Ridiculous PR and objectivity

Wikipedia requires contributors to write from a 'neutral point of view' and its founder Jimmy Wales discourages edits from PR practitioners because their view is deemed, as paid advocates, to be biased. (There's currently a lively debate on this topic on a Facebook group.)

This post is not about Wikipedia, but about the struggle for PR to be practised objectively. For, on the face of it, the paid advocate cannot ever be neutral.

It's because PR seems incapable of neutrality - and will always be vulnerable to charges of 'spin' or even deceit - that we should mind our language.

It is because we act as advocates (and have an intermediary role between the organisations and key groups) that we must be mindful of how the organisation is perceived. 

A stream of self-serving, upbeat messages can easily be dismissed as 'just PR'. To be effective, PR must adopt the language and values of news and be written objectively. How does this sound?

  • 'Smiley Company are pleased to announce Fun Fridays'

It's wrong in so many ways. It put the organisation at the centre of the story, where it is unlikely to belong. It views the company as plural (we, they) and describes its state of emotion (who cares?). In short, it's not news. It may look like PR (and there's a lot of this about), but it's not ever likely to be effective public relations.

How can ojective public relations improve on this?

  • 'Call for Fun Fridays to banish national gloom'

It's still weak, the softest of soft news, but it does raise a topical issue. It's not so smug and doesn't open the organisation to ridicule. At least it's not quite so readily dismissed.

When subjectivity is so inappropriate and so easily-spotted, why is it still so common in public relations statements? The answer has to be group think - the downside of organisational group dynamics - and the desire to please the boss or the client.

But what is more pleasing? Soft words that flatter the boss but fail to deliver any news (and may lead to ridicule); or a more objective approach that removes the self-serving publicity but may deliver greater news impact?

It's the difference between writing with the organisation/client in mind and writing with the reader in mind (the reader, conventionally, being a jaded journalist who has seen it all before).

It's easy to understand, but hard to put into practice. I raise it here because I see so many students and junior practitioners falling into group think and believing that PR means writing in an overly-promotional style.

To respond to Jimmy Wales, we may not be neutral but we can and should be objective.

 

Your chance to write for Behind the Spin

Behind the Spin Jan 2012Here's what we have planned for the next few months at Behind the Spin, the online magazine for PR students and young practitioners. I'd love to hear from new contributors. Celebrity and entertainment We're welcoming articles on this theme until the end of January. Contact editor@behindthespin.com Political communication and public affairs Coalition government, Scottish independence, last year's referendum on voting reform, party politics, lobbying scandals: there's no lack of possible topics to write about. This theme runs through March and you should contact our guest editors before then to express an interest: Sarah Roberts-Bowman (sarahrobertsbowman@btopenworld.com) and Paul Simpson (paul@dutchhq.com). Sport PR The last time the Olympic Games were held in London was in 1948, so this is a special year for sport. Does the Olympics encourage participation in sport or merely encourage passive viewing? Does it help put minor sports (and disabled sportspeople) in the spotlight? This theme runs in May 2012. Contact editor@behindthespin.com Other themes Our perennial themes are work experience placements and graduate prospects. Articles on these themes are welcome at any time. We also welcome reports on your PR courses and book reviews.  

Your chance to write for Behind the Spin

Behind the Spin Jan 2012Here's what we have planned for the next few months at Behind the Spin, the online magazine for PR students and young practitioners.

I'd love to hear from new contributors.

Celebrity and entertainment

We're welcoming articles on this theme until the end of January. Contact editor@behindthespin.com

Political communication and public affairs

Coalition government, Scottish independence, last year's referendum on voting reform, party politics, lobbying scandals: there's no lack of possible topics to write about.

This theme runs through March and you should contact our guest editors before then to express an interest: Sarah Roberts-Bowman (sarahrobertsbowman@btopenworld.com) and Paul Simpson (paul@dutchhq.com).

Sport PR

The last time the Olympic Games were held in London was in 1948, so this is a special year for sport. Does the Olympics encourage participation in sport or merely encourage passive viewing? Does it help put minor sports (and disabled sportspeople) in the spotlight?

This theme runs in May 2012. Contact editor@behindthespin.com

Other themes

Our perennial themes are work experience placements and graduate prospects. Articles on these themes are welcome at any time. We also welcome reports on your PR courses and book reviews.

 

My PR books of the year

Here's a very personal pick of the top five newly-published books on public relations in 2011. Measure what matters1. Measure What Matters by Katie Delahaye Paine (Wiley) Two books were published by Wiley earlier this year on the important topic of measurement and evaluation. Philip Sheldrake's is in many ways the more ambitious (it also makes it onto my list), but Katie Paine's is a book for the intelligent practitioner and deserves to be widely known and used. For its appeal to the general reader, it takes first place on my list. The author tells us: 'the notion that a PR person is someone who has to deal only with the press is just .. antiquated. A good PR person is focused on his or her relationships - be they local media, national bloggers, employees, or community organizers.' So how do you measure they quality of these key relationships? This book offers practical insights into measuring events and into measuring key relationships with influencers, employees, local communities etc.
  1. Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective by Danny Moss and Barbara DeSanto (Sage).
I'd been looking forward to this book ever since last year's round-up, but in the event it only arrived late in the year and with a 2012 publication date. It's worth the wait: this is the heir to Grunig and Hunt's widely-cited Managing Public Relations in that it addresses the same issues and concerns: Is public relations a distinctive activity? How does it contribute to organisational effectiveness? I expect to return frequently to the chapters written by Danny Moss in particular. The collection is rather repetitive, however, as each author has been instructed to refer to the editors' 'C-MACIE model'. It also has a glaring omission: no chapter on measurement and evaluation (Professor Tom Watson should have been asked to contribute this). Since measurement and evaluation is one of my themes this year, this explains why Moss and DeSanto miss out on first place in my list. 3. The Public Relations Handbook (Fourth Edition) by Alison Theaker (Routledge) Over a ten year period, Alison Theaker has produced four editions of this useful standard text and this new edition is a substantial reworking of what went before. It's now almost 500 pages, and contains new chapters by Philip Young, Liam FitzPatrick, Mark Phillimore, Heather Yaxley and Simon Wakeman among others. Johanna Fawkes has reworked her useful chapters on 'What is public relations?' and 'Public relations and communications' and they are now essential reading for any student of the subject. I applaud the author and the publishers for having resisted the pressure to present this as a glossy, colourful text. They let the words and ideas do the communicating instead. Others will disagree with me, and I was sorry not to have found space here for one such colourful textbook: Averill Gordon's wide-ranging Public Relations, published by Oxford University Press.
  1. PR Today: The Authoritative Guide to Public Relations by Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, Palgrave Macmillan.
If what has gone Continue reading "My PR books of the year"

My PR books of the year

Here's a very personal pick of the top five newly-published books on public relations in 2011.

Measure what matters1. Measure What Matters by Katie Delahaye Paine (Wiley)

Two books were published by Wiley earlier this year on the important topic of measurement and evaluation. Philip Sheldrake's is in many ways the more ambitious (it also makes it onto my list), but Katie Paine's is a book for the intelligent practitioner and deserves to be widely known and used. For its appeal to the general reader, it takes first place on my list.

The author tells us: 'the notion that a PR person is someone who has to deal only with the press is just .. antiquated. A good PR person is focused on his or her relationships - be they local media, national bloggers, employees, or community organizers.' So how do you measure they quality of these key relationships? This book offers practical insights into measuring events and into measuring key relationships with influencers, employees, local communities etc.

2. Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective by Danny Moss and Barbara DeSanto (Sage).

I'd been looking forward to this book ever since last year's round-up, but in the event it only arrived late in the year and with a 2012 publication date.

It's worth the wait: this is the heir to Grunig and Hunt's widely-cited Managing Public Relations in that it addresses the same issues and concerns: Is public relations a distinctive activity? How does it contribute to organisational effectiveness? I expect to return frequently to the chapters written by Danny Moss in particular.

The collection is rather repetitive, however, as each author has been instructed to refer to the editors' 'C-MACIE model'. It also has a glaring omission: no chapter on measurement and evaluation (Professor Tom Watson should have been asked to contribute this). Since measurement and evaluation is one of my themes this year, this explains why Moss and DeSanto miss out on first place in my list.

3. The Public Relations Handbook (Fourth Edition) by Alison Theaker (Routledge)

Over a ten year period, Alison Theaker has produced four editions of this useful standard text and this new edition is a substantial reworking of what went before. It's now almost 500 pages, and contains new chapters by Philip Young, Liam FitzPatrick, Mark Phillimore, Heather Yaxley and Simon Wakeman among others. Johanna Fawkes has reworked her useful chapters on 'What is public relations?' and 'Public relations and communications' and they are now essential reading for any student of the subject.

I applaud the author and the publishers for having resisted the pressure to present this as a glossy, colourful text. They let the words and ideas do the communicating instead. Others will disagree with me, and I was sorry not to have found space here for one such colourful textbook: Averill Gordon's wide-ranging Public Relations, published by Oxford University Press.

4. PR Today: The Authoritative Guide to Public Relations by Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, Palgrave Macmillan.

If what has gone before seems a bit too earnest for you, then this could be the one book you should read. Though the authors teach public relations at university, this is an anti-academic text: 'The Unauthorised Guide to Public Relations' might be a better subtitle.

The themes will be familar to those who know the same authors' previous work, PR: A Persuasive Industry? which was among my favourites in 2008. This book extends beyond anlaysis of the industry into a section on PR planning and strategy and another section on PR practice.

One example will give a flavour of the authors' approach. They introduce their chapter on PR Ethics with: 'Some textbooks treat PR as though it is a branch of moral philosophy. Such an approach leaves most PR practitioners bemused and is of little practical use.' You will have to look elsewhere for Kant (and will probably find much more cant too).

5. The Business of Influence: Reframing Marketing and PR for the Digital Age by Phlip Sheldrake (Wiley).

Though written by a practitioner, this is the most ambitious and challenging book of the year. Its analysis of the problems facing public relations is brilliant (the author is an engineer, a manager and a marketer, giving him a broad perspective). His reframing of public relations as the activity that manages influence is intriguing. He hopes to see people appointed to the post of Chief Influence Officer: 'Ideally, the Chief Influence Officer will have a varied background covering marketing, PR, customer service, HR, product development and operations.'

What is less successful is his attempt to turn the balanced scorecard concept into the Influence Scorecard. At this point, the book feels like a first draft, and already it's been superceded by further work by AMEC. Sheldrake's book is the most interesting of 2011 - but Katie Paine's is in my opinion the more useful, hence their relative positions on my list. 

Are we mavericks? (to the tune by The Killers)

In an intriguing aside as he presented findings from the PR2020 research, Dr Jon White described PR practitioners as 'marginal, and often mavericks'.

By marginal, he did not mean marginalised. He meant operating at the margins - a reflection of the 'boundary-spanning' role with one foot in and one foot outside the organisation described by James Grunig.

But mavericks? The popular image of PR practitioners is as smooth company men or women with finely honed networking skills. Students will find the concept that PR people can be mavericks hard to recognise.

Jon White described how the PR practitoner often operates alone, giving advice to senior executives that is often contrary to other professional advice they receive. Let's say your company is being prosecuted for polluting the environment. The PR advice may well be to plead guilty, accept one day's bad headlines and work hard to improve environmental protection. But a lawyer's advice would probably be to contest the charge in the courts because a 'win is a win'. (Any PR student should be able to see that you can win in court but lose in the court of public opinion.)

In this context, the advice from PR is out of the ordinary, and it takes a maverick to stick out their neck and defend this position.

(I wear the badge with pride. My first consultancy boss Mike Copland described me as a 'maverick' almost twenty years ago. It wasn't meant as a compliment, but I still take it as one.)

 

#commschat: the role of learning

I'm leading a #commschat Twitter discussion later on the theme of learning. What can academics learn from practitioners? What can practitioners learn from academics? How do we all keep up, let alone try to keep ahead?

Let's start by addressing two stereotypes.

Professor Ivor Y Tower

Professor Tower is intellectually impressive (a towering force?) and proud to be known on the international sociology circuit. Though he has made his name as a public relations scholar, he's disdainful of the practice because it's too compromised by money and by imbalanced power relationships. So he prefers to create perfect models of how public relations should be practised.

Though easy to mock, there is an argument in favour of pure academic research. If nothing else, academics should be free to 'think the unthinkable'. In this regard, they are similar to monks. Though their thoughts are impractical, it's better for us all that some people are dedicated to an otherworldly pursuit of perfection.

Alan Bluff-Practitioner

Alan has traded off his deputy editorship of the local newspaper and still has a good list of local clients for whom he provides media relations and crisis management services. He's recently become a fan of social media, but is proud to say that he's never had a day's training let alone pursued a qualification in public relations. Why would he need to when it's all just common sense? He has similar views of the CIPR and other professional bodies. And as for PR degrees, don't get him started. He left school at 16, began as a runner on the local newspaper and worked his way up from there.

Alan is a characteristic figure. He's not unintellectual, but rather anti-intellectual: one of life's perpetual outsiders. The challenge he faces is to update his twentieth-century business model, which he's trying to do by becoming a social media advocate. He certainly represents the past, but does he have a future?

Hopefully our discussion will go beyond stereotypes and reveal that curiosity and a desire to learn are a requirement of all successful PR practitioners.