Why Joining up the dots is not the best way to do PR

ConnectTheDotsRichard Bailey’s latest blog post did what it was supposed to do- make me think. Unusually, it also made me disagree with him. He suggested that PR is similar to learning a new language. You go through a process of babbling, learning words, figuring out how they work together and then, eventually, you become fluent.  A bit of me went along with this, because that’s how we are taught PR, and how as a PR practitioner-turned-academic, it’s how I have seen people teach PR.

But, then I started to think about it some more. And the idea of joining up dots, or putting pieces together in sequential order? Well, the rebel in me started disagreeing.

I think that the thing which is missing from most young PR people is confidence in their own ability to see the big picture. And as long as we are using cliche analogies, for me what makes the difference between an apprentice learning the language or putting the dots together, and someone who is REALLY good at PR, is whether they have the confidence to challenge the traditional approach. It’s about thinking outside the box.

Too much PR is taught- either in university or on-the-job – as a case of step-by-step mechanics. Do this, then this and you will get this. I am constantly chastising my students for rushing to use the latest PR “toys”- social media, media metrics that measure outputs rather than outcomes, you know whatever is flavour of the month, so fill it in here………..

In fact, BEFORE PR, you need to think about the nature of the problem. What is missing from PR education and PR practice is enough time and thought paid to the actual problem, issue or opportunity. Sometimes, PR is not the solution, and using it is only going to make the problem worse. So, for my students, I tell them to stop- listen-think, before running to the toy box.

Measurement- taking PRide!

Every year, I try to learn a new skill that is relevant to my profession. In 2012 I was ambitious and tackled two- learning how to use Twitter better, and making sure my students really, really understand the importance of what is going on in measurement and evaluation.  The latter is one of those “slow burn” issues that should be taken more seriously, but all too often isn’t.  And yet….we are at a defining moment in the development of public relations and corporate communications.

I’m talkiing about the emergence of the new Valid Metrics Matrix, a way of confronting squarely the PR profession’s previous inability to demonstrate its value in terms that work for the C Suite (that is, the Chief Executives, Chief Finance Officers, Chief Operating Officers, etc). Having worked most of my professional life in those rarefied circles, speaking business objectives in language that a board understands has always been key to getting buy-in to the campaigns I was running. 

So, I greeted the VMM with open arms and a “hallelujah, about bloody time, too”.  Finally, a way to demonstrate just what impact a good PR campaign can have!

The emergence of a new paradigm in any academic and practitioner community should be a time for debate and discussion. I have been surprised, however, by the lack of enthusiasm about the VMM from the world of agency PR. Maybe that’s because clients don’t understand anything other than the old AVE metric. Or maybe the stranglehold of media relations means that clients still count the value of their PR retainer fees by the number of cuttings, web click throughs, likes, etc. Whatever the case, it is surprising to me just how long it is taking for the VMM to penetrate into use.

So, when the CIPR PRide Awards rolled around last week, I was delighted that one of my Masters student agency teams submitted an application on behalf of their client, Southampton Solent University, for a campaign called “Love Your Bins”- an unsexy topic that actually needed addressiing if community relations between the university and the student population were to be improved.

That their campaign would win a gold award for community relations was never (in my mind anyway) a doubt.  But what made me dance a little jig and strike a Usain Bolt pose was when the CIPR Wessex judges decided to award their campaign a gold prize for best use of measurement. And this award is based on a pool of every entry made to the prize committee, across 25 categories. So, my MA students were pitted against big agencies, and large inhouse departments, and yet managed to beat them all. Why? Because they used the VMM. 

Want to see the campaign and what the judges said? Take a look. Let’s hope that those agencies and clients that actually want to get results from their PR will start taking the VMM seriously. I am delighted that the CIPR is doing just that.

All Corporate communication is unethical

Ok, now that I have your attention, let me explain. If you are a PR student, it is likely that somewhere along the line you have been told about Grunig & Grunig’s Excellence Theory of PR, which suggests that PR practitioners should aspire to achieve “two-way symmetrical communication with stakeholders”.  And, in its later iterations, the Excellence Theory suggests that if corporate communication is not symmetric, then it is by definition unethical.  Symmetry, by the way, means “equally balanced”.

That idea has been bugging me for years -and now I’ve decided to call time on this idea.  Practitioners have to make decisions, set priorities, work with limited budgets, and even more limited attention spans of senior management. Everyone KNOWS that you focus your efforts on those stakeholders that matter. And, that even within a single stakeholder group, you are not “evenly balanced” in your communication. Not all media within the media stakeholder group are treated the same. Not every employee is communicated with on an equal basis often for legal reasons, as well as practical ones.

The other thing wrong with the theory is that it implies that stakeholders are equally interested in communicating with the company as the company is interested in communicating with them. And that is just plain lunacy. Few stakeholders care equally about the companies with whom they interact. Even Greenpeace targets its efforts on chocolate production to those manufacturers with the biggest production and customer base. If you are small and niche, you are off their radar. So, not all stakeholders care as much about you as you do about them, if you are a corporate communicator. In fact, far from being symmetric, it’s sometimes hard to get them to pay attention at all.

In my view the symmetric communication idea is a complete fallacy. No two people, let along stakeholder groups, have an identical or equally balanced investment in the conversation, even when it is two-way. So, let’s put this lame duck theory to bed. What matters is not “symmetry”, but rather” effectiveness”. So, repeat after me- “ethical communication is NOT about symmetry”….

The Blame Game

In class this week, I challenged my final year PR undergraduate students to a problem based learning exercise on alcohol abuse. Reading media cuttings about drunk college students, anti-social behaviour and domestic violence fuelled by alcohol, interspersed with adverts from supermarkets selling wine and beer at below cost price, the students were asked ‘who is to blame?’  Is it the act of drinking to excess? Or is it the actor, ie who is doing the drinking? Or is it the results, that is, the consequences of some of the drinkers’ actions that is the “real problem”?

In PR, it matters who is ‘to blame’…because based on your assessment of the problem, different solutions come to mind. If it is cheap alcohol, then raise the unit price to make access more difficult. If it is youth all of whom cannot be trusted to drink responsibly, then change the licensing laws and enforce the legal drinking age. If it is the results that come from the actions of a few miscreants, rather than the many, then enforce the law and ban those people from drinking (a bit like taking a drunk driver’s license away). We all know the consequences of too much drink, so surely it isn’t ignorance.

The exercise was enlightening, because it helped students appreciate that the PR professional’s job is all about defining the agenda, controlling the debate and managing the issue, so that their client (or their company, if in-house) can protect and promote their interests.  Language matters.

How the debate is defined in the media world influences the public policy agenda. So, every press release and media briefing needs to be seriously considered from that point of view. By your definition of the problem, you are proposing a solution. So, do it consciously, with forethought. Is that really what you think the solution of the problem is?

What was also interesting is helping students realise that the biggest cost to society  of alcohol abuse is not the drinking of young people, but rather the ballooning health costs of alcohol-related diseases, especially diabetes, which do not generally surface until people are in their fifties. So, maybe despite how the media loves to vilify “Freshers’ Week” drunkenness, the real problem is stopping the fifty year old women like me from reaching for that second (and third) glass of wine.

Corporate Communications vs PR

Ok, I am a snob….after thirty years of being a practitioner, I still cringe when people say “Oh, you are in PR”. Actually, I’m not. I’ve been a corporate communicator for all of my professional career. To me “PR” is all too often shorthand for “press relations” and that is (in my view) the bottom end of the food chain in my profession. Ask any poor intern about the “joys” of “selling in” a story to a reluctant journalist.  PR is all about “product push”, endless phone calls to publications in pursuit of those elusive column inches that your clients think are so important.  Ugh! I LOATHE PR, if that is what it means.  In fact, I’d rather hire journalists who can’t get jobs to write the press releases that will get the clients the coverage they want. Real communications professionals should be doing more meaningful work.

And I am not alone-  the sort of mental image that people outside the profession have of PR is not pretty. You know, “publicists”, “spin doctors”, “propagandists”. All the negatives wrapped up into one concept, dismissively called “PR”.  And that word is usually accompanied with an adjective “it’s just PR”- in other words, not real, smoke and mirrors, the “dark art” and other assorted negative phrases.

So, for years I have said that I do “corporate communications”-  the strategic stuff, the “big ticket” work, “crisis communications”, “mnagement communications”, “issues maangement”, “public affairs”, “reputation management”- in short, everything but PR.  There is a reason why the defnitions matter- because the language used has meanings for those who matter.

Corporate Communications is more professional than PR. If you are going to be working with top teams, the C Suite (Chief Executives, Chief Operating Officers, Chief Finance Offices, the CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc) then the word “PR” is certain to relegate you to the backroom. “Corporate Communications” is something that tends to command more respect; it’s the way into the boardroom.  For me, that’s where I want to be.

Social media metrics re-visited

It’s happening again….The reason why I teach is to have an excuse to learn, and marking my students’ media communication projects has set me off on a steep learning curve.  Over the past week, I’ve learned more about social media analytics than I ever thought possible. Thanks to my students, I’ve learned about bounce, about stickiness, about curation  and about how to apply the new Valid Metrics Matrix to social media campaign evaluation.

But…interestingly, it is surprising that in all the social media stuff out there about social media that too few people talk about whether social media driven PR campaigns are actually changing behaviour in the real world.   And that links back to proving PR’s credentials in the boardroom, proving return on investment, demonstrating the strategic value of the latest gadget in the toy box.

So, I thought about whether any social media campaigns that I have been on the receiving end of have actually led me to part with real money.  And, to my surprise, the two that actually have produced that all important revenue generating moment came to me in an extremely old fashioned, non-trendy way- by email. 

So, how many of you have ever clicked through on an advert that sits alongside the Facebook page, or a sponsored link on Google, and even if you have, did you actually spend some money online as a result?   Shouldn’t PR be measured on its impact on the bottom line?  For more interesting insight on the subject, check out Craig Pearce’s excellent blog on the subject.

Flying the nest

Every spring, I watch the fledglings in my garden try to fly off and join the world of adults. Some make it, some don’t. That same feeling hits me at this time in May when I contemplate the future of my final year undergraduate students, most of whom are seriously exhausted after the mad dash of dissertation hand-in, major project deadlines and now their panic over the last hurdle- their exam on Monday.   What words of advice can I offer my fledglings?

First of all, don’t expect to do it all overnight. No one springs into perfect solo flight. There are going to be bumpy rides, crash landings and not a few ruffled feathers. Lots of occasions when you apply for jobs and don’t even get the courtesy of a reply, let alone an interview.  Don’t despair; everyone has their own flight path, and it rarely goes in a straight line.

Second- don’t leave the university nest only to try to climb back into another nest. Some students will go home for the summer and slip back into old habits. Squeezing back into your old childhood home can be tempting, but difficult, when parents have gotten used to not having you around.  I watch the baby birds mobbing their parents with beaks wide open, screaming “feed me!” and find the parent birds’ resentment builds, until eventually they turn nasty and chase the baby bird away. Tough love, but it seems to work for them.

Thirdly, now that I have the advantage of knowing alumni who graduated five years ago and have gone on to successful careers, I can say to this year’s crop of fledglings- relax, you’ll make it. I know you all well enough to have faith. Stay in touch with me and each other, so you can get the support you need to make this the most exciting time of your life. Take off and enjoy the ride!