Public Relations is a tradition of practice

brains

I’m very interested in how we think about and study public relations – and how this conceptual understanding connects to what we do in practice.

I believe in questioning the accepted wisdom, arguments, actions and assumptions that are inherent in public relations practice (and theory) using reflective and critical thinking.

Only by being mindful of what underpins our theorising and behaviours can we know what works well, what needs improving and what we should stop doing.

In academia, such an approach reflects a tradition of interrogating ideas and theories, research and opinion – even, or perhaps that should be especially, our own.

In sport, science, medicine, engineering and many fields, this idea of seeking to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘how’ informs practice.

This does not necessarily mean that we have to dive deeply into theory, although we should at least know that public relations has a substantial body of knowledge to draw upon. Many studies are intended to be highly practical, but equally valid is academic work that helps to stretch understanding – and critical examination – in different directions.

Psychiatrist, Professor Steve Peters illustrates the linkage when discussing his Chimp Paradox model, which has been credited with contributing towards the success of British cycling.

A model is not pure scientific fact or a hypothesis. It is just a simple representation to aid understanding and help us to use the science. It may also help us to make sense of how we have been in the past, how we are now, and how we can manage ourselves better in the future.

The public relations tradition of practice however, has tended to be skeptical of theory, academia and scholarship, deeming it to be irrelevant impractical, out-dated and too intellectual.

Indeed, many practitioners prefer to draw more on their own experience, and that of others, alongside narrative examples of practice, rather than analytical and objectively-researched case studies, theories or even more representational models.

Consequently, ‘laws’ of public relations practice are commonly derived from, and advocated on, personal beliefs or single examples; with little consideration of the specific or situational aspects pertinent to the social, organisational or temporal context of the particular case.

This means the tradition of practice is a story-telling one, built around the ‘truths’ of particular examples. This tends to mean relying on recollections and the fallibility, or selective interpretation, of memories. Or presentation of examples to illustrate particular ‘lessons’, much as we seen in mythology or parables.

Scratch the surface of ‘rules’ of crisis management and you’ll find these are predicated on the tale of the Tylenol tampering case from the 1980s. Over several decades, this example has been crafted into an exemplar narrative of how crisis situations should – indeed, some argue, how it must – be handled. This ignores the nuanced reality of that case, let alone differences in circumstance for other  crises that may well necessitate alternate preparation or response.

I am bemused that the PR tradition of practice commonly promotes prescriptive rules of engagement or operational norms, yet routinely rejects study of theory.

If you are arguing in favour of a ‘best practice’ approach, you should be prepared to work out hypotheses or propositions that can be assessed to confirm the validity – or otherwise – of the recommended courses of action.

That’s essentially what a theory does in going beyond describing what practice is (or should be in the view of certain people) to include ideas and theses that help to explain the practice, and make predictions for future action based on evidence and/or logical deductions or inferences.

Theory should not be viewed as absolute and fixed, but is open to challenge, development and change.

Further, theory can be developed around situational variables, offering more nuanced insight into practice. Indeed, as a qualitative researcher, I support interpretive and other research approaches that enable in-depth examination of subjective experience. However, this is still a robust process not simply anecdotal reportage.

Many other disciplines build practice on a tradition of theorising, studying an existing body of knowledge and gaining qualifications.

Public relations continues to advocate construction around learning ‘on the job’ (i.e. passing on the way things have been done previously) or attending ‘how to’ training courses.

Increasingly it seems that Twitter, Facebook, infographics or LinkedIn discussions are viewed as the best way to gain insight into the tradition of public relations practice. I’m all for social learning methods, but there’s more to improving competence than online surfing.

Likewise, guidelines can be useful, but instead of being presented as a single lodestar or exemplars, they can open up directions that may be fruitful to examine.

Public relations is not simply an occupation where we can be trained to do our jobs. Rather we are encouraged to be thoughtful and creative. A broad theoretical underpinning is a liberating platform from which to develop an evidenced-based set of informed solutions and/or conceive original options.

What is missing in public relations seems to be a culture of  reflective practice. This approach is increasingly common in many professions, particularly  education and healthcare.

From this perspective, theorising is seen as part of a dynamic process that is alive to the changing world of practice, and reflective, critical and analytical thought. It is open for debate and discussion within the community of practice as well as the scholarly literature and the spaces between the two.

This ‘middleness’ space between academia and practice is inhabited by models that are systematic representations to help us to understand the world, explore concepts and clarify complexity – although they risk being oversimplification of reality.

For example, here is a simple model to illustrate a conceptual framework of how PR is, and should be, practised:

PR practice

Of course all the elements of PR practice cannot be readily placed into one of these four categories, and it is undoubtedly a matter of debate what should go where. But that’s the point. The model offers a technique to facilitate discussion and reflection on the tradition of practice.

Viewed as a reflective tool, we can consider traditional, contemporary, emerging and potential practices and viewpoints and map these onto the model.

Critical and reflective thinking allows consensus, differences of opinion and situational considerations to be considered. Research can also be undertaken to assess the typology, and accept, adapt or reject it on the basis of evidence.

Applying such conceptual frameworks and critical thinking encourages practitioners to:

  • Shape the research they employ in investigating a situation or informing a campaign
  • Analyse possible causes or limitations in tackling problems
  • Challenge habitus (ingrained practices and dispositions)
  • Understand the context of their work, and others’ frames of reference
  • Develop an evidence based practice
  • Identify a range of approaches to address issues
  • Contribute strategically to decision-making and planning processes
  • Structure credible arguments for practical recommendations

As an example, an analysis of media discussion earlier this year around mitochondrial donation (commonly termed the ‘three-parent baby’ issue) suggests a number of ways of thinking about the topic:

scientific, medical, healthcare, procedural, ethical, religious, economic, political, legal, socio-cultural, humanitarian, historical, personal, rhetorical and so on.

Each of these individually, and through comparison and synthesis, suggest conceptual frameworks that can be evaluated and considered in researching the narrative and arguments being made by others, helping us to establish an informed position, and recommend a response. Or they may suggest a gap or new way of looking at the issue.

The concept of ‘tradition of practice’ is one that I came across within the anthropology and healthcare literature. To my knowledge, it hasn’t been applied to public relations, but I am interested in exploring it further. In these fields, a large body of theoretical knowledge has been accumulated, but it is acknowledged that learning does not take place exclusively in the classroom.

Systematic and critical examination of the way things are done, using a variety of conceptual frameworks and theoretical perspectives, can both encourage and challenge a more improvisational, intelligent practice.

The idea is to better connect how we think about, and how we practice, public relations. The goal is to pass on a tradition of practice that is enhanced by virtue of combining the strengths of reflective, critical insight, with real-world experimentation and application.

Being human – mental well-being lessons for Thomas Cook PR

dandelion-clock

This post started out as a critique of the response by Thomas Cook to the tragic deaths of the Shepherd children in 2006. It supported Andy Barr writing at The Drum who argued a failure to be human, and the FT conclusion that the company mislaid its moral compass in putting legal advice over the paying public.

In reading further about the terrible experiences of the parents, there were many opportunities for Thomas Cook to engage in genuine public relations. Not once did the firm appear to ask what they could do to help or protect the family during this tragedy or in the time since.

But it is easy to point out the limitations in the public relations response, especially when you aren’t on the inside. Critical reflection can be made on the mismatch between the promise on the Thomas Cook website that the company could be trusted and its behaviour when things went wrong. In contrast, the family has shown great restraint and dignity, whilst the company has shown a lack of empathy throughout.

But in thinking further about the case, I recalled a post I wrote last October (on World Mental Health Day) about public relations as dirty work that inherently involves stress and consequently may be expected to cause mental health problems.

It must have been stressful to work in the Thomas Cook PR function these past few weeks. Of course, the pressure is nothing like the anguish experienced by the parents of Christi and Bobbi. However, any human being should have found it hard to act in a way that contributed further to the family’s pain.

Yes, it is our job to protect our employers/clients, but this should be possible to do in a compassionate way. When necessary, we need to be able to advocate harsh truths to those with corporate power to ensure that sensitivity is the first priority. Not being able to take control of a situation or feel comfortable with the decisions of others, may impact on our mental well-being. To handle such feelings of cognitive dissonance, we rely on coping strategies.

In the case of Thomas Cook, perhaps the fact that the company was found not legally responsible dominated discussion rather than considering any moral, or even contractual obligation to its customers. Did collective decision making inure individual members of the in-house group PR, agency and in-house UK PR teams? Do they claim to have been pressured by the lawyers or corporate executives in determining the response – reflecting the narrative found in industry criticisms of PR responses (including Barr); although these may have been co-operative or collaborative relationships. Or maybe those involved are content with the  apologies evident on the company’s Facebook page or can assuage cognitive dissonance by blaming the Daily Mail which has led the media onslaught.

If you are a junior member of the team, however, you may not be privy to what went on behind closed doors, yet it is likely you fielded calls from hostile journalists and read angry comments online. At the least, you were one of the 27,000 global employees likely to have faced comments or questions from family and friends about working for Thomas Cook at a time like this. One wonders whether those tasked with internal communications and media relations were trained and helped to deal with any personal or professional anxieties they may have experienced or just expected to issue prescribed statements.

Ironically, Register and Larkin’s Risk Issues and Crisis Management book from 2008 relates as an example of good practice, how Thomas Cook Holidays handled a fatal coach crash in South Africa in 1999 by focusing “first and foremost on the needs of the victims and survivors of the crash and their families”. This suggests the stress of crisis management can be ameliorated by a value-driven response.

Perhaps the change in approach is cultural. It was only in March this year, that Thomas Cook announced it was using the Exonaut Risk and Incident Manager tool to “manage all forms of risk” including reputational in accordance with the international ISP 31000 standard. Such systems should help in decision making, although they can also focus on impersonal calculations of organisational consequences at the expense of valuing how situations impact real people.

As PR practitioners we need to be able to put ourselves in the position of others, and have empathy for their situations if we believe we play a role in managing an organisation’s reputation. In advocating ethical, moral, value-driven responses as the “conscience of an organisation” and a “buffer” for others, as CIPR President, Sarah Pinch advocates, it is natural that we will face competing pressures.

Earlier this year, the CIPR State of the Profession 2015 report noted “dangerously high levels of workplace stress” among senior managers in PR. At the same time, PRCA and PRWeek revealed research showing a third of the PR industry has “suffered from, or been diagnosed with, mental ill health”.  Both studies seem to present stress and mental ill health as problems to be addressed, rather than normal human conditions.

It is positive to see stress and mental well-being being discussed as I called for last October. Further, we need to promote positive coping strategies and normalise rather than stigmatise PR practitioners who experience mental health conditions, or feel the strain of workplace pressures. Let’s discuss drug and alcohol abuse within the occupation as well as depression, OCD, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, self-harming, compulsive sexual behaviour, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s and dementia. After all, PR practitioners are active in campaigning around these various conditions and many more as professional communicators. It is about time we publicly recognised our own experiences and take a lead as an inclusive occupation and community of practice.

I am addressing mental health issues and well-being in updating my chapter on risk, issues and crisis management in the 5th edition of the Public Relations Handbook.  When researching this blog post, I have searched dozens of crisis communications texts and whilst emotional intelligence is sometimes mentioned, consideration of the importance of our own mental-well being is lacking.

Within public relations, crisis management is commonly seen as the pinnacle of professional competence; positioned as a strategic role, carrying heroic connotations not often associated with the occupation. Interestingly, while the names of organisations deemed to have handled a crisis ineffectively face public opprobrium (and a legacy label of bad practice in PR textbooks), individuals involved in the situation may find such experiences are career boosting. Being able to share experiences as confessional lessons learned seem to be appealing to future employers, or for appearances as conference speakers. This suggests that the stress of a crisis situation is a development opportunity within a public relations career; something that makes you stronger.

As I wrote in my original chapter, such simplistic narrative tends to create “a mythology of crisis management and limits the depth of analysis and reflection regarding actual practice concerning managing risk, issues and crisis situations”.

Our modern risk society is one where PR practitioners are operating in a 24:7 dynamic global communications environment which brings with it increasing pressures for us both professionally and personally. If we are to operate effectively within such conditions, we need to be realistic about the impact on our own mental health and recognise the importance of what being human means in doing our job.

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.