PRINZ conference this week had the theme 'changing mindsets' supported by an eclectic group of speakers from inside and outside public relations and communication management. Most memorable for me was Jackie Clark, founder of The Aunties, a charity supporting women affected by domestic violence that meets needs with love. She spoke about her work, her experience, what keeps her going and what we should be doing to change things. She commanded the room, made us think, made us laugh and challenged us all. An amazing woman, awarded the Queen's Service Medal and voted Supreme Winner of the 2018 New Zealand Women of Influence awards. Minds were definitely changed.
One of her instructions has stayed with me. 'Claim your space', she urged. An instruction that's been rattling around in my mind ever since - because generally, as a profession, we really don't claim our space at all. We apologise for being here - even though what we do has immense value. We laugh off the worst portrayals of who we are and what we do - even though they are frequently offensive, untrue and often misogynistic. We allow ourselves to be seen through the lens of others - an ancient black-and-white image from another time, edges frayed by misunderstanding and misconception. All of which is not without irony given what we do - and what we do I've explained in another post.
How then do we claim our space? Recognising and championing what we do has to be the first step. Once again at a conference I found myself gnashing my teeth in frustration as some speakers (who hadn't done their homework) pushed us into the media relations box and closed the lid. Digital divas, behavioural economists, media measurement gurus lined up to talk to their own imagined version of who we are and what we do. I know the reasons why this happens and it's a conversation-for-conversion I've been having for most of my professional life - but the time really is now for us to claim our professional space. To do this successfully we need to be backed by our associations, like PRINZ, like CIPR and of course Global Alliance. We build the relationships necessary for organisations to keep their licence to operate. This involves effective communication, good behaviour and a developed understanding. Simple, easy to understand. Tough to do but we do it well.
We could let the misapprehensions persist or we can help people understand that it's more than order taking, word processing, content creation. Much more. Professional development will help. Being a lifelong learner will help. Most of all it takes courage to recognise who we are, stop apologising, reset the picture and claim our space - before it is occupied by someone else.
Worse than Boris Johnson clawing his way to power as UK Prime Minister is the news that he has appointed Dominic Cummings as his chief 'special adviser'. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Cummings, he was the mastermind behind the campaign that led to the Brexit referendum result. Previously Mr Cummings had been a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was head of Education in the UK.
Mr Cummings is a very, very smart man. Spend some time reading his blog (particularly this post which he leads with T S Eliot's The Hollow Men) and, if you work in public relations and communication management anywhere in the world, familiarise yourself with some of his views on our work. He has been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which examined how manipulated, misleading and false information was compiled and distributed by the campaign organisers leading ultimately to a referendum result that subsequently tipped the UK into political chaos.
Along with the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr Cummings is intent on breaking systems and remaking society in the image he feels we deserve. His impatience and fractiousness with the conventional machinery of Whitehall seeps into his blog posts and pours into his actions. It is in some ways a justifiable impatience and I would generally agree that impenetrable and established organisations that operate 'for the sake of the system' need to be shaken, changed, improved and modernised but the motivation should be for the betterment of society rather than to prove a point or demonstrate how clever you are.
So why am I fearful? I am fearful because in his public expression of intent, his reformation of the UK's political system is an intellectual exercise motivated by a strong desire to prove he is unequivocally right about pretty much everything. I am fearful because the UK has an unelected, unqualified leader, known for his unruly, unreliable and narcissistic behaviours, who has instructed the machinery of government to be driven by an unelected adviser determined to break systems he abhors. I'm fearful for everyone who lives and works in the UK, for people on the Irish border, for people in Scotland, Wales and England who will have to deal with the disruption and difficulties about to ensue because, as with everything, it will be the people at the food banks who will be most affected by the machinations and applied intellectualism of the elite. It will be the families struggling to stay in their homes who will find the wolf at the door. It will be those seeking refuge and respite who will be pushed away and discarded. And it will be those who truly seek change who will find their way blocked, barricaded and refused as systems are rejigged to ensure power remains with the few at the ongoing expense of the many.
As for good communication, there is little hope of transparent engagement with publics. It will revolve around command and control. It will revolve around constructed communication designed to obfuscate and bewilder. As a journalist Johnson's perspectives waxed and waned entirely on the whim of his paymasters. As a prime minister, being good with words is not enough - ways and means must be found to end the division and nationalistic hatred so adroitly sown by both Johnson and Cummings during their Brexit campaign. A campaign fuelled by data analysis and algorithmic targeting designed to tap into the base emotions of the small minority needed to swing a vote that allowed some to cling to power and some the opportunity to break a system they despise. And I am fearful that the aims and ambitions of these new hollow men revolve around the manufacture of a new, impenetrable elite that values power at any cost.
AN UPDATE: Within 24 hours of Mr Cummings' appointment, Facebook was flooded with ads for the Conservative Party. The ruling party isn't planning for Brexit, it is planning for an election. This is a frighteningly clear example of data targeting being used to identify and exploit the emotional and economic vulnerabilities of marginal groups with a view to manipulating election results in order to retain power.
There's a lot that's still right with Twitter and I'd include tweetchats as one of those things. Tweetchats provide the opportunity to converse with anyone, anywhere, anytime on pretty much any subject you like. There have always been chats concerning public relations and communication and recently I joined the regular #PowerandInfluence conversation run by Ella Minty.
The discussion - and the reason for bringing it here - centred on the question of whether public relations should be regulated. It's a discussion I've had many times over the years (and suspect I will have again) but it got me thinking about the progress we've made as a profession and whether now is the hour for regulation.
Public relations and communication makes a real difference to organisations of all types. Unfortunately, this can be for good - or for bad. Anyone can stick a sign on the door saying they're 'in public relations', without qualification, licence or even a basic skill set. They are also able to practice what they believe is 'PR' - often not 'PR' at all, but a weird publicity-mainstream media hybrid. In this scenario, there is no regulation, accreditation and qualifications are optional and, as a result, there are many people out there providing services that are at best misleading and at worst unscrupulous. That's a problem for everyone, not just the professional practitioners who have studied hard, gained qualifications, accreditation and subscribe to ethical practice by way of their national association or industry body code of ethics.
Historically, some countries have licensed practice but not without controversy, as, in some cases, government has regulated practice to restrict and control information - again, not as it should be.
Personally, I believe we should be regulated but the discussion around what type of model would work will, I suspect, continue for some time. There are models that could be adapted and applied, for instance, here in New Zealand, the real estate industry has an independent regulatory body. Every working agent must gain a licence in order to work, the licence is awarded on successful completion of study, followed by a probation and must be renewed annually. Such a system for public relations and communication management would give assurance of good conduct, improve understanding as to what we do and why we do it and provide a quality benchmark for both recruitment and consultancy.
It's a step forward that is long overdue.
Musing on measurement and evaluation led me to some recent conversations around public relations and its purpose. Silly of me not to have revisited the topic in a while but I truly forget that people still paddle around in the tactical shallows and miss the ocean of opportunity right in front of them.
There is still a propensity in western public relations practice to equate PR with mainstream media relations. It's a historical hangover from the time when media coverage was the only visible output and also because of the many journalists who wandered over from newspapers to work in the field - years ago, I made just that journey. Trouble is, those who move into public relations often never move on from journalism and fail to recognise that public relations is a different job entirely. The other problem is that many organisations don't understand (or, quite frankly, have no idea) as to the purpose and value of public relations. It has been variously defined - there's a bit of last century research that is generally trotted out which found hundreds of definitions - but life's moved on and there is plenty of current research that identifies quite correctly that public relations is concerned with relationships. Hardly a surprise when you consider the name of our profession.
The definition I've developed and advised after many years working in the field is this: public relations builds and sustains the relationships needed to maintain a licence to operate. Simple, straightforward and does what it says on the tin. But then you get arguments around communication v. public relations and all points in between. 'No, I do reputation', says one. 'No, I do corporate comms' says another. 'Wait', yells someone from the back, 'it's internal relations we should be highlighting'. The secret is there is no secret - everyone is right. What isn't right is their context - they are only seeing one part of the whole - which is why I developed the PR Atom pictured above to help visualise how it all fits together.
Relationships are at the heart of what we do. Without good relationships, with their components of trust, mutuality, commitment, loyalty, satisfaction and - my addition - reputation, organisations of all types will lose their licence to operate. Additionally, we function (for the moment at least) in a relationship economy. However, good relationships don't just happen, which is where our work is supported by the essential elements of communication, behaviour and understanding. All relationships need good communication, a clear understanding of each party involved plus good and appropriate behaviour from everyone. As relationships have their components, so too do the other elements. Practitioners - and their organisations - have to be adept at written, oral, visual and experiential communication, across channels and cultures. Our organisation or client behaviour must be ethical, fair, contribute value to society and be considerate of our stakeholders - which includes employees, internal relations and the employee experience. All these elements work together, constantly in motion to help fulfil our purpose. Practitioners may specialise in one or more areas of activity, indeed they may focus entirely on a single aspect or channel but if they lose sight of the whole, ignore the bigger picture and don't understand the purpose then they end up bogged down in the tactical, becoming order takers stuck on the hamster wheel of sending stuff out. Critically, working in the shallows leaves practitioners at seriously disadvantaged when crisis strikes or issues evolve as they'll be isolated from the rest of the organisation.
If you've recently joined our profession, a very warm welcome to you. I hope you enjoy this world of work where issues collide and there is something new to learn every day. My advice would be don't get stuck in the past, when practice was (in western countries at least) confined to publicity, media relations or lesser activities. Be curious. Be an evolved practitioner. See the whole. There are all sorts of places to find out more - there's a 'What is PR' page on this site for your reference and, last year, the Global Alliance published the Global Capabilities Framework which identifies the competencies we should seek to develop. Check it out and see the real scope of your work, escape the shallows and make a real difference to the communities and societies we serve.
There's been much talk this week about evaluation in public relations and communication management and, for me, the most surprising part of the conversation has been the consideration that evaluation is something new, the beginning of a step change in the approach to this essential part of our work. Surprising because research, measurement and evaluation has always been a crucial part of what we do and I'm always flabbergasted when I realise a lot of people either don't do it or don't know where to start.
Yes, for many years people got bogged down counting media clippings, hits on websites and stuff they sent out as well as other made-up measurements that were either vanity metrics or conjured from thin air in a bid to hint at success. Sadly, organisations still fall for this - mainly because they're not told or taught otherwise by those who are supposed to be their professional advisors.
Much of the problem is caused by a lack of understanding as to what we do - and I think it's probably time I wrote another post on the purpose and functions of PR - but for now here's a quick refresher on the process of public relations research, measurement and evaluation.
First up - what is your organisation hoping to achieve? What is your outcome? The end game, the place you want to get to? And, most importantly from a PR perspective, who do you need with you? Who are the people who hold your licence to operate (the permission you are given as an organisation to do the things you do) and what how healthy are your relationships? So, stage one - understand your organisational outcomes, identify your licence holders and stakeholder communities.
Next - research. Who are you, where are you, what do you do, who do you help - either with your product, service or specialism - why do you do it (purpose and values) and who doesn't want you to do it? How's your reputation? What are the risks and issues? Trends and tendencies? What does your data tell you? When was the last time anyone looked? Research the socks off your position, your area of operation (be that public or private sector) and find out all you can. In your formative research stage, benchmark your critical relationships - measure existing relationship components and find out how things are. This will inform your strategy, confirm your outcomes are sound - or need adjusting - and help you ascertain when you set your public relations outcomes whether you are heading in the right direction.
Third - set your public relations outcomes. These support your organisation's outcomes and will focus on the relationship and its components of trust, mutuality, satisfaction, commitment, loyalty, as identified by Grunig and Hon in 1999. I also add understanding and reputation as both are essential in initiating and developing sound relationships. Other outcomes (that organisations often find easier to understand) are behaviour, knowledge and attitude. As part of your formative research, identify where you sit on the scale - for example, we need to improve trust and satisfaction from X to Y, shift attitudes from A to B, change behaviours from E to F.
Once you know what you are hoping to do you can then develop a strategy to get you there, and, in doing so, set your measurable objectives (step four) which will inform your communications planning, act as signposts on the journey (are we on the right track or do we need to take a detour) and, collectively, the measures will help to inform your evaluation. Don't fall into the trap of using measurement and evaluation interchangeably - a measurement is a unit and an evaluation an assessment. For example, I have a piece of string that is a metre long. Great - that's my unit of measurement. The evaluation is an assessment - did the string work as a shoelace? Should it have been shorter or longer? Did it keep my shoe secure so I could run the marathon? Or should I have used actual shoelaces instead of string? What have I learned from this and how will this learning help me manage future marathons?
Then comes the implementation of your programme or campaign and with it, constant listening, monitoring actions, measuring interactions with your stakeholder groups against the measures of success you've identified within your objectives. Oh yes - it's not about mainstream media monitoring either. That might form part of your work to improve/build/sustain relationships, improve knowledge, behaviours and attitudes but that's only part of the story - and one small part. Public relations is not mainstream media relations so don't rely on that as a measure of your worth. There is also no such thing as 'the general public' or 'creating awareness'. You have to be specific. Public relations builds and sustains the relationships necessary to maintain an organisation's licence to operate - that's what you are working towards and that's what you need to measure and evaluate.
Once your programme is complete - and adjusted along the way thanks to your marvellous listening, monitoring and measurement - its time for your evaluation, which includes a repeat of the formative research and measurement of the relationship components so you can discover whether you've achieved your outcomes - that your organisation has, for example, improved trust and loyalty among employees and that knowledge of the organisation has increased to the point where behaviours and attitudes have begun to change. You can find the detailed 'how to' in our research, measurement and evaluation course and there's a video here that breaks this down a little more for you.
In the meantime, remember - it is absolutely possible to measure public relations and its value and impact for the organisation (of any type) undertaking the activity. All public relations work should be supporting the outcomes of the organisation and acting as a guide/change agent for behaviour, inside and outside the organisation. Don't 'settle' for nonsense measures, counting clips, hits, retweets and likes - they prove nothing other than you turned up for work and sent some stuff out. Look deeper, ask the questions, do the mahi and evaluate the results.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.