What exactly is PR?

There was a really valuable post recently on the PR Place website (“Public relations for absolute beginners”), where Richard Bailey responded to a challenge about the need for the industry to get better at explaining what it actually is all about – and appealing to a wider cross-section of people who have yet to consider a career in it, or studying the subject.  Click here to read it.

It flags up crucially how it believes PR involves helping influence people to think or behave in certain ways, as opposed to simply being about persuasion.

It also flags up PR’s central concerns with ‘content‘ (in lots of different forms); ‘conversations‘ (in lots of different environments); and ‘community‘ (whether building, reaching, or resolving issues, for example).

Case study – PR supporting community festival, working with local school on a regional media appearance.

With a recent community festival held in my neighbouring village, the organising charity needed to raise raise awareness of the cause behind the bicentenary of the birth of novelist and social reformer, Charles Kingsley it was marking.  It needed to create ways for the local community and other stakeholder groups to keep in touch, and get involved with the festival (for example, through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook); and above all, it needed to keep a focus on selling tickets, which media coverage, like this piece on the regional news helped with.  Much of this is about being able helping to create or clarify ‘the story’, or simplifying messages, and making them consistent.

I still think it will be a long time before that part of the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) definition which says PR is “the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you” will be bettered, because it roots public relations activity in our daily lives, and the reality of our actions, even in the digital age.  In doing so, it reiterates the ethical dimension, without it having to be a ‘bolt-on’ – and, of course, views it all through the prism of ‘reputation’ which underpins it all.

PR secures coverage – and community conversations about the bicentenary festival.

It is crucial that the public relations world does more to explain what it does, and makes itself more accessible as a career option to young people in schools, sixth forms and FE colleges.  It is crucial, if we are to do something about systemic issues with lack of diversity in PR, and how PR plays its own part in putting up barriers to social mobility, especially through blocks to access, but also through reinforcing power structures in how it is delivered.

While we have seen some advances through the PR Apprenticeship (led by the PRCA), PR does promote itself as being a career which is almost exclusively degree-level entry – although I was always impressed by the diversity of backgrounds, and ultimate destinations on graduation of students I had the privilege to teach on PR degrees, with a long list of them now in fantastic positions, whether in-house or in agencies; or working in the corporate, consumer, entertainment, sports, defence, automotive, or health sectors, to name but a few.

I always thought that the CIPR Foundation course could form the basis of some kind of offer, if it was made a little more accessible – and cheaper.

And it’s not just young people.  If we are to do something about the reputation of PR, and help professionalise the delivery of public relations, we would do well to offer such short courses in the subject via adult and community learning across the community, and across generations.

More and more people have direct routes to delivering (or even responsibility for) public relations, particularly because of the democratisation of communication through social media.  Those in the industry might question that – but if we are serious about spreading understanding and best practice, we need to do something about sharing skills across our communities – and this too might do something about opening up new, diverse routes into PR as an ultimate career destination.

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DJ culture

Chris is a DJ.  God, Annie is a superstar DJ.  Both are on the radio.  James on the other hand is a podcast presenter (although he is on the radio too).  Krishnan is a podcast presenter (and on the telly).

Whatever the difference is between radio DJs and podcast presenters, podcasts provide an excellent long-form format to slow things down, and really get under the skin of a different set of issues, at a different pace.

Hence, I thought it well worth sharing these two excellent episodes of particular podcast series, which provide an environment, free of time pressures for two very different radio DJs to explore and reflect on their craft, their motivations, and on how they, their professional spaces, and the world around them have changed/developed in recent years.

The first is “Full Disclosure With James O’Brien” – in this particular episode, featuring Chris Moyles, who does the breakfast show on Radio X.

You can listen to the podcast via this link here: https://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts/full-disclosure-james-obrien/full-disclosure-with-james-obrien-chris-moyles/

The second is “Ways To Change The World With Krishnan Guru-Murthy” – in this particular episode featuring an interview with Annie Mac, who can be heard on BBC Radio 1.

You can listen/watch the podcast interview here:

I love radio – have been fascinated with it ever since I was a child.  Everything about it.  Jingles.  Voices.  Music policy.  The intimate bond the medium  can create with the listener.  The big moments radio can cover fast, whether news or popular culture.  The weird and wonderful things it can capture in a spirit of sheer delight and fascination, often in more detail than TV can hope to.   The ability for DJs to signpost new music with a verve that algorithms simply can’t compete with.  And the sheer scale and simplicity of the creative potential of the medium.

I managed to get work experience at my local radio station, Radio 210 in Reading, when I was still a student.  Like some of my mates at university, I spent hours presenting shows on the university radio station.  When I grew up, I never got to be a DJ (Ha! The very idea!), but I ended up working in PR, for much of that time, in the radio industry.

I was privileged to work closely with Chris Moyles for around four years as his PR when he first came to BBC Radio 1 back in 1997, before he got to the dizzy heights of breakfast, still very much in the pre- social media age.  In this podcast interview, he discusses at length that love of the radio craft which I got to see at close quarters.

He also discusses his attitude towards some of the more aggressive or intrusive sections of the tabloid press.  His frustration is clear.  We are all embarked on professional and personal journeys – and Chris is very open about his.  I was able to chart my own journey while listening, and reflect about a lot of the lessons, and directions taken.

Me in younger days, as Radio 1 PR, on the Roadshow stage.

It was a high pressure, high stakes environment when it came to PR and BBC Radio 1, which was going through a period of huge change.  It was always a little easier for me to stand back, and see this as a job, but listening to Chris in this podcast, it underlines how, in any situation which comes under media or public scrutiny, real people’s lives and relationships are at stake, not just academic scenarios.  While we worked together, Chris wasn’t on the breakfast show, so not under the main radar target of those tabloids, but those frustrations with what could be seen as ‘lazy’ or intrusive journalism were already there.  James O’Brien is able to demonstrate some empathy, having been on the showbiz desk at the Daily Express around the same time.  And what a professional journey he has had!

It’s easy to forget that we are all always growing – and for me, this was a joy to listen to the podcast in this respect.  Personally and professionally reflective.  I learnt a lot about Chris – but also about myself.

DJ culture:

The same was true for Annie Mac‘s interview.  I never got to work with Annie Mac – she joined BBC Radio 1 as a broadcast assistant after I had left, but soon rose up the ranks, and crossed over from the production floor, to become a DJ.  Both of the podcasts are great for demonstrating the power of reflection in opening up lessons from the tracks across our lifelines.  Annie touches on the power of ‘place‘ and ‘space’, and how it has diminished in fostering culture, for example, when it comes to clubbing.  There’s also much to think about around bigger questions to do with gender, and power too.

Whether you are a regular radio listener or not, I thoroughly recommend you give these two podcast episodes a listen.

I loved having that opportunity to work with Chris Moyles.  That obsession with the medium of radio has never left me, and I cherished being able to promote someone who I knew shared that obsession.

Today, my obsession expresses itself is so many different ways throughout the week, listening, for example to:- Janice Long on BBC Radio Wales (Mon-Thurs, 7.00-10.00pm); Late Junction‘ on BBC Radio 3 (Tues-Thurs, 11.00pm-12.30am); Phil Taggart on BBC Radio 1 (Sun, 7.00-9.00pm); Jo Whiley on BBC Radio 2 (Mon-Thurs, 7.00-9.00pm); Rachel Burden & Nicky Campbell; and Emma Barnett on BBC 5Live (Mon-Fri, 6.00-10.00am, & 10.00am-1.00pm respectively); James O’Brien, Shelagh Fogarty, Eddie Mair, Iain Dale and Nick Abbot on LBC; Lynn Parsons on Magic Radio (weeknights, 8.00pm-midnight); so much of what’s on BBC Radio 4 (but especially Ritula Shah!) and BBC 6Music; and some of what is left of local radio, although that is increasingly difficult (where I live, that means Eagle Radio, and BBC Sussex & Surrey – which covers my part of NE Hampshire).  I just wish I could shake off a lot of the jingles, voiceovers and awful adverts still trapped inside my head from my childhood! (“You could win a holiday for two!”).

Podcasts – sound?

It’s no surprise I struggle to find enough time to listen to podcasts because of the amount of radio I am already listening to – although it’s great there is so much content out there, and it’s never been easier to make yourself heard.  Back in 2017, I spent 18 months pulling together a community podcast network locally, Sound Vault.  There are so many formats – we had an 11 year old who managed to bag an interview with Jeremy Hunt MP; a children’s storyteller producing a podcast who had never used a computer before – and then there was sound design too.

One of the strongest ‘shows’ we delivered was a surreal comedy with ambient soundtrack, called “An Audio Listener’s Guide to Adequate Hearing” by Tom Garrett.  I will leave with a link below, so you can listen to an episode.  As well as reflecting more, it has to be about listening a little more.

Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, usually in Service Updates, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

Resist!

Over the last few months, I’ve had cause to concentrate my focus on the theory and practice of turning protest into power, to an extent that I probably haven’t done since the mid-90s. The campaigns-related side of public relations, and best ways of developing effective strategies are obviously things which have dominated my time as a communications practitioner, and then in teaching in around ten years as a lecturer on the subject, but I’ve been reflecting enough of late to feel the urge to post my thoughts here.

It began after reading ‘How To Resist: Turn Protest Into Power’ by Matthew Bolton (2017: London, Bloomsbury). This post would have remained a simple book review. I didn’t realise that I had failed to type up the notes I had made on the book, but in the intervening period, I managed to get embroiled in the democratic process more than I had intended. I’m now co-leading a group of local residents where I live examining issues connected with “Getting Around” as our local town council look towards developing a new neighbourhood plan) – as well as finding myself leading a very measured protest against the axing of a community bus service, so I may as well bring these three things together into a single post on the theory and practice of ‘resisting’.

And back in the middle of October, I had the added benefit of attending the launch of the RSATeenAgency’ which provides further scope for reflection on some of these themes.

I’ll begin with the book, as it had been on a pile of purchased, ‘yet to read’ titles by my bed, but circumstances conspired over the summer to make it even more attractive to read. With Brexit weakness and incompetence being displayed by our political class; Austerity-fuelled policies serving to deprive citizens of meaningful innovation or control over public policy, and a series of gigantic moral outrages such as Windrush and Grenfell, I know from my experience, and that of my peers that we have never felt so in need of political solutions, but equally, never so emasculated by the paucity of quality on offer from our party political system.

Having been involved to some degree in campaigning during my professional life too (only to feel let down by the bastardisation through a thirst for votes of some of the original campaigning ideals of the ‘community politics’ approach I had been introduced to as a teen by the Liberals), this new book tantalised me.  It is penned by Matthew Bolton, who has been at the heart of the Citizens UK movement, and as such, is able to call upon lessons from practical campaigns (and wins at that) such as for the Living Wage, particularly on campuses of specific universities, for their cleaners, and for contract cleaners at HSBC.

The book is full of valuable lessons, such as the need for anyone embarking on any campaigns to do a ‘power analysis’, not just of structures, but of people, not just external to the campaign, but within it too.  Also, the need to ask oneself, “What can I do in my everyday life to affect this?” – it might not just rely on megaphones and banners.

Indeed, if I had any criticism of the book (and I don’t really), it would be that I would like to see more dedicated to this last aspect, as well as the time/attention given to the flair with which  we can try to trip-up wrong-doers who might have excessive power. I’d maybe like to see as much attention given to the leading by example stuff, which I think probably has more scope in a tired and cynical age.

So, what other signposts for us? The importance of relationships – of the human aspects in our lives, in ultimately achieving change.  For example, activating word of mouth. In addition to power analysis, other priorities for Bolton are listening (what do people care about? What is their self-interest? How do they frame issues?); the need to constantly look out for potential team members; the importance of honing your story; and looking at both internal and external action as different priorities.

Once you get the ball rolling, numbers will ultimately be important – a critical mass. Networks and word of mouth are the best way of achieving this, and those direct relationships. Direct, broadcast shortcuts might be attractive, but they are no substitute.

Activity to achieve this, more often than not, must be meaningful (not gimmicky), yet enjoyable.

Bolton does propose some ideas to help with ‘tactical innovations’ in delivering campaigns – a phrase I picked up from a discussion I heard on a BBC World Service show (an episode of ‘The Real Story’), about whether protests have had their day, in the light of the ‘blimp’ during Trump’s visit during the Summer of 2018. It was coined by L.A. Kauffman (Direct Action and the Invention of American Radicalism), who argued that you often need such devices merely as ‘troop motivators’ during bleak times. Also on Ritula Shah’s panel were David Graeber, Dana Fisher, and Fatima Shabodien. You can listen to the show by clicking here. I thoroughly recommend it.

Click through to listen to this discussion on Protest.

He suggests widening the net – finding ‘unusual allies’ – it is from these connections that you will be successful in synthesising ideas, contributing from a wide range of experiences, so as to discover surprises, turn heads, and find those creative tactics and campaign content. Bolton offers some ultimate tips to campaigners:-

* look after yourself/pace yourself; * ask yourself what you really care about, to best identify motivators; * stop doing some things; delegate others; * weave social change into your life, to make it more effective and fundamental; * do it as part of a team; * be strategic; make a plan; * take control of your schedule, and ensure it includes one-to-one conversations; * find time.

Bolton ended with an iron rule – never do for others what they can do for themselves. I don’t always practice what he preaches, but I do see it’s importance.

This is important. It’s where I came in. It’s what that ‘community politics’ thing was supposed to be about, but politicians liked doing things ‘to’ people, because it helped them collect votes.

This should be about showing people how to do it for themselves – and the thrill of the transformative effect for themselves and the community when they do. Otherwise, we will be back to square one very quickly.

I’m not at all sure that there is much hope – but we have to be optimistic that it is worth a try – and willing to laugh at the absurdity of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Using Slinkachu-style models as a consultation tool for qualitative research in local community cafe, Cafe 46.

Being in that frame of mind, and having read ‘Resist‘, when I saw that the Town Council group on my local patch working on creating a new Neighbourhood Plan earlier this summer, as a way of creating a shared vision for our town, and providing an ‘additional layer of control’ over development decisions’ were having a public meeting, me and a friend went along.

We came away, having ‘stepped up to the plate‘, volunteering together to co-lead the subject group looking at transport and traffic issues.  We already felt we had made a difference by getting agreement for its focus to shift to “Getting Around” so it can look at issues for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and users of public & community transport too, as a one of the best ways to solve issues for drivers stuck in jams and looking for a parking space.

My own personal motivation was having to surrender my driving licence a few years ago due to my neurological condition, I discovered just how woeful public transport has become. Despite being the second largest town in our district/borough, we have no bus connection to the largest town (despite it being only four miles away), no direct bus connection to the mainline London Waterloo railway services, and the last bus back from the nearest major town leaves there at 8.50pm!

Some days I have a real ‘high’ about the possibilities the process gives us, and just what level of innovation may be deliverable.  On other days, I am down in the doldrums, worried that it all might just be a toothless paper exercise (I have bad experiences of public sector ‘consultations’).  I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in between, and I just have to manage my expectations – but if you don’t take part, you can’t shape things.  In addition, as well as the formal process of creating a Neighbourhood Plan, the whole thing means conversations are happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen; the seeds of other campaign ideas are being planted; and networks are being created in the process, so it’s a valuable thing in itself for that reason, if nothing else.

You can read blog posts on the specific journey of our ‘Getting Around‘ group of the Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore Neighbourhood Plan in our beautiful corner of North-East Hampshire at https://ydf-np.org.uk/getting-around/ .

The regulars on the free community bus facing the axe by Sainsbury’s.

I mentioned those days when I am in the doldrums.  One reason I had good cause to be reminded of why the clouds can often obscure my optimism is when Sainsbury’s recently announced with no notice that they were axing a valuable community resource – a free shopper’s bus which takes many older people, and disabled as well as other members of the community to a local superstore (Watchmoor Park, Blackwater Valley Road) otherwise inaccessible by public transport.  Many of these people are not on the internet either, and the Stagecoach contracted bus delivers passengers right back to their doorsteps with their shopping.

The reason I felt so down?  A little research on my part in the neighbouring council offices (Surrey Heath) unearthed the fact that Sainsbury’s were legally obliged to be providing the bus service as a condition of them securing planning permission for an extension to the store back in 2004!  Despite this, Sainsbury’s have felt able to ignore this, and no democratic scrutiny or enforcement has stopped them from doing so.  Hopefully, an intervention from me, with support from fellow passengers and a local councillor will get the wheels of legal enforcement moving by the local authority – but it may be too late to stop an interruption to the service on which many rely.  If the bus does end, despite my success in navigating the system and getting the supermarket’s ‘collar felt’, I will find it difficult to have any faith in shaping future planning policies, if I’ve just seen a historical planning condition which affects so many people woefully ignored!

Still, it has been a good example of putting some of the lessons of Matthew Bolton’s book into practice – particularly with regard to power analysis, and the importance of relationships. Yes, posting on Facebook groups, photo-opportunities, yes, but some of the most valuable insights were about talking to the people affected by the issue, and understanding the real heart of the power when it comes to the problem.

I’ve already combined a lot of things into this post, but I will touch on one other.  I was lucky enough to attend the mid-October launch of the RSA report “TeenAgency” on how young people people are changing the world, and how best to support them in their efforts to make a difference in their communities.  It deserves a post in its own right, and I will hopefully get round to doing so in  due course.

Panellists Ruth Ibegbuna (founder of the RECLAIM project in Manchester, and now of the Roots Programme) and Sam Conniff-Allende (founder of Livity, and now author of ‘Be More Pirate‘), together with some particularly powerful contributions from young people on the panel made strong points about the need to have ambition and imagination in supporting youth-led social action, and rather than accepting ‘tokenism’ which creates ‘special panels’ with a place for a young person reserved on them, we need to always question where power lies, and be prepared to help mentor young people to support them in building networks for themselves, and busting open established power structures, because it will probably benefit us all in creating a more open, transparent, supportive and dynamic society for all, not just for young people.

I was lucky enough to go along to the launch of the report with a few friends:- Ed Mather (the director of Yateley Sixth Form, at my local comprehensive, Yateley School); a good friend, Luke Buckland (who is co-leading the subject work I talked about earlier on our local Neighbourhood Plan), and a best friend who is soon to take up post in an exciting new academic leadership position when a powerhouse brand will take all its prestige and head-turning ‘clout’ and use it to make new moves in higher education.  We’d arrived after only having just met-up with one of my first bosses, Sir Simon Hughes, who has recently been installed as the new Chancellor of London South Bank University.

These networks, built from the friendships you assemble along the path you tread in life’s rich tapestry can also form the basis of some interesting partnerships, and the germ of some creative ideas when you campaign.  They need to be celebrated, nurtured, and above all, shared with a new generation.  One point which came out powerfully in the ‘TeenAgency’ event is that there are some people who are born into classes with these networks ‘ready made’, or bought, courtesy of private education.  The rest of us must make common cause to overcome that advantage of others – and often, it only takes a knock on a door, or a simple request to get that access shared.  We need a bit more solidarity!

And perhaps I need to write shorter posts! I’ll return to some of the more specific issues I’ve in bite-size form in future posts.  Thanks for bearing with me!

 

In the fields, factories and workshops – is PR really dead?

I eagerly awaited my copy of ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ after so much pre-promotion earlier in the year. The hard copy of the book had been unavailable until June, and since one of the knock-on effects of my neurological condition is a loss of control of muscles in my eyes, and a bad case of double vision, I’m not able to read e-books at all well, which is the only form the book had been available for many months.

"Trust Me, PR is Dead", written by Robert Phillips and published by Unbound.

“Trust Me, PR is Dead”, written by Robert Phillips and published by Unbound.

I was in equal part excited, and equal part exasperated with the case the book attempted to make for burying the PR industry.

There was much to be found to agree with in the lessons drawn from the vast treasure chest of personal and professional experiences raided by Robert Phillips (former EMEA President and CEO of Edelman) with regard to ‘bad PR’. I have long felt that the traditional model of large PR agencies (and some established publicity-driven strategies) can have an in-built interest in depriving organizations and individuals of the ability to communicate naturally and effectively, so that the agencies continue to have a market for their wares. The fact that PR trade magazines/websites are mainly full of stories of agencies losing their accounts, and them then being awarded to a new agency could be said to imply that all activity inevitably ends in failure. For far too long, individuals and organizations have been too eager to ‘sub-contract out’ all responsibility for their communication, both actions and words. It has meant that when they come to perform, they can no longer ‘dance’ instinctively.

But the tone of the book instead reads as if he has a private ‘beef’ with an industry that he was quite prepared to operate within for decades. When I became dissatisfied to an extent with some of its drift, I felt I could make a greater contribution by helping to coach and mentor the next generation of practitioners going into the industry, so that they had the confidence and the tools to question the way things are done much earlier in their careers.

Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips

At one point in the book, Phillips shares with us a conversation he had with Richard Edelman about his deep concern about the future of the PR industry. He goes on to list a series of characteristics which I have to say I do not recognize as being the future drift of the industry. They may be characteristic of a particular type of agency, but that is no reason to tar all with the same brush. These are:-

  • the industry’s inability to embrace data;
  • an insistence on celebrating generalists when it should be elevating specialists;
  • a focus on physical growth rather than developing ‘skillsets and intelligences’ required to serve clients effectively;
  • an obsession with the advertising industry and getting on the board;
  • ignoring the concept of ‘citizens’ over ‘consumers’;
  • celebrating ‘bureaucracy’ over excellence.

There are so many examples of people, both in-house and in agencies, and PR practices which do not operate in this fashion. In his book, Phillips singles out examples such as California outdoor apparel company, Patagonia; engineering firm, Arup; the inevitable John Lewis; Spain’s co-operative federation, Mondragon, and Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.

This is what the Domestos 'Flushtracker' website looked like for World Toilet Day.

This is what the Domestos ‘Flushtracker’ website looked like for World Toilet Day.

For myself, I could highlight the #RainbowLaces initiative (see video above) on homophobia in football by The FA, Stonewall, and partners like Metro and Paddy Power, so skilfully and humorously executed by Arsenal players like Oliver Giroud and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain last year. I could signpost initiatives like World Toilet Day, which only do not receive as high a profile as it deserves in the UK because of a clash in dates with Children in Need. It was only because of the ‘Domestos’ backed ‘Flushtracker’ website (it really does what it says on the tin) that I discovered about diarrhoea killing more people each year than HIV/AIDS – and there are a whole host of other organisations who have got involved with a range of innovative fund-raising, awareness raising, and life-changing projects, thanks to PR.  I have been a long-term admirer of Ben and Jerry’s, and how the ice cream company lives and breathes the values it articulates, rather than them being a ‘bolt-on’ CSR project. The principles behind its charitable foundation read like something beyond what Jeremy Corbyn might articulate in politics.  Then there is the way Burberry has integrated digital engagement seamlessly into its consumer strategy, renewing its reputation. And on a personal level, I have to celebrate how someone like DJ Stephanie Hirst has handled her own personal profile, dealing with her gender transition by kicking it off with a powerful piece of live radio on BBC 5-Live with Stephen Nolan last Autumn, which has then seen her developing a large following on social media, and an appropriate development of media appearances on TV, radio and newspapers.

Giving PR a 'legal' re-brand.

Giving PR a ‘legal’ re-brand.

When my students were presented with Phillips’ arguments as they had appeared in the trade press and online, and with his new organization ‘Jericho Chambers’ earlier in the year, they were a touch cynical. They felt he was using rather traditional PR tools to generate controversy by saying ‘PR is dead’, to generate interest in his book and in his new venture, and branding his ‘agency’ using ‘legal nomenclature’ to give him brand value, and possibly so he could charge higher fees! ‘Spin’ is such a subjective concept.

Old-skool 'Tamagotchi' pets

Old-skool ‘Tamagotchi’ pets

Phillips’ prognosis is ‘Public Leadership’, but if you tried to explain the practical realities of that to many parts of society who have very real needs of PR, it would sound too much like the ‘jargon’ he is quick to criticise other practitioners for. I agree with his point about ‘action, not words’. I agree with the point about the need for us all to take responsibility for our actions. The concept of ‘organic systems’ where we see the organizations PRs work for as more like a tamagotchi pet may be more appropriate. But the idea of public ‘relations’ is definitely appropriate, and maybe the problem that Phillips has encountered is that PR is too often confused with being merely part of sales.

A 'leadership' hero - just a shame he's a work of fiction - President Bartlet.

A ‘leadership’ hero – just a shame he’s a work of fiction – President Bartlet.

Do we really need another term or activity of ‘Public Leadership’, when we already have plenty of literature on ethics? The four principles of ‘Public Leadership he outlines are already embedded in public relations literature – activist (issues linked with professionalism debates); co-produced (issues linked with curation); citizen centric (issues linked with power), and society first (issues linked with ethics).

"Wot no Bob Maclennan?" - the original SDP Gang of Four.

“Wot no Bob Maclennan?” – the original SDP Gang of Four.

His solutions appear to stop short at the PR industry, rather than going much further to tackle what I would argue are his real targets – the power structures of society, and the economic model of capitalism. Phillips seems particularly wedded to the concept of ‘social democracy’, but in the way he presents this, it appears to be through a sense of nostalgia because of his involvement in the launch of the SDP in the 1980s. I personally have nothing against this. I will ‘out’ myself here. My head was turned as a teenager by the ‘new’ SDP in the mid 1980s, and it was only because my local constituency had a better populated Liberal Party that I chose them to join over the SDP.

"Fields, Factories & Workshops" by anarchist writer, Peter Kropotkin.

“Fields, Factories & Workshops” by anarchist writer, Peter Kropotkin.

But I question his attachment to the term ‘social democracy’ with regards to a solution to the kind of problems he outlines in the book. ‘Social democracy’ would imply something which is more state-centred, or centrally dictated in terms of direction or solutions. This book’s solutions, if they are to have any meaning would do better to draw on more anarchist, co-operative or social-liberal philosophies, decentralized, and placing more stress on individuals taking more responsibility for their own actions, both within the profession, and within wider society. I quote Phillips himself here: “Real people need to be liberated to make decisions, rather than allow abstract instruments of economic imperialism to take hold. As Diogenes the Cynic is quoted as saying, ‘the markets are the places men go to deceive one another.’”

Aristotle

Aristotle

Ancient Greece looms large in a number of places in the book. As well as Diogenes, Phillips draws on Aristotle for references to an active polis. He argues Aristotle may have been an early ‘social democrat’ because of his support for the principles of fairness and social justice – core pillars of the ‘common good’. What Phillips fails to touch on is Aristotle’s role as arguably one of the first public relations practitioners, as the architect of rhetoric – a beautiful concept when practiced properly, and not in an empty form. Persuasion is a legitimate activity.

The dichotomy between hierarchy and networks - ably represented by this diagram, courtesy of http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/hierarchy/

The dichotomy between hierarchy and networks – ably represented by this diagram, courtesy of http://edbrenegar.typepad.com/leading_questions/hierarchy/

Many of the issues he deals with across communication are being addressed by practitioners large and small, in actions and words – and by academics across the globe. So, ‘Yes’, I can agree wholeheartedly with his analysis of many of the threats to the sector’s relevance which it must embrace and play with – ‘Data and Insight’ (happening); ‘Outcomes, not Outputs’ (happening); ‘Networks, not Hierarchies’ (happening); ‘Scale’ (happening); and ‘Talent’ (happening).

Iain Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith

FIFA's Sepp Blater, put on the spot by Lee Nelson's 'stunt'.

FIFA’s Sepp Blater, put on the spot by Lee Nelson’s ‘stunt’.

The real issues lay beyond PR, as Phillips seems shy of actually admitting. One of his ‘Wise Crowd Contributors’, George Pitcher is actually quoted in the book as saying, “But the problem isn’t PR. How could it be? The prosperity of public relations has only been enabled by its paymasters. The be-suited PR flaks are but the suppurating buboes on the plagued bodies of our national institutions. Nor will shooting the rats which carry the plague help very much – banging up bankers, or simply rescinding their knighthoods, may provide temporary satisfactions, but they hardly address the disease…… Freeloading MPs, thieving bankers, lying police officers, gangster utilities, treacherous journalists and fraudulent retailers have collectively demonstrated that spin was an effect, not the cause of our malaise.”

Surely these are the bigger villains of the piece?

A particularly bad case of a 'cut and shut' car.

A particularly bad case of a ‘cut and shut’ car.

Some technical points. I found the book easy to read, and it is to be commended for that, but at times I found it repetitive. In style, I thought it could appear a little ‘cut and shut’, with material (some anecdotal) being stitched together to make the case for points the author held dear, rather than an effective case being built. The book would particularly have benefitted from ‘in-text’ referencing throughout the book, to ‘copper-bottom’ the arguments being advanced.

Redacted text.

Redacted text.

I understand totally the need to ‘redact’ or censor identities, and conversations, to prevent litigation, whilst still providing insights. However, it would appear to go against the whole point of the book, which would surely argue for ‘open’ communication at all times. Instead, it would appear to be a device to promote salaciousness, and further interest in the book. The redactions prove that communication cannot always be fully ‘open’, and sometimes there are other interests that have to be considered.

That being said, I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone working in PR. It is a good wake-up call for the industry, but we should be under no illusion that it deploys many of the promotional tools that it decries the industry for. At times, I laughed out loud – I loved the story about the ‘Brainstorming Consultancy’ where a colleague seemed to forget she was not at a drinking game, and jumped into the middle of an ‘away-day style’ circle of colleagues, and said, “Jump into the middle if you have ever had a three-some with your boss” and no one followed, leaving her exposed in the middle! I could easily have seen it happening in a number of my previous workplaces.

Earlier in the year, Phillips got entangled in a Twitter conversation with a good friend of mine – Kevin Rye – latterly a PR of some repute with ‘Supporters Direct’ – the movement campaigning for fan ownership in football, and proof of PR going with the grain in terms of societal change. Phillips didn’t seem to be able to defend the central thrust in the title – indeed, he even revealed that the title was NOT his idea, and gave up debating with us by saying that Kevin was obviously better read, and better researched than he.

Phillips may have been being ironic when he said Kevin was better researched, and better referenced - but he appeared to give up the argument advanced in the book far too easily.

Phillips may have been being ironic when he said Kevin was better researched, and better referenced – but he appeared to give up the argument advanced in the book far too easily.

Phillips reveals that the idea for the title of the book was not his - perhaps he doesn't really think PR is dead after all?

Phillips reveals that the idea for the title of the book was not his – perhaps he doesn’t really think PR is dead after all?

Kevin argues that PR can be used to 'shape' and 'frame' - while I replied to the debate, arguing that I shifted from politics into PR because that's how I felt I could achieve more for societal change!

Kevin argues that PR can be used to ‘shape’ and ‘frame’ – while I replied to the debate, arguing that I shifted from politics into PR because that’s how I felt I could achieve more for societal change!

As I replied to their debating, “I shifted my focus from politics into PR because I wanted to be part of societal change.” This seemed to totally blind-side him, but it’s true. Whether it’s as a trustee with a charity, as a volunteer with the local Citizens Advice, or coaching the next generation of practitioners (which I continue to get involved with through the ‘PR Fraternity’ at the University of Greenwich) – or the way I practiced PR with a variety of clients and employers, I genuinely think I have done things differently – paying attention to the particular, taking responsibility, and keeping an eye on the common good. I do not think I am a freak. Equally, I think there is a great deal of need for change, just as there is in most industries. Changing PR’s name to ‘Public Leadership’ though won’t make a jot of difference to the staff of the Citizens Advice where I volunteer.

It would have been far too easy for me to illustrate the next paragraph with a photo of a urinal here - I have used the power of social media to campaign about the state of the toilets in a previous university where I have taught. Instead, here is a plate of 'Happy Faces' biscuits! Just make sure you wash your hands before you take one.

It would have been far too easy for me to illustrate the next paragraph with a photo of a urinal here – I have used the power of social media to campaign about the state of the toilets in a previous university where I have taught. Instead, here is a plate of ‘Happy Faces’ biscuits! Just make sure you wash your hands before you take one.

Phillips said that his original suggestion for the title of the book was ‘Biscuits and Bathrooms’ because of the industry’s preoccupations with debates over spending on biscuits in meetings, and on initiatives to put organizational ‘value statements’ on ‘wipe-clean’, laminated signs in staff toilets, as the best companies can do on employee engagement! But these are not just a PR problem – this is a problem with business as a whole. It’s a problem with quality management, just as we all have a problem with automated call-centres, and self-service checkouts. You get a sense that with Phillips, it has become personal, and maybe after a break, he can re-start his obvious love affair with what PR makes possible.

Phillips lays out plenty of analysis for future behaviour in business, but having been a lecturer and trainer in public relations since moving on from 20 years in the industry, I can vouch for the fact that many of his themes are being embraced. PR is not all about shouting buzz-words in order to sell things, but can be about helping an organization or an individual become more ‘naked’, and learn how to dance. PRs can be the ‘eyes and ears’ as well as the mouth; an ‘inner voice’, more often than not saying ‘No’ if it effectively speaks truth to power. I would have loved it more if the book got more excited about a range of disciplinary contributions – whether from sociology, anthropology, economics or psychology – to help communications flourish, wherever their contribution is needed. And social media has media it easier to signpost many of these, and debate between ourselves, and share/grow a body of ‘good practice’.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - dancing!

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – dancing!

I get a sense that Phillips and I would ‘get on’ . In one of his final chapters, ‘It’s OK to Be an Asshole’, he establishes the principle that it is good to mis-behave, and it is good to dance – two professional qualities I have tried to instill in my graduates. I never dreamed I would be inspired to come to the defence of public relations, but this book has done just that.

* Phillips, R (2015) ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’, London: Unbound

** ‘In The Fields, Factories and Workshops’ is one of the seminal texts by anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

*** Links to the PR Fraternity at https://www.pinterest.com/prfraternity/ and https://instagram.com/uogprfraternity