The Power of Thank You

Despite me extolling the virtues of face-to-face, there are occasions when the power of a social network proves to be invaluable.  And on no fewer than five occasions over the past two weeks, social media has helped me re-connect with former students of mine in such a powerful way.  Sometimes, it really helps a teacher to know that the message has finally gotten through. A former student of mine contacted me a while ago to tell me that he was working at a brand agency where he was heading up “all the online research” for a really big client. He told me “during an internal meeting the other week, we were discussing ways of segmenting the information and then reporting back on it etc. So after a few ideas I suggested a bit of content analysis – which to my AMAZEMENT no one had ever heard of before. So the more I explained the more they liked, and by the time I’d finished they thought I was a genius! Thanks for the invaluable knowledge!”

Then a Masters Graduate of mine tweeted that “Quoted James Grunig in a meeting today. @CSweetPR will be proud.”- and I was- especially as he is social media community manager for Microsoft in the UK!

That sort of feedback is just…rocket fuel to a teacher.  And then one of my first students got in touch five years after she graduated to say “I received an industry award today and wanted to send you a personal note of thanks for the support, mentoring and teaching you gave to me on my course at Solent.”   Yeah…that kind of made my day, too.

I keep a watchful eye on my graduates through LinkedIn. Sometimes the students are fabulously clever and I know that they will do wonderful things even if I’d never met them. Other times, students who have doubts about their own abilities need a little TLC and patient support to realise they’re brilliant, too. So, this week I had two good pieces of news via LinkedIn and e mail.  One said, “I was just thinking about you the other day when asked which women have inspired me in the past. I just want to say thank you, because without you I would not have been able to graduate. When I was having a very difficult time, you were there to help me through it, and be able to finish my studies….Just wanted to say thank you.”  She’s a commuications specialist now with a major financial services firm.

And then when I opened my home e mail, what did I find but an email headlined “Good News!” from a graduate that I had seen a few months before. He’d been frustrated with not finding the right PR job, several years after graduating. He wanted to do social media work, but was finding it hard to break into it. After some practical career advice over a coffee when he was briefly in the UK, two months later I got the message that he had just landed a six month internship “as a Community Manager/Social Media Manager with Publicis K1” in Paris. RESULT!

Students who take the time to say thank you- well, you know who you are. And this is a big THANK YOU back at you.i_thank_you1


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.

You are never alone with a phone…

I have begun to realise just how addictive a smart phone is…

I used to have a “dumb phone”. You know, the kind you actually use to make telephone calls. It took a lot to get me to join the real world, and even longer to learn the full functionality of my blackberry. What is interesting is that over the past few months, I have realised that whenever there is some “down time” I turn my phone on, take a look at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, my emails.  Waiting for a coffee, standing in a queue, riding a bus, the time I used to spend just staring into space being annoyed at having to wait for something or someone to arrive. Now I fill up those times by networking.

And it WORKS! I find I am so much more on top of what my students are moaning about, what they are raving about, or just what’s happening in the world. When someone gets desperate about their dissertation, irritated by a sick lecturer or just amused by the latest talking cat on YouTube, I am now part of that conversation and can respond. It does more than just pass the time.

This is something remarkable for me- because as my students all know, I HATE talking on the telephone! That has come from years of fighting fires, arguing with journalists and being hassled by people calling with their latest disaster, crisis, horror story or whatever.  Social media means you can observe and decide when to answer, and when to leave it alone. It isn’t intrusive; it’s inclusive. It empowers the conversation.

OK, I KNOW you know this! It is just a bit of a revelation to someone who wasn’t born a digital native, but rather someone who has had to learn this all the hard way. So, for those of you who have followed me and let me follow them- this is a big THANK YOU!

Six Months’ Silence

ImageTo those few of you who might have noticed, this is the first blog posting I have done in almost six months. I decided to take a “sabbatical” from the blog in order to spend more time with another social medium- Twitter. As a teacher of PR students, I needed to understand how it was used, and that meant using it. So, like a guilty adulterer, I have been cheating on my blog to satisfy another love.

I didn’t start out that way. Like someone you initially dislike but grow to love, Twitter had to work at capturing my affections. I have had a twitter account for ages, but was like millions of other people who sign up but then aren’t active, I had just been using it to promote my blog postings to my students and other followers. I wasn’t entirely sure it was going to be a positive experience- my few forays into the twittersphere had been unproductive. At first glance, a lot of the content on twitter seemed banal beyond belief or, even worse, full of hashtag jargon and totally unintelligible.  

Six months on, and I am in love. I have discovered loads of useful content for PR students and practitioners, and made new friends, extended my network of contacts and had some fun along the way. Above all else, I found it meant that I could connect in a direct way with students who had been rather shy about commenting on a blog.  Fewer characters mean fewer inhibitions, it would appear. I’ve also realised that people expect a persona to be more evident in your Tweets than they do in a blog, so I have decided it is OK to share some personal stuff, if it makes the point that I am listening to what they are tweeting (reassurance to the occasional dissertation students in serious melt-down, for example). The immediacy and reach of Twitter is an added bonus.

The challenge now is to avoid serial monogamy. If I go back to the blog, am I just whistling in the dark? Is anyone out there listening? What are your experiences? If I have to choose between them, which do you think I should go for?

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.