What is normal? It is something that is usual, typical, standard, average, unexceptional, routine, predictable, to be expected.

Normal is the way things are done, part of the fabric of society, everyday habits, the unnoticed, taken for granted, culturally embedded.

It defines the benchmark against which everything else is measured. The middle of a normal distribution curve. Average, in the middle, the most common. The mean, median or modal value. The majority view, the most popular, a brand’s cash cow. The ‘cookie cutter’ option – all the same.

It’s an established reputation, reliable, consistent, well managed, authentic, honest, desirable. Dull, uninspiring, mundane, dependable, run of the mill, one of the pack.

Winning or losing – both can be normal. Our modus operandi. Reflexive. Natural. Inherent talent. The result of hard work, hours of practice. What we make of ourselves.

A facade. What others see. Without seeing. Ethical. Unethical. Just normal behaviour – nothing to see here.

The stereotype. Aren’t they all like that?

In PR. In Hollywood. In politics. In fashion. In the art world. In business. In the media. In the past. In reality. In our imagination. In our nightmares. It’s normal. Why are we surprised?

Male. White. Privileged. Powerful. Entitled to harass others. One of the boys.

Female. Black. Underprivileged. Powerless. Subject of harassment. Just a girl. Not one of us.

A role model. An influencer. A victim. A hero. Someone like me. Who I’d like to be. Who I once was.

#MeToo #Notinmyname #Blacklivesmatter

#MAGA #Brexiteer #Remoaner

Stand for the flag. Kneel for equality, freedom. Patriot. Citizen of the world.

Is normal what we accept? What we put up with? Who we are? What we will not allow to define us? Is normal not being abnormal?

We’ll ostracise, exorcise, eliminate, deny that bad practice or bad behaviour is the norm. Will good practice, good behaviour then be normal?

Just like that. Happy ever after. One for all. All for one.

Is our normal a comfort zone or a place of uncertainty? Who creates normality?

Are we all the same? Normal in our difference? Inclusive. Diverse.

Blending in. Standing out.

Is the Other not normal? Not like us? Even when otherness is the norm, the majority?

Why does it seem that the normal is not to be female, a stay at home parent, transgender, poor, living with disabilities, recovered from a mental health condition? Why are these normal experiences made to seem an exception? Even when they are common? Even when rejecting someone’s normality is unacceptable?

Blaming the individual. Blaming society. Blaming those with power, with agency, with control. All to blame. No-one’s fault. If only she, they, he, we…

Time for change. What’s normal for some is no longer normal in society. Never was. Never should be. Change the rules. Abide by rules. Just don’t be disrespectful. It’s not a joke or banter or locker room chat or girls’ talk.

Call your public relations people to craft a narrative of ‘I honestly don’t remember the encounter’,’I didn’t mean any harm’,  ‘it’s an addiction’, ‘sexual chatter’, ‘just old dinosaurs’. Resignation, rehab, mea culpa – sort of. A partial or pseudo apology has become the normal PR-crafted response. Should this really be the norm in PR? Time we refused to play the game? Stop protecting those who forfeit the right to excuses?  Change this time-worn narrative of crisis management?

What is shown as normal become engrained in how people view their own normality. My PhD research revealed an ongoing belief that normal careers involve hierarchical progression, reflecting the 20th century Mad Man norm of popular culture. The fact that this never normal for most of society doesn’t affect the normalised narrative of onwards and upwards.

Rise to the top, accrue power, reward, privilege, the right to do unto others as you wish – no longer do as you would be done by…

My thesis argues there is no normal career. The strategy employed by public relations practitioners is not the professionalised norm that is written or spoken about. Yet, we’re told to aspire to achieve great heights, to look up, to admire – to do what it takes. Claw your way up to a position above, from where it’s normal to look down on others.

I heard career stories where ‘old boys clubs’ and ‘hedonistic macho agencies’ were the norm in public relations. Where some are invited to climb and others are not.

A normative hierarchical narrative is engrained even when individuals’ own experience is different. They feel abnormal, blame themselves, if they don’t achieve the idealised “normal career” that is defined by the experience of the minority not the majority.

Careers for the few are not the norm. Careers for the many are not a tidy linear progress courtesy of one employer. Job for life, gold plated pension, better salary, bigger bonus.

The normal PR career strategy is to craft our way with backstitches, knots, fragmented stories, messy lives.

Yes, for some their career norm in PR may be easy, a good life. For others it’s a gig economy, low waged, no contract, redundancy, obsolete, automated out of a job, outsourced, replaced by the internet of things. Perhaps that will become the norm.

Maybe nothing is normal.

Image: Emoji cookie cutter from Pampered Chef

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?

Public Relations as a Rainforest

ID-10080659In writing about T-shaped career decisions for public relations practitioners at PR Conversations, a comment by Natalie Bovair suggested a tree trunk for the vertical stroke that grows thicker and deeper, but needs (along with its main branches – the horizontal stroke) to bend to the winds.

This is a useful metaphor, which can be extended to consider public relations using the analogy of a rainforest – one of the oldest, and most diverse, land based ecosystems.

Within our rainforest, we can represent clients and employers as the fauna, those animals (birds, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians) seeking survival within what we could term a jungle (allowing for multiple definitions of the term).

Some of this terrain may be dense and impenetrable, parts of it may be lawless or unruly where only those who have adapted to be the fittest survive. It may at times be confusing and threatening – or considered as a fragile, spiritual place full of exotic and exciting mysteries. Whether menacing or magical, our rainforest is the home of the flora of public relations.

The analogy works in terms of specialisation as many of our animal clients are found in particular rain forests – and are vulnerable to extinction, being dependent on their eco-system. I also like how the nutrients (necessary for survival) are found in the plants within the rainforest – showing the importance of the PR practitioner to the client.

The rainforest comprises several layers – and in these, we can locate our PR practitioners.

Emergent layer or over story: The pinnacle, where it is windy, the air is hot and the clients are agile monkeys (The Jungle VIPs). A few trees reach these lofty heights and stand tall above others with both long trunks and extended limbs that have adapted to function at the highest climate. But they may be distant and need to withstand all extremes of weather. To thrive above the canopy, plants and animals (PR and clients) must adapt to a bright, open and changeable world.

At these heights, the trees are tough and take full advantage of the resources available here. They spread their foliage (their generalist skills in the original T-shaped concept) to catch as much sunlight as possible. They use the wind to disperse pollen and seeds – akin to ideas and followers in PR terms. Indeed, these emergent trees are likely to produce seeds with wings to fly out of their shadows and thrive on their own.

Our clients at this level are often sizeable, such as the harpy eagle – a fierce hunter. It blends with the surrounding forest perfectly, and relies on excellent vision and hearing. Showing close integration of PR and client, and a competency in boundary-spanning.

Other clients, such as the pygmy gliders, use a different strategy – secretiveness. Where the confidentiality of the relationship with the PR consultant is paramount. And, there are the largest butterflies in the world, Morpho peleides. They reflect light to appear a vivid, iridescent blue colour, although their underside is a dull brown colour providing camouflage against predators. They fly at the highest level to warm themselves and attract mates. Such beautiful clients live hard and fast, so need careful PR handling.

Canopy layer: Home of tall trees, with thick trunks and branches and lush foliage. The environment attracts more wildlife than elsewhere in the rainforest and has a refreshing breeze and dappled sunlight. This can be considered as our professional or community of practice layer in public relations. Where our connections form a tight network to cope with rain and sunlight. Here, life is less changeable but more humid. Canopy trees are remarkably similar to each other. The biggest threat comes from lichens, algae and mosses that steal the light and block the tree’s breathable surface. Are these the competing forces that are challenging the dominance of PR in its traditional communications and relationship domains?

Here the plants (PR) rely on the animals (clients) for survival (seed dispersal) and often need to attract them using succulent fruit. It is amusing to read how fruit here may need a tough cover to pass unharmed through the animals’ digestive systems. And, the animals are fickle and move from tree to tree following the fruit. I’m sure in PR, we’ve all had clients or employers who make us feel like that!

There is variety in clients (fauna) in the canopy – most of whom are large and strong enough to be safe from most predators. They are predictable in their behaviour, vocal and exist in many varieties within species, although they may be vulnerable to threats from predators. Changes in the environment can cause instability and stress to plants and animals, although those remaining may close ranks or saplings may thrive. Although other species emerge to fill any gaps, the status quo is likely to win out.

Understory layer: Underneath the canopy is a layer comprising young or short trees, a tangle of shrubs and woody or soft-stemmed plants. Here the specific rainforest environment is an important factor, but in general it will be dark, less windy and more humid. Perhaps our tactical-only PR practitioners can be found in the understory – where it is hot, damp and the air is still.

The flora here grows in the shade of the taller trees and needs to adapt to survive. Species that do well include many forms of houseplants. Understory plants have to find ways to advertise their flowers to attract animals and insects in the dim light. The fact that the flowers are frequently found on the tree’s trunk rather than in its foliage suggest a focus on the specialism of PR rather than any generalist or strategic competencies.

Understory flowers are strong-smelling and suited to the tastes of the animal the plant depends upon – which again emphasises a willingness to bend to the client rather than challenge in any way. The analogy is reinforced by observation that clients may adopt disguises, pretending to be something they are not. Plants (PR) may be complicit in this deceit providing camouflage as protection from predators for reptilian and other clients. Not only does this approach offer sanctuary but enables the animal to capture its prey.

The understory is a more open place where some clients are able to fly freely – but where others set traps to capture them. It suggests a murky world, full of challenges and risk.

Forest floor: At the base is a dark place where the humid air is still. The vegetation is mainly fungi and other plants that live off decaying leaves and other matter fallen from the trees above. It this the unethical underbelly of PR practice? Here the clients include small invertebrates, living under stones, leaves and logs, alongside animals who forage for survival. Everyone here is vulnerable to surprise attacks – crises maybe – and need to hide until threats pass. Our publicists who will say and do anything could be seen as the plants providing that vital cover.

But let’s not forget that it is within the roots of the emergent trees or those found in the canopy layer where some animals hide. It is a rich place where there is great interdependence.

The rainforest involves interconnections with many plants growing on other plants for support – we can think of these perhaps as our students looking to find their own way in the world. I like the idea of them as Epiphytes, non-parasitic air plants who start life in the spot where two branches meet in the sunshine of the upper canopy. They produce their own energy and obtain moisture and nutrients from the air. Ephiphytes are also incredibly diverse and include species such as bromeliads (eg pineapples) and orchids. The former of which support their own plant life – young entrepreneurs. Mind you, there are also dangers for established trees in the rain forest from epiphytes.

In summary, as an occupation, we should ensure that those in the overstory and established canopy do not block the sunlight from the understory and prevent the growth of the plants there who are looking to grow and adapt. We need to provide room for both young shoots and those students who are epiphytes. But in accommodating the young saplings and air plants, mutual respect is required so the host isn’t damaged by its accommodating nature.

And the fauna (clients) and flora (PR) need to work together for survival of the eco-system, but recognise that there are threats both from within and outside our environment.

I’ve largely drawn on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution website for information about the Rainforest. The image for this post is Earth and Tree by njaj; courtesy of

Loving or loathing LinkedIn

linkedinI’m in two minds about LinkedIn both personally and professionally. In some ways it is the most irritating of social media networks, but also it can be highly useful.

I tend to feel LinkedIn (the topic of my second January post reflecting on Social Media) doesn’t really know what it is any more and is trying to be a bit of lots of other social media channels, but not necessarily very successfully.

The recent additions of prompted endorsements in my view has undermined the value of this aspect of the site. Yes, written recommendations can still be helpful, but I’m not sure anyone really places much store in them do they? Aren’t they just mates’ puffery?

Other automated ‘updates’ such as job anniversaries I find equally annoying. And most of the group discussions are pretty pointless – or maybe it is just the groups that I’ve joined (and often wish I hadn’t). I reckon most groups are largely dormant or are dominated by a few voices.

I also dislike how many people use LinkedIn in a ‘look at me’ manner which is mainly about self-publicity or promotion of their work, company or activities. Some people I see in group discussions make me laugh with their bragging, especially when they lack any self-recognition that their pomposity in writing about how successful they are is the antithesis of good public relations.

Other people seem to use groups as a lazy short-cut to original research. I don’t mind a good discussion around a topic that is of wider interest, or seeking recommendations for suppliers or such information. But too often I find people are looking for others to do their job for them. And, undoubtedly these types of posts recur frequently. Isn’t there an easy way of people finding previous threads rather than asking the same simplistic questions over and over?

And, I hear so many examples of recruitment companies relying on LinkedIn to find candidates without any knowledge of the competence or qualities of those they trawl up. Mind you, it is amusing to think of the recruiters and boasters finding each other in an ever repeating circuit.

However, LinkedIn does genuinely make accessible dozens of job vacancies and enables you to find – and check out – people for speaking and other employment opportunities. This is where I think LinkedIn does work well i.e. as a professional contact database – which is where it started. Locating and connecting with people you know (and don’t but perhaps could and should) is simple and effective. Yes, too many people still abuse the networking, but they can be ignored quite easily.

For individuals, it is a straightforward way to have an up to date online profile, with both a CV/resume and other useful information. It can be a helpful professional place to share useful information and enable effective online networking particularly with existing contacts. I do find it works in terms of getting faster responses than emails from busy people. For students and young PR practitioners, it can be a good way of establishing contacts especially using its ‘6-degrees of separation’ nature.

It is also easy for organisations to set up pages where basic information is often easier to find than on their own websites. A post at Forbes argues companies should encourage all employees to use LinkedIn rather than blocking access. The argument is that employee activity in LinkedIn increases visibility for a company. Actually, the point being made is that employees should be using LinkedIn as ‘brand ambassadors’ and generators of LinkedIn search juice.

Seeing employees as primarily ‘good news’ distributors is cynical and smacks of that terrible concept: internal marketing (which is not the same as employee engagement or internal communications). And, I can’t be alone in envisaging dozens of ‘cut and paste’ corporate posts by individual employees as a great way to annoy lots of people rather than engage them.

A similar questionable attitude is expressed by Dan Schwabel in another Forbes post. He is arguing that you should accept all requests to connect on the basis that this helps increase your Klout score and general profile. Again a quantity over quality focus.

Perhaps what I’m finding irritating about LinkedIn is common among other women as I note from Michal Clements post that women are not using LinkedIn as much or as regularly as men. She argues that this means women may be missing out on the career development and relationship building potential of engaging with LinkedIn. Recruiters using LinkedIn will be missing out on female talent if women are not using the channel as much as male counterparts.

Is it just me? Is LinkedIn operating mainly in a male way that doesn’t engage women? Is it really a useful professional network – and a valued recruitment channel? Does it offer real public relations benefits to organisations or is it another clogged up channel of puff and nonsense?

The importance of kindness and goodwill for PR practitioners

kindnessThe focus of #7 in my 12 Days of Christmas series of posts looks at kindness and goodwill. Within the professionalisation agenda of public relations has been a focus on being more businesslike with PR activities directed to achieving organisational objectives, and clear measures of the benefits to the organisation. This approach seems to advocate a WIIFM (what’s in it for me) or self-interested perspective to everything we do. If we accept that PR is “necessarily partisan” (as stated by L’Etang) because practitioners are paid to advocate the perspective of their employers, there would seem little room for kindness within practice, unless there is a payback for being nice.

As goodwill is commonly recognised as an intangible asset on the balance sheet for accounting purposes, it is possible to argue that being kind is of benefit by enhancing the bottom line. But this would need to be justified in relation to the financial assessment of reputation, brand or other key factors.

From a public relations perspective, we could argue for enhanced social capital within the relationships we create and manage among stakeholders or publics. There are supposed advantages to be accrued – for example, within the guidelines produced in 1999 by Hon and Grunig looking at how to measure such relationships.

This formal investigation and assessment of organisation-public relationships identifies key constituencies with the implication that these can not only be measured but managed. Whilst appreciating the value of understanding what constitutes successful relationships and being able to demonstrate the value of PR, I feel that something of the natural essence of human relationships is lost by such a deconstruction.

Yes, the notion of communal relationship (Clark and Mills’s concept) is one of the key constituencies, but if you are measuring whether or not someone feels an organisation is doing something without expectations, there still seems an assumption that this is beneficial to the organisation.

It may be an inherent aspect of any relationship with a corporation that we have a sense of cynicism about what is expected in return. Indeed, critics of CSR or corporate philanthropy would advocate there has to be a value in any act of kindness, that pure altruism is not welcome or possible.

But, when we talk about individual PR practitioners, I believe that kindness should be a trait evident in how we operate. According to Wikipedia, kindness is:

a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and recognized as a value in many cultures and religions. Research has shown that acts of kindness does not only benefit receivers of the kind act, but also the giver, as a result of the release of neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of contentment and relaxation when such acts are committed.

This presents a real feel good outcome from acts of kindness. But consideration of kindness is that it can achieve much more – Dr Albert Schwitzer is quoted as saying:

Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.

As PR practitioners, kindness is part of the process of building genuine relationships where mutual understanding can result. That’s not to say that kindness is used simply as a tactic to achieve what we want, but that we should recognise its importance as human beings. Also, I don’t believe this is about delivering more than is promised in a contractural or other professional relationship to exceed expectations (ie not just good customer or public relations as is often blandly stated). It is something more.

Recently, and over many years, I have experienced some wonderful acts of kindness from fellow PR practitioners – whether that is in expressing sympathy and empathy, going out of their way even when that is inconvenient, offering help that was unexpected and more than generous, or little gestures that mean a lot to me because they were honestly given and demonstrate real care.

I hope that I have similarly reflected kindness to others – but I’m sure I’ve not done this as often as I could have done and that like most of us, there have times when I’ve not been kind either deliberately or through lack of thinking.

So an early New Year resolution I am making is to demonstrate personally the importance of kindness in PR practice. I cannot see that it would make me any less professional to do so.

The PR meaning of Christmas

costa christmasThe meaning of Christmas can be analysed through studying its signs, symbols and stories, many of which could be considered from a PR perspective.

So #4 of my 12 Days of Christmas posts considers the semiotics of Christmas to examine symbolism of the season and how this is applied by PR practitioners.

Religious signs, symbols and stories are evident primarily through the Nativity narrative. However, the essential elements have been adapted for both commercial and social purposes. For example, many school nativity plays remain a festive tradition but have been professionally scripted to make them more inclusive, contemporary and/or fashionable. The meaning of Nativity plays has changed with greater competition and commercialisation according to media reports. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest schools need to undertake PR risk assessment in the face of media interest in signs, symbols and stories that make nativity plays controversial.

For others, the semiotics of Christmas are less about the traumas of childhood performances and more about spotting commercial signs of the season. Christmas adverts are not a new phenomenon, but today’s versions are a long way from this late 1970s’ Woolworths‘ television ad which features celebrities, but otherwise is all about products and prices. I’m sure many a dissertation will be written on the semiotics of supermarket advertising in 2013.

The master of symbolic associations at Christmas is Coca-Cola creating and conveying adverts where idealised family scenes are closely connected to the brand’s icons. In particular, the imagery of Santa Clause is seen as symbolic of Coca-Cola at Christmas, with the company acknowledging its “role in shaping the jolly, rotund character“. Taking the adverts into the experiential field, with a tour of the ‘Holidays are coming’ red truck offers a more personal connection with the brand’s Christmas symbolism.

The coffee shop brands similarly offer an experience of Christmas with seasonal drinks and recognisable cups. The Costa Coffee ones have been particularly noticeable. Indeed, a student recently told me that her friends see the emergence of the Christmas coffee drinks as an earlier indicator of the season.

These may be examples of marketing but are often promoted with PR campaigns and also act as symbols that build relationships and reputation of the brands.

We also create our own Christmas culture with rituals and symbols that relate specifically to our families or friends. We may not notice where this involves connection with organisations’ PR functions but this could be the case in terms of our shopping, entertainment and other celebratory habits. From pantomimes (featuring television personalities) to the holiday editions of television listing magazines and the battle of the Christmas number one single (increasingly manipulated by X-Factor), there is evidence of commercial symbols dominating the culture of Christmas.

The symbolism of Christmas is so strong that it is not surprising to see it evident in many different ways. Arguably an understanding of semiotics ought to be key to PR practice, although it is not given a great deal of focus in literature or qualifications.

It is not just in relation to marketing that the benefits of applying semiotics can be realised. Charities also use the season to associate their causes with the meaning of Christmas. Emotional imagery, heart-tugging images dominate the narrative. Other PR campaigns similarly connect to Christmas iconography for issues management. For example, fire safety and drink-driving campaigns use a range of semiotic principles.

Similarly, I recall a successful campaign by a student who worked for a housing association a number of years ago that used strong Christmas imagery to highlight the necessity to avoid debt (and pay rent) over the holiday period.