to focus attention and have a reason to talk with media, stakeholders and the wider public about a subject.

It is an ‘agenda setting’ technique – that can have a strategic purpose, but may also simply clutter up already congested communication channels. Having a goal of ‘awareness’ is only step one on the road to action. Sometimes, awareness is the wrong focus as people are already aware, but are not taking action. In those cases, generating more awareness is unlikely to be as effective as addressing the actual roadblock to change.

I notice that another PR hook on World Mental Health Day is ‘Tea & Talk’ apparently to ‘celebrate’ the day. The ‘key message’ is: Have a natter. Raise money. Change lives. Of course, we live in a world where every cause has to include a stunt and engaging activity – particularly one that provides an opportunity for a selfie photo or video to be uploaded to social media – and, by the way, donate to our cause.

But I worry that this promotional focus comes at the expense of the bigger aim of understanding and action for the core issue. Yes, it is the superficial attention-grabbing element that may lead to someone thinking about something that they were unaware of previously. Increasingly such elements are ephemeral and need more and more effort to stand out among all the other campaigns, causes and creative ideas.

If you wish to have Tea & Talk to raise funds for Mental Health causes, then do so. But please also consider some of the more serious aspects of this issue.

When we read about global issues such as ebola outbreaks, wars and natural disasters, remember these mean individuals and communities have to handle huge psychological impacts alongside physical traumas.

Closer to home, are we mindful of the mental health issues affecting friends, family and colleagues – and how we can help at times of stress? How do our organisations respond to such matters – from bereavement to suicide prevention, employment of those living with mental health conditions, identifying challenges such as depression or other stress-related problems?

And how about looking within the occupation of public relations? Stress is seen as integral in the job – often treated in a fun way (“If you don’t want premature wrinkles or gray hair, run!“) or as a badge of honour – with event co-ordination and PR executive being #5 and #6 on CareerCast’s list of most stressful jobs, an article at Ragan.com advised: “Pour yourself a drink tonight – you deserve it…”

Really?

Are issues raised by stress in any occupation, including PR, not worthy of more serious consideration? What about alcoholism and drug abuse associated with PR’s ‘always busy and happy’ culture? What about panic attacks, anorexia, coping with sexual abuse, or early onset dementia? Do consultancies consider depression and other psychological impacts caused by termination of contracts when client business is taken elsewhere? Or the financial stress of young practitioners or placement students on low pay just to get a foot in the door? Do we even recruit those who have schizophrenia, depression or other mental health conditions on their CV?

When I wrote a post at PR Conversations, Presenting the shadows of public relations, in July, I included in one comment a reference to a paper by Liz Bridgen of DeMontfort University: Public Relations – Dirty Work? The argument is that PR often undertakes the kind of activities that are considered unpleasant or socially unacceptable. As such, we could expect that mental health problems for those dealing with society’s underbelly as PR practitioners.

The sociologist, Everett Hughes proposed the concept in his paper: Good People and Dirty Work, published in 1962, and building on a public lecture he’d presented in 1948. In society, certain people do the dirty work of others – we may argue this includes some aspects of public relations, but the concept is more often applied to those employed in mental health services. Sadly, those who have psychological problems may themselves have little option but to undertake low paid, low status, unpopular, “dirty jobs” when they are rejected from other work. Isn’t that alone worth thinking about today?

Fiction and non-fiction of Public Relations

Samuel Johnson prize 2014

In June I wrote a snarky blog post on PR Conversations – Should sisters PR it for themselves? My argument was around awards that focused specifically on women which I don’t believe deliver a PR benefit beyond promoting the individual winners.

The prompt for that post was the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction . Today my eye was caught by the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. This is a non-gendered award and four out of the six shortlisted authors are women.

This fact alone should not be notable, and the Guardian highlights the inclusion of memoirs in the title of its report. However, its subhead mentions only the two books by male authors; whilst the Telegraph’s headline focuses on John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins, which “leads a strong field“. To be fair, the piece records that last year’s winner was female, and the chair of the panel is Claire Tomalin, with Alan Johnson MP and Ruth Scurr as judges. Overall, none of this seems to put the focus on gender which is what happened naturally with reporting of the Baileys Women’s Prize.

The six shortlisted books are (in alphabetical order of author):

John Campbell: Roy Jenkins
Marion Coutts: The Iceberg: A Memoir
Greg Grandin: The Empire of Necessity
Alison Light: Common People
Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
Caroline Moorehead: Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France

I like the fact that this prize celebrates non-fiction (e.g. biography, memoir and history) as this form of literature tells a story drawing on real life facts and information. Whist this still involves a process of interpretation and representation, normally in a form of narrative structure, its heart is research and legitimate evidence, even if that is opinion derived from interviews or other people-based sources (presented as evidence, but not necessarily as fact).

As such, it relates to the type of writing we encourage in students when undertaking academic-based assessments. It also should be relevant in Public Relations when producing materials that are intended to inform rather than solely to entertain. Our work should not rely on “unverified supposition, deduction, or imagination for the purposes of smoothing out a narrative“, although Wikipedia asserts this is the case with some non-fiction. It clearly states that if it includes ‘open falsehoods’ it would be discredited as a work of non-fiction.

As an educator, I often struggle when students produce work that makes assertions, claims and arguments that are totally unsupported by any evidence or reference to sources to justify, verify or qualify their work. This suggests a tendency towards not checking sources outside of their academic work. Indeed, I am interested to see a rise of ‘fact-checking’ often crowd-sourced to “sort truth from fiction“. As PR practitioners, we need to ensure that there is robustness and reliability in our work, particularly when it comes to presenting information on which others will be making decisions. We have to be organisational fact-checkers – and I believe should be open about our sources (e.g. including endnotes in media releases and other documents).

This is not to say that I don’t value creativity and self-expression, I do. But that falls more under the remit of fiction which is fine for some communications, but can be problematic when viewing PR as more than simply the production of stuff – content if you like – to get attention. Okay if adopting the classic Grunig & Hunt (1984) PR model of press agentry when truth is not essential, but an issue if you are building a reputation as a credible and reliable source.

Elsewhere, the Telegraph reminds us of this publicity-based approach to PR, as today is Super Thursday (when 315 hard-back books are released). This is a creative device involving promotional activity to generate as much interest as possible ahead of the Christmas book market.

The Bookseller reports this is the first year where there has been a “trade-wide acknowledgement of Super Thursday as a national book event“, culminating in Big Bookshop Parties on Saturday. I find it interesting in this article that there is acknowledgement of the media interest in the concept since it was first identified apparently in 2008. However, it is claimed it did not benefit bookshops. This suggests that PR activity was acting in isolation by simply generating coverage and interest, but not being co-ordinated with sales, marketing and distribution. However, it is also puzzling that the piece includes complaints that the focus on this short period causes issues for bookstores who are unable to cope with the demand that is generated. When connected to the sales boost noted for Super Thursday periods over the last six years, clearly the PR activity is stimulating a behaviour i.e. purchase of books. This must mean the winners are the online book retailers, perhaps not surprisingly given the ease of finding and buying through the internet, and mobile devices.

If the PR practitioners behind the Super Thursday concept are working for publishers, they are achieving an outcome if sales of their books are increasing. But if they have an objective of supporting physical retailers, perhaps they need to work more closely with other colleagues to ensure this strategic outcome is met.

In PR we not only need to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in our own work, but ensure that the end result of our work can be clearly assessed in the achievement of verifiable measures not perpetuate a fiction that media coverage alone is evidence of success.

Shame of a blogging PR juggler

juggler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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