I began this blog in August 2003, and I'm finishing it here in August 2012.
I'm not going to write a solemn or sonorous post because I've not given up yet: I put time and energy into Behind the Spin and have to tend a course blog and a class blog too. Lazy PR people and SEO spammers will continue to hound me for months to come, so the topic of this post needs to be crystal clear.
It's farewell to Typepad - and to PR Studies for now. You see, my rule with social media is that it should make life simpler, not more complex. Something has to give and I'm making a start here.
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?
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?
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.
Here'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 [email protected]
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.
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 [email protected]
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.
Here's a very personal pick of the top five newly-published books on public relations in 2011.
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.
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.)
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 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.
Scores matter. At university, we grade assignments as a percentage, and bracket degrees to indicate levels of attainment. In sport, matches are decided by scores and league tables are used to rank achievement. In work, salaries are a numerical indication of the value put on a person's role.
I'd been considering ways of recognising the out-of-class achievement of PR students, but did not want to create an alternative set of blogging awards. Besides, the existing awards were based on the subjective assessment of a panel of judges, and did not seem to me to reflect the wider picture.
The numbers are objective to the extent that they are independent and publicly available. All I'm doing is selecting UK PR students on full-time undergraduate or postgraduate courses and averaging their Klout and PeerIndex scores. The methodology is simple and transparent - and that is the only justification I'll make for it. (There's also no coaching involved: no current students knew of this league table before its launch, and my students are not required to blog and use Twitter as part of their course - though I do encourage them to.)
Klout in particular has been receiving much negative commentary based on its methods of calculating numbers and for its business model - but I don't seem much that's different from the contract we make with other players in the free world (Google, Facebook, WordPress etc). We allow them to learn much about us in return for a free service that's useful to us.
The attempt to measure influence is an important one to PR practitioners (it's the theme of Philip Sheldrake's new book). The #socialstudent ranking aims to encourage students to become aware of online reputation and influence and to showcase some outstanding talent (employers are continually asking me to recommend graduates).
It's a work in progress and we're still in the first half of the season, but the league table looks to me to be a promising concept and - let me be honest - a good way to draw attention to our online publication.
Want to break into the competitive world of fashion PR? Then you should get your name out there. Why not write for Behind the Spin?
We're looking for articles on fashion PR and entertainment PR for publication in January (deadline end of December; the earlier you submit, the sooner we'll publish). The ideas need to come from you, but we'd welcome:
Contact [email protected] with your ideas.
Politics is suddenly interesting again. There's Occupy London, the threat of public sector strikes, the Eurozone crisis and the Arab Spring; next year there's the US presidential election and a London mayoral election.
Our guest edition in April 2012 is on the changing face of public affairs and political communications. Again, ideas and offers to write are welcome: please contact guest editors Sarah Roberts-Bowman or Paul Simpson.
In addition to these special themes, we always welcome articles of interest to students and young practitioners: reports on work experience, reviews of your courses, book reviews. Please contact the relevant section editor (see the About page for details).
We're a friendly bunch at Behind the Spin.
We welcome ideas and articles - and even enjoy receiving some press releases.
But not every article submitted appears on the site.
Here are the top reasons why articles don't get published:
I'm often asked to write references - and now so many are on LinkedIn, recommendations too.
I'm willing to help, but if you're thinking of asking then here's how you can help yourself first. Here's what I need if I'm to write an informed and positive reference or recommendation:
Smart students already view their lecturers as potential mentors, not just as teachers. But most don't yet realise that although we may only have limited power (of awarding grades), we may have surprising influence in terms of workplace recommendations and connections.
On the day we learn about record levels of youth unemployment, I would like more students and graduates to appreciate this mentor role and get over the pupil-teacher relationship.
There's one fairy tale I frequently use to illustrate lessons about public relations: The Emperor's New Clothes.
Written in 1837, before the modern public relations industry came into existence, it nonetheless can be seen as a metaphor of two contrasting approaches to the practice. One is negative, the other positive.
Two weavers ('spinners') arrive in town and initiate a clever scam. Playing upon the vanity of the emperor and his courtiers, they state that they will create the finest clothes ever seen - but these clothes will be invisible to any who are stupid and unfit for their jobs.
They accept a large advance for silk and gold thread and pretend to start work weaving imaginary cloth, pocketing the money. The courtiers inspecting the cloth proclaim it to be the finest they had seen - and soon the emperor too has to acknowledge its magnificence (he cannot be seen to be stupid and unfit for his position.)
The first, negative stereotype is about spin and vanity. In short, it's about PR as a con trick.
No one dares speak up so the emperor appears in public naked in his 'new clothes'. Who tells the truth?
A child speaks up from the crowd, shattering the adult illusion. The child is the second metaphor - the outsider who dares speak truth to those in power. It takes a child - because adults are too driven by vanity and beholden to those in power.
Spinner, courtier or truth-telling adviser? Which role do you perform?
Today's news that the PRCA now welcomes individual members is not a surprise. The PRCA's competitive moves onto the CIPR's territory have been clear for some time.
The CIPR has responded with a statement:
"We support healthy competition and we believe – as we have said repeatedly – that there is a role for a trade body representing consultancies and a Chartered body representing individual members. We have consistently maintained that it is in the interest of the profession to work together to promote professionalism, standards and public understanding of what we do. It is for this reason that we believe the PRCA’s announcement does not represent a step taken in the best interests of the profession."
I also support competition, but recognise that in some fields representation is better served by a single voice. Would workers be better served by joining two trades unions claiming to represent their interests, or one? Would one or two be a more powerful lobbying/negotiating force?
There are some 60,000 people in UK public relations roles. Scarcely a quarter of these are members of either the CIPR or the PRCA today. The professional project demands more members and a clear voice for the profession.
We had one body from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (the then Institute of Public Relations). The PRCA broke away in 1969 when consultancies felt they needed stronger representation. For four decades we have had a professional body representing individual practitioners (now the CIPR) and a trade association representing PR consultancies (the PRCA).
Equally, there used to be trades unions representing boilermakers among many other specialist trades. Now there are general unions like GMB and Unison.
I would prefer to see one PR representative body in the UK - and still predict it will have to happen by negotiation. If need be, it will happen by the choices of thousands of members.
I already pay my subscription to the CIPR. I'm publicly supportive (but willing to air my criticisms of the body in private). I'm going to keep this membership, so the question for me is should I pay an additional £100 to join the PRCA. My answer today is no. If everyone makes a positive decision one way or another, the outcome will be one of these bodies emerging stronger than the other.
It will take longer than a negotated outcome - and will be more expensive - but it will lead to the same result. Vote with your wallet.
It's so easy to have regrets, usually over the things we didn't do. But nor is there necessarily a right way, or a correct sequence, for gaining experience. Here are some of the jobs I've held before working in public relations that I still draw on today in my university teaching:
There's a feeling of 'back to school' this week. But that's not the reason for the jolt.
The reality check is the decision to fold the Media Guardian supplement (and Education and Society supplements too) into the main paper. Clearly, this is a commercially-driven decision taken because of the migration of job advertisements from print to online (and elsewhere). Decades ago, before the world of the web, each Monday's Media Guardian had page after page of job ads and was the place to find a whole range of graduate opportunities. Times change, and so does technology.
The second jolt relates to this first one. Here's a very lucid perspective on the issue of unpaid internships from an MSc Marketing student. The phrase that leaps out at me is this uncontentious-looking one: 'I’m 23 and aspire to a career in advertising'. Only connect. The Guardian loses its well-established Media supplement because of the migration of classified ads online. Then ask some questions about the future of display ads and print media.
Yes, but surely broadcast ads have bounced back in the past year. Perhaps; but what's the wider picture? The future of advertising isn't in advertising. It's in creating ideas, delivering compelling communications, fostering communities and managing digital campaigns (as this student is already aware). In other words, the future of advertising looks very like public relations...
Hopefully smart graduates are alert to this. Hopefully their lecturers and textbook authors are too. But I very much doubt that university marketing and management teams are when they offer courses that appear to promise glittering careers in glamorous twentieth-century industries that evoke a Mad Men world.
Bump. Back to reality.