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.

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.

Don’t shoot the messenger!

If it’s in the Middle East, we get media coverage that trumpets the triumph of social media in the hands of young people, creating an Arab Spring that topples dictators and kick-starts a revolution.  “Demonstrators” in the streets are defined as a good thing, and the social media that helped fuel the fires was applauded. Now fast forward to August, and suddenly in London, youths are using social media to gather and demonstrate against police action in the death of a young black man in north London. But the participants get called “rioters”.  By the end of that same weekend, all over London and in several other metropolitan areas in England, social media is being used by “criminal gangs” hell bent on a looting rampage.

UK politicians, the judicial system and mainstream media climb onto their high horses and start a campaign against “feral youth”, “criminal under-classes” and “gangs of agitators”. Is anyone but me noticing just how similar all this moral outrage is to the response of the dictatorships in the Middle East to their demonstrators? Some of the rhetoric being levelled at youth in England could be interchanged with the language being used by the Syrian regime.

While there is a serious debate to be had about the causes of the demonstrations, riots and looting, and whether there are any similarities in motivations between the Arab Spring demonstrators and the London rioters, what I also find interesting is how the establishment’s views of social media change so quickly.  Social media users in the Arab world are called “brave”, “spirited”, “irrepressible”, and the regimes that tried to shut down the internet, censor facebook, and curtail the mobile phone texting systems are described as reactionary dictatorships.  Yet, within a matter of months, the UK government is talking in the same language about shutting down Blackberry messenger (the communication channel of choice in London’s riots) whenever they deem it “in the public interest” to do so.

A gun is a weapon, whether it is used to keep the peace, or to murder someone. So is social media. To blame the channel for the content of the message, and its affect on the local community, is to miss the whole point. Social media will be used by groups to achieve all sorts of things- from bullying classmates, to sharing photos with loved ones, to organising a picnic or a looting expedition. Get over it, and try to solve the problems that are underlying the demonstrations and riots.

Murdoch and the law of unintended consequences

With all the furore going on about phone hacking,editorial  cover-ups, police corruption and the dangers of politicians being too close to the media, we are witnessing a firestorm of criticism about British newspapers.  As my students will attest, I rarely speak up for newspaper journalists, having had a somewhat fraught relationship with them for most of my professional career. But, is there a danger of going overboard? Every politician now claims to loathe the Murdochs and the bandwagon is really rolling on the subject of “media plurality”, as if new owners of newspapers or TV could be conjured out of thin air. Many politicians are arguing against foreign ownership of “our papers”, whilst others declare piously that media owners shouldn’t be able to control both newspaper and television channels. Virtually every media competitor of Murdoch (including the BBC) has rubbed their hands in glee at the withdrawal of the News Corporation bid for the rest of BSkyB.  Big brand advertisers are falling over themselves to disassociate themselves from News International papers, and investors in New York and elsewhere have taken fright and wiped some 15% of the market price off News Corp shares.

I am wondering if all the fuss is going to lead to some pretty dire consequences. The result may actually be the closure of not just the News of the World, but a whole lot of other newspapers which are no longer viable in print form unless they are subsidised by international media groups with significant revenues or foreign owners with deep pockets. Cross platform ownership is about the only thing that has kept Channel 5 on air. Murdoch papers are kept alive by the income he is willing to invest in them, to cover their losses, and that income derives from other media channels. The Independent owes its continued existence to a Russian, a former KGB operative. Just how he could be deemed “fit and proper” to own a newspaper should also be called into question if the Competition Commission starts to challenge the likes of James Murdoch or his father. 

While attention in the media is fixated on how the mighty are falling, one of the consequences may be an attitude that actually makes newspapers even less viable as a business than they were before.  Lest we forget, the phone hacking scandal was caused by the pressing need to sell papers; whatever was needed to get the circulation up and the revenues in was justified.  While individuals will be found guilty of crimes, the editorial pressure of a failing business model is the ultimate guilty party.

In a self-righteous attempt to “clean up the media”, politicians would be well advised to realise that if they take measures to extremes, they may just be writing the death warrant for an industry already struggling to keep afloat.  Wouldn’t we miss newspapers if they were no longer there?

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.