CIPR Social Media Panel: Guide to Paid Media

As a member of the CIPR’s Social Media Advisory Panel I spent a fun afternoon last Wednesday taking part in a ‘PR Hackday’ on the subject of paid media.

It was a good session with lots of productive discussion – both within the room and with practitioners at large via a Twitter Q&A.

Paid Media is major opportunity for the PR sector, but there’s a risk that PR will fall (further?) behind competing industries if they don’t recognise the opportunities and do something about it.

At least one participant in the Twitter Q&A remarked that paying to amplify messages or content wasn’t PR’s job. Could you ever imagine hearing an advertising or SEO agency saying: “We don’t do earned media. That’s PR.”?

At the end of the afternoon the panel had produced a useful series of resources for the sector, including:

Take a read/listen/watch and tell me that PR doesn’t do paid!


Challenges for PR in the 21st Century

I was asked to speak at the recent MIPAA PR Masterclass event about convergence and continuity in the PR industry.

I spoke about how the rise of ubiquitous digital media and, importantly, the computational layer that sits underneath all digital media is creating challenges for PR as a discipline and at a practical level.

I argued that algorithms play an increasingly significant part in determining what information we get to see, how we analyse and make sense of it as well as how our carefully crafted messages are mediated, manipulated and received.

I also discussed how the increasingly default nature for digital narratives is that of a fragmented datastream, rather than a coherent narrative (see Lev Manovich’s post).

And then for reassurance I suggested ways in which current practitioners could address and ensure a sense of continuity in terms of what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Some of the ideas and themes I took from a forthcoming chapter I have in the Routledge Handbook of Critical PR.

BBC Comment: Social Media Trends 2014

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 14.44.15Another quick link post featuring a series of comments I made for BBC News this week regarding the release of Google and Facebook’s top trends 2014.

You can read my incisive commentary over at the article.

New Publication: Organization & Abstract Hacktivism

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 11.58.28Just a short post to tell you about a new article I have published in the current issue of the journal: Ephemera: theory & politics of organization.

Titled ‘Abstract Hacktivism as a Model for Postanarchist Organization’ the full text is CC and available free to access via the Ephemera website. [pdf]


Colin Byrne PR Guest Lecture

Last night was the second of our LCC PR Guest Lectures, supported by Precise: media monitoring and evaluation.

Weber Shandwick’s UK & EMEA CEO, Colin Byrne, gave a great overview of the direction the PR industry is heading. He covered a lot of areas that most smart practitioners regularly allude to, but gave some useful contextual insight and evidence to argue for a cohernent future direction.

A Storify summary of the event is below:

More information (and how to book) on the two remaining FREE PR guest lectures is here.

Digital Skills Select Committee: Some answers on skills, education and the future of work

I was offered the opportunity to submit a written response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills in my capacity as member of the CIPR’s Social Media Advisory Panel.

My submission covered issues such as digital skills education, the future of work and the higher education system has been accepted and can be found in the Committee’s latest publication.

To save you trawling through the document, however, I’ve pasted my responses below. Enjoy!

Q. 5 How are we teaching students in a way that inspires and prepares them for careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist, rather than the current one? How can this be improved?

From experience of teaching undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals, it can be argued that there is still too much emphasis on classroom or lecture based teaching, taught to syllabi that are out-dated – or not necessarily reflective of emerging or transforming occupations – and are limited to rapid change or development due to bureaucracy within higher education or professional bodies.

Given the highly practical and technical as well as experimental nature of some elements of digital knowledge and skills it is important for students to gain hands-on experience of technology and its application in specific fields. This can be limited by the syllabi of courses and qualifications which tend to be taught by academics and professionals not familiar with new or emerging products or techniques as well as the facilities of education institutions which remain wedded to lecture theatre and classroom style teaching. The provision of ‘wired’ teaching spaces or computer-labs can be scant and, where it does exist, highly popular making it difficult to reserve and teach in.

As well as infrastructure limitations, education is also held back the scope of syllabi which remain unchanged and rooted in non-digital content. Part of this is linked to out-of-touch, established tutors as addressed above, but it is also partly to do with the laboriousness and time-taken to review and re-validate course content. The additional work and duration of this process is prohibitive to updating and adapting courses to new and emerging technologies, knowledge and skills.

Q. 7 How can the education system develop creativity and social skills more effectively?

The answer provided to Q. 5 above provides part of the context and answer to this one as well. However, the issues that require addressing to help the nations’s education system develop creativity lie pre-higher education and within the approach schools take to teaching and learning. For example, many undergraduate and postgraduate students encountered through my experience are overly focused on learning the ‘facts’ required to pass assessments, rather than recognising the ability to think critically and creativity and value the ‘process’ of knowledge exploration and development. Anecdotal research among student cohorts across a number of years indicates that this approach to learning stems from GCSE and A-Levels where the goal is not to develop techniques for learning per se, but rather ‘learn’ the exam inputs required to pass. By extension such an approach to teaching may well stem from schools’ desire to achieve successful results in order to satisfy league tables.

Locked into this approach is a highly detrimental way of learning which overlooks the value in self-directed exploration, creative thinking, experimentation and a recognition that coming up with creative ideas, trying them out, failing and adapting them is an important skill set to possess in contemporary society.

I’m not sure the education system has a primary responsibility for developing social skills.

Q. 8 How does the current post-16 system inspire and equip students to pursue careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist? How can this be improved?

Education and other state systems can be notoriously process-driven and focused on outputs rather than critical and creative thinking. In some respects it may be worthwhile developing partnerships with credible third parties to help students identify, understand and pursue careers in the future workplace. Linked to my response to Q. 7, one of he emerging areas of the economic and employment landscape is the increasing rise of individual responsiveness and entrepreneurship. Driven by digital technology’s empowerment if individuals and its fragmentation of existing industries this trend emphasises – at least presently – the opportunities for individuals to identify problems and develop solutions, either as start-up organisations (e.g. AirBnB, Uber, etc) or as individuals (e.g. the freelancing of traditional career paths and roles). Enabling students to think creatively, explore and test opportunities and even fail are key skills to be equipped with in such a broad, entrepreneurial economic environment.

Q.9 How can the digital sector be supported in the short- and medium-term? What is the role for higher and vocational education, national colleges, industry, and industrial policy?

In terms of the short and medium-term role for higher and professional/vocational education, more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding through research and embedding through teaching the key core knowledge and skills, e.g. techniques, ethical implications, successful applications, etc, of the major trends in the digital sector. These will be high-level insights and not necessarily available from existing workplaces or on course curricula. Extra funding for research and curriculum development will be key. One potential limitation for education is the growth of commercialised involvement in elements of the digital sector. The once open field of the Internet and ‘social media’ is fast being consolidated, commercialised and hide away behind patents and copyright. While tho is arguably inevitable in a market economy it means that teaching the application of popular or widely-used tools, technologies, platforms, etc will require ether partnerships with or licences for proprietary products. This is something that would potentially restrict education providers to limit student expose to one or two key technologies given exclusivity clauses or often exorbitant costs.

Online Reviews and Computational Reputation

Tom Slee’s In Praise of Fake Reviews is a fantastic read that looks at some of the ethical and legal issues of Yelp! and online review platforms in light of the Botto Bistro story that’s been going around social media and the news.

More pertinently for public relations in general (and some of the thinking I’ve been doing on algorithmic public relations in particular) is the notion of computationally determining issues such a reputation.

The essay marks a distinct gap between PR and its privileging of representational communication (i.e. words, images, etc) over – what can be termed – non-representational forms, in Yelp!’s case the algorithms determining ratings and rankings.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a great excerpt covering the complexities of reputation in a digital age and the need for people (public relations practitioners and academics?) to consider and get to grips with the ethical and moral issues at stake:

Reputation is a multi-faceted, qualitative concept. It has been pushed through a meat-grinder by digital reputation systems and has come out the other side homogenized, devoid of texture, but easier to digest. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reputation systems by themselves, but giving them too much authority or influence will inevitably throw up bad incentives on the part of the system owner and those taking part in the reviews. Before we declare “fake reviews” to be a crime or an obvious case of bad morals, we at least need to demand some accountability from reputation site owners.

Full blog post here.

The Ethics of Algorithmic PR: Social Media, Materiality and Post-Hegemonic Power

This is a summary of an embryonic paper accepted as a poster for the EUPRERA Annual Conference 2014: Communication Ethics in a Connected World, LASCO Laboratory, Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium, September 11th-13th.

This year’s call for papers poses the question: what place does ethics have in today’s communication practice? Moreover, it asks what is the relation between ethical issues, power and rhetorical construction of communication and discourse? This paper will attempt to address these questions by proposing a new conceptual framework for PR: one rooted in today’s digitally mediated landscape but, significantly, challenging existing notions of power and the rhetorical nature of contemporary communications.

This post provides a short overview of this new framework, outline some examples observed through ethnographic study of contemporary practice and consider briefly the ethical implications of this.

First and foremost, this paper offers a critical interpretation of public relations, consistent with the emerging field of critical and cultural scholarship in PR characterised as the “socio-cultural ‘turn'” (Edwards and Hodges, 2011: 1). However, I suggest that to adequately examine questions of power and ethics in a contemporary communications environment it is necessary to adopt a neo-materialist position. For instance, Coole and Frost (2010), argue that from a neo-materialist perspective “the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society” (Coole and Frost 2010, 2-3).

As a theoretical framework neo-materialist perspectives build on earlier developments in science and philosophy to turn ontological attention to the material – that is physical elements – constituting the world around us as well as the purely phenomenological. Neo-materialism represents a resurgence in the centrality and validity of matter – understood as “a commitment to the mind-independent existence of reality” (DeLanda 2006,1) – in contemporary society and refocuses analysis on the material’s inter-relation with the hitherto dominant analyses of language and representation.

In such a context, society and its constituent parts can be scrutinized through theoretical lenses such as the ‘critical sociology’ of Bruno Latour (2005), the Foucauldian ‘dispositif’ (Foucault 1977) and Delueze and Guattari (1987) and Delanda’s (2006) semio-material ‘assemblages’. Applying such approaches to strategic communication and public relations we can begin to see how dominant analyses of rhetoric, representation and discourse must be expanded to incorporate and account for the hitherto unseen material components of communication, such as technological infrastructure, computer software and bodily physicality of contemporary media practice (Manovich 1999; Latour 2005; Gillespie, Boczkowski and Foot 2014). The paper proceeds by focusing attention on the increasingly computational nature of contemporary PR, in particular the role of algorithms in influencing and controlling strategic communications (Manovich 2012; Lash 2007).

Accepting such a conceptual framework of contemporary communication grounded in material-semiotic terms, I propose developing the notion of ‘algorithmic PR’ – that is a recognition that PR practice has computational software as an integral and central part. Arguably few – if any – analyses of contemporary PR have addressed this dimension of strategic communication in the digital media environment. Such a gap requires identifying and exploring to fully understand the critical and ethical implications.


Identifying Examples of Algorithmic PR

The first step in this process is to identify and substantiate empirical examples of what an be understood as ‘algorithmic PR’. The following are two tentative scenarios where algorithmic PR can be discerned. Data for these examples has been gathered through ethnographic observation and interviews conducted with a number of UK-based, international communication agencies.

Scenario 1 –  Global Brand Crisis Strategy

In this scenario, a global brand had been targeted by an activist group primarily via its Facebook page. The group had initiated its attack strategically on a Sunday evening when the brand’s social media managers were not actively monitoring the Page. By Monday morning the Page was filled with anti-brand messages and calls for the brand to intervene to stop a wider international situation.

At this point, the activists’ communication had only had an impact on the brand’s Facebook presence and a meeting with the brand’s corporate communications team and social media agency crisis team was convened to judge the most appropriate response.
According to best practice, it was agreed that a response to activists’ concerns would be developed and posted on the brand’s Facebook Page. As the crisis was largely contained within Facebook it was agreed that no further external crisis communications activity was required.

Before the statement could be issued, however, claims started to appear on Facebook that the brand was censoring comments made by activists. In an era of social media, where transparency and openness are paramount (and enshrined in the brand’s own organisational policies for participation in social media) this was a serious development. A rapid investigation by the agency and client was initiated to establish whether or who was deleting user comments.

While the investigation was underway a high-profile media blogger had picked up on the crisis and criticism of the brand’s alleged ‘censorship’ of the Facebook debate and published a scathing article criticising the brand for adopting an anti-democratic approach to online debate. This initial post was picked up by other bloggers and subsequently traditional media and shared widely. This directed much greater attention and scrutiny on to the issue, exacerbating the organisational crisis for the brand.

After some research it was confirmed that no individual employee of the brand or agency was responsible for deleting activists’ posts and comments. In fact, the content was being ‘censored’ by Facebook’s built-in ‘auto-moderation’ functionality without knowledge of the agency or brand. This algorithmic tool detects profanity and other pre-determined ‘keywords’ appearing on the page and automatically ‘holds’ the comments for approval or deletion. While it can be argued that such a function is beneficial in helping brands and organisations from publishing offensive content, it is notable here that Facebook’s algorithm was responsible for exerting non-human agency to censor online discourse. This ‘unseen’ and material aspect of the communication process at work on the brand’s Facebook Page subsequently damaged the brand’s reputation to a greater extent that the original went. As a result it catalysed the spread of awareness of a critical issue and triggered a much wider crisis for the organisation.

Scenario 2 – Non-representational Communications Strategy

Discussion with a ‘digital reputation manager’ from an international PR agency revealed that a common strategy to help improve the public perception of an organisation with a poor reputation or public record would involve the targeting of Google results page. This approach was chosen due to the central importance of search engine results pages (SERPS) (and Google’s market dominance in particular) in shaping public awareness and perceptions of an organisations. Studies indicate, for example, that the first page of Google results generate 94% of clicks and the top result responsible for a third of all clicks.

Taking advantage of this situation, the digital reputation management activity of the agency would focus on developing a strategy that aimed to push negative, damaging or undesirable content off Google’s initial SERPs. If possible, this content would be replaced with positive – or more usually ‘non-negative’ content. This was achieved by studying (and, to an extent, second guessing) Google’s PageRank algorithm. Anecdotally if you can’t something on Google, it doesn’t exist.

The PageRank algorithm is Google’s the proprietary and commercially sensitive algorithm that determines where websites and content are displayed in Google’s results based on a given search enquiry. While the PageRank algorithm is a tightly guarded secret, a number of tactics can be deployed to ‘game’ or ‘optimise’ the results (see Philips and Young, 2009: 24).

These tactics and – more broadly – the strategic approach I would term ‘non-representational communication’. That is, it is a communications strategy that privileges as its outcome, the material effect of influencing an algorithmic, computational response, rather than exert a representational or phenomenological response by a human. The strategy creates and disseminates content that is designed to interact with and generate a positive outcome in Google search results solely as the desired outcome. This is in opposition to representational communication content which is designed to establish a mutual or communicative understanding based on a textual or visual interaction.

To illustrate this point, a representational approach to communication might be premised on producing information that represents the organisation’s position and adopted phenomena to elicit an emotional or informational response by the individual receiver. In a non-representational approach the individual receiver is only a secondary consideration. Rather the ‘message’ is created purely to trigger a positive (material) response by Google’s material algorithm.

Other examples
There are other examples of Algorithmic PR at work which are currently being gathered and analysed as part of this project. In many instances, the same non-representational strategies are being adopted by PR practitioners and communicators either intentionally or by proxy through the increased adoption of digital technology, such as Facebook, Twitter and other communications activities and processes requiring computational interaction – for example social media monitoring, social media measurement and brand or issue analysis using big data all rely on largely unseen – or at best – overlooked algorithmic or computational processes.

Algorithmic PR, Post-Hegemonic Power and Ethics
Having provided some examples of Algorithmic PR it is now important to explore some of its theoretical and practical implications. In keeping with the primary concerns of the conference this analysis will focus on assessing the usefulness of existing notions of ethics and power within PR.

Existing analyses of PR’s communicative power have tended to focus on the hegemonic potential of strategic communications’ rhetorical and discursive dimensions. That is, the ways in which discourse (as imagery and text) are created to represent specific ideologies and then seek to normalize them through repeated circulation or co-option or rejection of opposing ideologies.
However, algorithmic PR functions at a material level within the algorithmic software embedded in the technological infrastructure of communications tools. As a result power operates prior to and within the formation of conventional hegemonic representations. This is a notion Lash (2007) terms ‘post-hegemonic power’.

Interpreted as such, post-hegemonic power isn’t constructed from the outside and imposed on people through representative communication created and crafted by human agency, but rather generated from within through non-representative, material and non-human elements present in digital platforms (Beer 2009). This raises potent questions for scholarly understandings of PR, ethics and power.

For example, the notion of ethics and ethical values are traditionally understood as socially constructed and thus rooted in the individual agency – and processes – of practitioners. Read from  the ontological perspective of neo-materialism and post-hegemonic reading of power, ethical concerns need rethinking as they immediately become entangled in complex semio-material assemblages constituted through human and non-human agency – that is, through socially constructed practitioner decisions (i.e. doing the right thing’) and the augmentation by computational behaviours embedded in algorithms.

Take for example, the crisis case study discussed above. Practitioners were attempting to operate ethically by engaging with critical activists whereas Facebook’s algorithm had other “intentions’.’ How can practitioners, tasked with applying and adhering to ethical standards, such as consciously “protect[ing] and advance[ing] the free flow of accurate and truthful information” and “foster[ing] informed decision making through open communication” (PRSA n.d.), ensure that this occurs when algorithms can now be seen to play such a central role.

The Facebook brand crisis case study cited above illustrates this point neatly. Practitioners, believing they are operating as openly and accurately as possible, find their actions undermined by unseen software embedded within the platform. In turn, this type of challenge raises additional questions about social media and communication ethics. Some practitioners and scholars superficially suggest that social media is fostering a corporate and social environment requiring increased transparency and openness – values broadly supportive of ethical communication (Wright and Hinson 2008; Bertot, Jaeger and Grimes 2010) . Recognising algorithmic PR’s potential to exert hidden post-hegemonic power challenges this ‘ethical turn’ of social media.

More significantly from a macro-perspective, given the increased significance of non-human agency in shaping communicative power and PR practice, where can power be located? Where does it operate and who or what can influence or shape it?

The ‘flat’ ontological status of neo-materialism prevents ascribing a permanent reading of post-hegemonic power as either rooted a priori in human or non-human agency. Rather, its presence lies dispersed within complex and continual interactions of the material and semiotic. For example, when humans interact with algorithms, both the algorithmic software and human ‘software’ (that is, the brain’s computational capacity) both respond to each other and adapt accordingly (Manovich 1999).

We can see such a scenario in the context of algorithmic PR when, for example, a communications manager will craft content designed to respond optimally with Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm and in return the Edgerank algorithm will respond in a situationally specific way to make the communicator’s content or message more or less visible to the Facebook user network. This is a concern faced and addressed by many PR practitioners on a daily basis when planning messages and content for distribution through Facebook.

In such material-semiotic assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 1987; DeLanda 2006) tracing agency becomes a much more complex and multifaceted task that PR scholarship must recognise and take steps to address.


Beer, D. (2009) ‘Power Through the Algorithm?’ New Media Society. 11: 985.

Bertot, J. C., Jaeger, P. T. and Grimes, J. M. (2010) ‘Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: E-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies’ Government Information Quarterly. 27, 3: 264-271.

DeLanda, M. (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London and New York: Continuum.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Edwards, L. and Hodges, C. (2011) Public Relations, Society & Culture: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations. London: Routledge.

Foucualt, M. (1977) ‘The Confession of the Flesh’ in Gordon, C. (1980) (ed.) Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings. 194-228.

Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P. J. and Foot, K. A. (2014) Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society. Cambridge, MA. And London: MIT Press.

Lash, S. (2007) ‘Power after Hegemony: Cultural Studies in Mutation?’. Theory, Culture, Society. 24: 55.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manovich, L. (1999) ‘Database as Symbolic Form’. Convergence. 5: 80.

Manovich, L. (2012) Data Stream, Database, Timeline. Software Studies Initiative blog. Online. Available at: [Accessed 23rd February 2014)

Phillips, D. and Young, P. (2009) Online Public Relations. London: Kogan Page.

PRSA. (n.d.) ‘Ethical Guidance for Public Relations Practitioners’. PRSA website. Online. Available at: [Accessed 23rd February 2014)

Wright, D. K. and Hinson, M. (2008) Examining the Increasing Impact of Social Media on the Public Relations Practice. Institute for Public Relations. Online. Available at: [Accessed 7th September 2014]


New Journal Article: Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organization

I’m very pleased to report that Professor Andy Chadwick and I have a new co-authored article published today in the International Journal of Communication.

The article, Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organizations: The Case of the Guardian and the Edward Snowden NSA Leak, explores the ways in which – despite the apparent democratising and disruptive potential of digitally networked media – traditional news organisations are responding to the changing landscape and reclaiming a powerful space for their continued existence. We look at the #NSAFiles revelations and focus on the Guardian’s innovative news production strategy.

I’ve pasted the full abstract and citation below:

Andrew Chadwick and Simon Collister “Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organizations: The Case of the Guardian and the Edward Snowden NSA Leak” International Journal of Communication 8, 2014.


We argue that the Edward Snowden NSA leak of 2013 was an important punctuating phase in the evolution of political journalism and political communication, as media systems continue to adapt to the incursion of digital media logics. We show how the leak’s mediation reveals professional news organizations’ evolving power in an increasingly congested, complex, and polycentric hybrid media system where the number of news actors has radically increased. We identify the practices through which the Guardian reconfigured and renewed its power and which enabled it to lay bare highly significant aspects of state power and surveillance. This involved exercising a form of strategic, if still contingent, control over the information and communication environments within which the Snowden story developed. This was based upon a range of practices encapsulated by a concept we introduce: boundary-drawing power.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

Event review: PR and The Visual

Last month the research network I co-direct, the Network for Public Relations and Society, held its annual conference, PR and the Visual: Exploring Identity, Space and Performance.

LCC have made a short video of the event embedded above and I’ve embedded a great Storify from the Twitter back-channel of the day below.

However, if you want a more detailed account of the really, genuinely inspiring and exciting topics discussed on the day take a look at my post on the Network’s blog or have a read of the post from LCC’s communications team.

Don’t forget you can sign-up to Network’s mailing list to receive infrequent news and updates here.