Public Relations education for free

There have been a number of posts (and Twitter discussion) over the past week regarding the importance of increasing the connection between public relations practice and academia. As someone working at the intersection of these two dimensions, I’m in favour of greater boundary spanning.

Indeed, I am reminded of Miriam Dobson’s fabulous ‘intersectionality: a fun guide” infographic. Drawing on it for inspiration, there are some people like me – we’re Bob – who are stripey blue triangles (or green bananas in my case). We practice public relations and also study its academic underpinnings. Those who are passionate about being stripey (practitioners) often dismiss our academic leanings, or just don’t know about this marvellous triangular world. Then there are those who study the stripey ones and dismiss them for not being triangular, or perhaps they feel their academic insight doesn’t need to be of value to those who are proud of their stripes.

This is silly – those who care about public relations should not seek isolation. Like Bob, I wish that the triangles and stripes could work together. And they can – and do.

Not only that, but there are many totally free opportunities for academics and practitioners to connect and work together to defeat the oppression of public relations (well that might be taking the analogy too far – but…)

Here are some ways in which the stripes and triangles can connect – which also demonstrate you can get a public relations education for free:

Universities offer seminars, guest lectures and other opportunities for those in practice to share their knowledge and experience, or learn from those who are arguably more open about their blue stripey triangular credentials. For example, today I am at Bournemouth University for a seminar by the Canadian practitioner/researcher, Fraser Likely who is sharing his study into how how PR Directors can present the ‘value’ of the function to senior executives. This is free of charge and practitioners have been invited.

Likewise, the University of the Arts, London College of Communication is running a Public Relations Lecture series on Thursday evenings. No charge to hear from Nick Jones (VP of digital corporate comms at Visa Europe), Mark Borkowski (author/media commentator), Simon Redfern (director of corporate affairs at Starbucks UK) and Jackie Cooper (global vice chair of brand properties at Edelman). Places for the first event, on 31 October (17:30-19:00) can be booked via Eventbrite.

Eventbrite is a great place to search for similar events, using the filter for free today brought up 50 events in the UK alone.

Look out also for groups in LinkedIn or pages in Facebook where you can learn about events (often free) and connect with other practitioners and academics. For example, the CIPR Diversity group can be found via Facebook and there are groups with special interests, such as PR History in LinkedIn.

On the academic side, there are facilities like which has a good community of those researching the field, who are very willing to connect and share their work.

You can also find out about work and thinking via social media, where many senior PR practitioners and academics are active – and often even intersect! Several of my students have had success in engaging with academics whose work interests them via Twitter and LinkedIn (or simply using emails found via their academic profiles).

In addition to events and other personal connections, there are oodles of online resources from blogs and discussion forums, to research papers and journal articles. Google books offers a huge library of PR texts that can be accessed for free – which as a published author means no income, but does extend the reach of my work (and potential purchasers). We shouldn’t forget libraries either – in the UK, most will order books for you and some Universities offer free access to alumni or other readers.

There has been a move towards open access in publishing academic work and although this doesn’t apply yet to many journals (as publishers apply a considerable charge to offer your work in this way), there are some excellent online journals that can be read for free. I recommend the PRISM journal which features full-length, refereed scholarly articles as well as commentary pieces, book reviews and much more. Likewise, you can find informed papers and research reports at the Institute for Public Relations site – including some great work on evaluation. On that topic, there are open access resources on the AMEC website.

Most of the major PR consultancies also publish reports, white papers and thought pieces. Edelman Editions is one example.

We can also be imaginative in our PR education for free. Exhibitions in art galleries and museums are often free or relatively low cost with topics that can fire our PR insight and imagination. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the British Library exhibition on Propaganda: Power and Persuasion this summer, and I also missed yesterday’s evening discussion, Challenging myths and understanding society. Both had a small charge, but undoubtedly were relevant in considering public relations more widely than simply doing the day job.

Perhaps the best free PR education of all comes from setting up a blog yourself and developing your ideas around various topics. The act of researching and thinking, connecting with others and responding to comments is very enlightening as well as challenging. I urge all PR students to blog as part of their academic education and professional development. No, I’ll go further and urge all PR practitioners and academics to write online too.

As the historian, David McCullough stated: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

It is hard, it takes time and commitment, but writing, thinking and connecting with your inner (or outer) blue stripey triangular-ness is well worth it.

See also:

Who do you think you are? Respond to the PR Census 2013

PRCensusScoping the PR industry is an unreliable business – but the PR Census (undertaken by PR Week and PRCA) is a valiant attempt to provide some useful numbers and insight into who we are and what we do. That’s why I support the call to complete the census form:

The greater the number of UK practitioners who take a few minutes to participate, the more reliable the data and analysis that is produced will be.

Reviewing the findings from the 2011 PR Census, I summed up public relations as:

dominated by the young and female. In terms of age, only 20% of PR practitioners are older than 45, despite the fact that 28% of the general working population is over 50. Women account for almost two-thirds of the PR industry (64%) compared to 46% for the overall workforce.

It is doubtful that two years on, the PR industry is demographically greatly different – but we will have an opportunity to look at some trends and dig deep into the data to discover if some of the previous findings still hold true:

  • PR practitioners are not a greatly diverse bunch in demographic terms
  • On average, the female respondents had less experience than their male counterparts
  • There seemed to be a black hole of women leaving PR mid-career (and not returning after maternity leave)
  • Regardless of age or experience, there continues to be a noticeable gender salary discrepancy in men’s favour
  • With a relatively long hours culture reported by respondents, starting salaries in PR aren’t overly generous – which is even more important than two years’ ago given increasing costs of undergraduate degrees

If these aspects remain pretty consistent, it suggests little has been achieved since the last PR Census to address issues that should be of concern to employers, professional bodies, educators and practitioners themselves. Rather than simply focusing on where the results from the 2013 PR Census offer an opportunity for the industry to pat itself on the back, more needs to be done to future-proof rewarding careers in the field as the norm (regardless of gender, age, race, class, education, experience, entry point, etc).

Anyone looking to recruit PR talent continues to lament the shortage of really high calibre candidates. There has never been a better opportunity for public relations to secure its ground as a credible, valued professional discipline both as an in-house function and a bought in expert service. This is great news – but we won’t realise the potential, and attract or retain the brightest and best, if we simply use this important research to create infographics and generate publicity for PR.

Who you know counts in public relations – avoiding dog bites online


There is an old proverb that you may know a man by the company he keeps. In public relations, a lot is made of developing contacts and relationships – but less consideration is given to the quality of company that we keep.

Another angle on the proverb applies to organisations regarding the associations that transfer from the company they keep (for example, in supplier relationships as has been seen with the recent horsemeat issue and discussed in Judy Gombita‘s Defining Social PR Byte post).

There are also considerations about how the organisations that PR practitioners work with affect personal reputations – and vice versa. As individuals we can enhance or harm our employers/clients, and similarly, their actions can have a positive or negative impact on our reputation and credibility.

The nature of our contacts is also important, particularly in relation to whether they reflect an equality or imbalance in power. This reminds me of the two ways to train a dog:

  • One is to dominate it and use your power as an owner to persuade the dog to obey your will. The dog will respond, often from a position of fear.
  • The second is to earn the dog’s loyalty when obedience results from respect.

This analogy extends further into times of crisis where the dog that is motivated by loyalty will take the initiative to help and protect an owner. The dominated dog will more likely respond by adding its bite to that of any attacker.

Power is at the heart of many relationships and we need to think about this in the company we keep, whether building our personal contacts or helping organisations develop strategic partnerships. If you (or your contacts) make connections only on the basis of WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), then the company you are keeping is vulnerable to the occasional bite.

This argues for a form of due diligence to be undertaken that considers strategic relationships from a public relations perspective:

  • What are the possible consequences for reputational damage as well as positive associations that can be gained?
  • Can co-orientation exist in times of possible conflict or will fractures occur leading to blame and self-preservation?

As people and organisations increasingly form coalitions to achieve their aims (proxy or collective agency), these issues need to be considered within public relations. Models of PR – and wider management – often look at stakeholders largely from the perspective of a single organization. Within organisations, stakeholders need to be mapped more universally and specifically by function, project and even individual relationships. When working in partnerships, stakeholders need to be considered from the shared position – identifying friends, foes, those with power, interest, saliency and so on.

Such relationships can also be considered in terms of the tangible and intangible benefits (and possible consequences) gained. Drawing on the work of Clark and Mills, we can distinguish between exchange and communal relationships.

  • Exchange relationships: involve a familiar, economic contractural approach where something of value is directly transferred between parties. This may, or many not, be a commercial or monetary transaction.
  • Communal relationships: are non-contingent, without any obligation or responsibilities between the parties.

Interestingly, this communal approach is asymmetric, in contrast to exchange relationships which are by definition, mutually beneficial. This seems to contrast with how Hon and Grunig view the typology, as they reflect a level of cynicism in exchange relationships suggesting people believe organisations only engage with them when they want something in return, and presenting communal relationships as evidencing a concern on the part of the organisation for others. Hence, they present communal relationships as symmetrical claiming both parties gain a benefit, which seems the reverse of Clark and Mills. However, Clark and Mills identify symmetry in communal relationships where the parties assume a mutual level of responsibility for each other, and asymmetry where there is variance in communal responsiveness.

What I find surprising is that there is little attention paid to educating PR practitioners in respect of relationships. The focus of training and qualifications tends to remain on communications, with an implicit belief that being competent in writing somehow equates to building positive relationships. Or the ability to build relationships is seen as personal and intuitive, something that is derived from a certain personality type, rather than a competency to be studied and improved, particularly in respect of organisational relationships.

I believe that the complexity of relationships in a modern, global, dynamic world calls for re-envisioning of the normative ideas that public relations is about dialogical, mutually beneficial communications predicated primarily on a simple, linear interface. Clark and Mills present further models of relationships, such as exploitative and a hybrid communal-exchange approach, and begin to examine various dimensions of the multiple relationships that individuals establish with others. There are many other areas of relationship thinking outside the PR literature that could be considered.

For example, social network theory considers how relationships develop within groups (formal and informal), which means grasping aspects such as culture, status, unwritten rules and inter-group dynamics. This is particularly relevant online where a pack mentality can quickly turn from tail wagging approval to a frenzied teeth-baring assault.

Online, the company we keep is likely to be out of our control. People can choose to associate with us even if we’d prefer they didn’t. When others engage with us or our organisations, we become connected to a wider network that extends the reach of influence, but also potential harm. Such contacts may increasingly assume a level of interest and indeed, power, that can have major impacts. They become publics, who form and act in relation to matters that concern them, and to which we may well need to react.

Taking this back to the personal level, it is seen in how social media have impacted on our relationships. Friends of friends suddenly can connect and take an interest in our affairs. This can be a benign comment or like, or lead to positive consequences. It can also result in harmful consequences. Perhaps this involves invading our privacy in a minor way, or more sinisterly opening us up to possible harm – 20,000 people invading a private party for example. The same ideas apply to organisations online – building a Facebook community may be attractive from a marketing perspective, but it is a ready made activist group if something we do – or are thought to do – incurs a negative reaction.

Something else we don’t always fully consider in public relations is how in the online territory, relationships are often very different from those built in the ‘real’ world. Common approaches to online relationship building are about making as many contacts as possible – with little regard to the quality or possible implications of the company we are keeping. It is all about the numbers or some unproven measure of influence. But the more contacts you have, the greater the potential risk (as well as opportunity) for negative consequences.

In the same way that the horsemeat issue raises the importance of understanding the full six degrees of separation in supplier relationships, so PR practitioners need to assess the nature of online connections – as well as those with other relevant stakeholders, influencers or publics.

We cannot possibly build in-depth personal relationships with everyone in our complex, messy online networks. And even though organisations have always had thousands of connections, and extended connections, these are amplified in potential impact online. Jokes and poor taste, let alone a disregard for convention and legal niceties, prevail online.

Entering this dog-eat-dog world, organisations may be seen as tasty snacks, rather than respected as an alpha dog in the pack. They need PR practitioners who are familiar with contemporary relationship thinking to avoid suffering dog bites online. This means much more than simply collecting connections to really understand the consequences of the company we keep.


The analogy of dog bites in this post is not meant to belittle the serious impact of canine attacks

PR is about action not procrastination

PR time – balancing urgency and importance (after Stephen Covey)

One of those silly PR surveys yesterday made me think – it was about procrastination and the time we waste in putting things off. I am very familiar with the idea with students – and PR practitioners – who are deadline-oriented creatures and expert also at displacement behaviour where you focus on other tasks rather than knuckling down to the priority at hand.

I also advocate Stephen Covey‘s notion of ‘first things first’ and include an adaptation of his urgent-important matrix in the forthcoming Public Relations Strategic Toolkit.

Continue reading PR is about action not procrastination

A taste of public relations

image On 1st September, we’re presenting an evening with Alison Theaker, Peter Brill and me in Bristol as a taster for the CIPR qualifications, and also to celebrate the launch of the 4th edition of The Public Relations Handbook.  If you’d like to join us for free seminars, expert insight and advice, see further details and booking at:

This event is partly to promote the qualifications and the new book, but also aims to show the importance and value of connecting theory to PR practice.

Continue reading A taste of public relations