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.

References:

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: http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2012/10/data-stream-database-timeline-new.html [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: http://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/ethics/#.UxBj615Rndh [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: http://www.clayton.k12.mo.us/cms/lib/MO01000419/Centricity/Domain/2/NSPRA/SM_ImpactOf.pdf [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.

Abstract

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.

Enjoy!

Bridging PR practice and academia: a BledCom addendum

CIPR President, Stephen Waddington, gave his keynote presentation at BledCom this morning. He covered how PR academics and practitioners must work more closely – principally to develop PR’s professionalism project.

In creating his presentation Stephen canvassed the views of a range of PR academics and practitioners, including Richard Bailey, Heather Yaxley, Liz Bridgen, Stuart Bruce as well as myself.

Bridging the gap between practice and theory in PR and communication is something our research hub, the Network for Public Relations and Society, has been thinking about for a little while – see Sarah R-B’s recent post here. To respond to Wadds’ questions I called on the expertise and insight of fellow network members, Sarah Roberts-Bowman (who also co-founded the Network) from London College of Communication, UAL and Sarah Williams from the University of Wolverhampton.

Together we shared our collective vision with Wadds – some of which he used in his keynote. In the interests of sharing and adding to the debate I have posted our complete thoughts below:

Q. Which other management professionals in your view benefit from a positive interchange between academia and practice?

Most – if not all – of the major ‘professions’ develop through a very close, symbiotic relationship between practitioners and academics/academia. The obvious ones are medicine, engineering, the law where a ‘holy triumvirate’ between practice, governing bodies/institutes and academics/researchers seem to operate. The obvious benefits of this set-up is that it enables – and ensures – that such professions continue to evolve strategically, identifying changes in the external and internal environments of the sectors and then creating new, adaptive regulations, practices, approaches, etc. It means that they can stay ahead of the curve in an age that moves fast and in wholly unexpected directions.

If you’re looking to management sectors then I’d argue that the management consultancy field is one obvious area that is not afraid to engage with academia – and has arguably created an academic field of study to maintain a strong market position as well as client efficacy! It’s interesting as you could argue that in many respects these consultancies are – on some levels – the closest to PR when PR can operate at the level at which it should: strategic business consultancy.

At a more granular level, we only need to look at a more direct competitor to PR, the marketing sector, to see how much more closely academia could be integrated within PR. For instance, at the CIM the work of academics and practitioners is much more closely aligned. Both practitioners and academics are involved with curriculum development at the CIM, so the training/education curriculum for practitioners is designed and managed by academic tutors and practitioner examiners. The CIM also funds academic research projects to explore, develop and understand emerging issues in the sector.

Drawing on personal experience from Network members, the CIM’s process of bringing practitioners into the qualifications and education section of the institution seems to work well. But this works because the CIM’s education division is sizable and, perhaps more importantly, organised in accordance with standard university academic practices so it seems to work as a forum for bringing practitioners and academics together to share ideas, knowledge and foster greater understanding about the benefits both sides bring to the industry.

Q. how might we practically go about improving relations between the two constituencies within the public relations business?

Part of the problem with the relationship between PR academics and practitioners can, perhaps, be linked to the industry-industry bodies-academia framework:

1) there is a general misunderstanding, lack of awareness or even mistrust between practice and academia

2) there is a lack of leadership among industry bodies

3) academia has arguably not engaged as much as it could with the industry/industry bodies – or, at least, engaged on terms that industry / industry bodies have shied away from, e.g. critical accounts of diversity, power, etc.

Looking at each of these separately in more depth:

1) For whatever reason the PR industry has mostly not felt the need to explore the wider world through academic research in the way other professions/industries have. This could be due to a lack of clear identity due to the diversity of roles, tasks, departments PR is spread across, a lack of engagement by academia or perhaps a short-term focus on driving results/revenue (due to a high volume of low margin work – particularly among agencies) which has meant losing sight of the bigger economic, business, societal, etc picture (and I, personally, would err on the latter)

2) This situation among practitioners hasn’t been helped in recent years by the PRCA and CIPR. Speaking from our experiences of the CIPR (sorry, Wadds – we don’t have as much insight into the PRCA but they’re as guilty I would imagine!) as far as we know no – or very little – new research is funded and tends not to be advertised widely to academic institutes, rather a smaller network of established (dare I say, often ‘on side’) friends. The CIPR used to hold an academic conference but this is no more and I can’t recall any dissemination of the resulting materials within the industry. Training is good but isn’t aligned – as far as I can tell – with wider academic institutions.

3) Academia has been developing some really interesting and innovative insights into PR int event years – but these have been emerging in areas that go beyond the standard, 80s/90s management approaches that informed practice. Rather, much contemporary work has challenged the industry on a range of issues, from the ethics of practice, PR’s wider societal role, critical accounts of diversity, etc. These need to be seen as useful/friendly challenges for PR to improve/adapt its position and operation to grow and thrive, rather than misinformed criticisms by academics

So….. if that’s the current situation, what’s the solution? Well……

Industry Bodies

Industry bodies need to implement support for existing examples of academia/practitioner collaboration form other sectors., such as aligning training/education curricula and outcomes with academic insights and best practice; funding research or building a research fund from third-party sponsors to proactively and strategically create opportunities for academics to develop and explore new areas for the industry. For the CIPR this sort of stuff was done under Alan Rawls, so it’s more a case of resurrecting than reinventing activities.

But it’s also about fostering and promoting greater relations/dialogue between the two fields and this will involve changing the PR industry’s mindset towards academia and academic research. This could be done by highlighting the benefits of engagement, such as adapting the industry to become more relevant and resilient to wider societal challenges; becoming more strategic; delivering better value for clients; winning bigger budgets,; etc. This is obviously a longer-term project/campaign that would require industry bodies such as the CIPR and PRCA in the UK to become involved, but it could be helped by lower-level activity to initiate and foster dialogue between the two constituencies… see below…

Practice

It’s hard to tell practitioners what they should be doing but they could definitely get more involved in academia. A number of opportunities exist with a range of benefits and on different levels of involvement. this could include: guest talks and lectures; offering work placements partnering with local universities to develop practitioner-in-residence schemes and even exploring / getting involved in more formal Knowledge Transfer Partnerships where both industry and academia get help to innovate with Government funding.

But I recognise that all of this is not seen or is not seen as a primary concern over winning and delivering fee-paying work! That’s where changing attitudes is so important (see above)

Academia

Likewise, academia needs to recognise the importance of industry to academic work – both in terms of teaching and learning and research – and not be scared of engaging with and addressing the day-to-day realities of the industry head on – i.e. recognising the commercial imperative or imperfect organisational set ups, practice, etc. Academics need to proactively seek to build relationships with industry beyond work placements. Where this happens real benefits can be observed. For example, at last year’s ‘PR and Disruption’ conference at LCC we targeted practitioners and academics for attendance and had great feedback from the benefits both found in meeting and ‘demystifying’ each others’ attitudes, ideas, etc, etc. There were some criticisms too – but that’s good to help bridge the perceived academic/practitioner gap. We’re hoping for the same at this year’s event.

Taking learnings from these results we (the Network for PR and Society) are planning on developing a more formal scheme to help bridge the gap based on creating an ‘Academic-in-Residence’. Many universities have ‘practitioner-in-residence’ to bring practice into the learning environment but we feel it should work both ways. This project is in development but we see it working as a sort of ‘adopt-an-academic’ which we discussed the other week whereby we collate and maintain a database of international academics listing their interests, publications, and desires to work with specific sectors, types of PR, etc.

The idea is that we can start building mutually beneficial relationships between academia and practice – academics get to share their findings/knowledge and industry gets to learn and even have bespoke research completed for their area of practice. Most PR practitioners don’t have the luxury of being able to step back from the day-to-day work to think about wider developments in the sector so this scheme seems like a real opportunity to start building relationships between the two and yield practical benefits for the industry.

It would be great to have such an initiative supported by industry bodies to help reach key practitioner constituencies with the Network for PR and Society tapping into it’s academic network. I could certainly see it being a really strong, initial tactic in a wider, strategic approach to bridge the academia/practice gap!

 

PR and the Visual: one-day conference, 9th July 2014

As I’ve blogged over at the (work in progress) Network for Public Relations & Society site we’re hosting a summer conference again this year.

Public Relations and The Visual: Exploring Identity, Space and Performance is a low-cost, one-day that mixes high-profile keynotes, academic presentations, practical case studies and hands-on workshops. All that for #50 (inc. VAT)! Why don’t you book now: http://bit.ly/ConferenceSignUp

Here’s the basic info:

  • Date: Wednesday 9th July 2014
  • Time: 10am – 4.30pm, followed by drinks
  • Venue: London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, Elephant and Castle, SE1 6SB

The overarching aim of the event is to encourage collaboration and partnership between practitioners and academics to develop new thinking and practice within the field.

Keynote speakers include:

  • Ian Burrell, Assistant Editor and Media Editor, The Independent – PR’s Identity in a Post-Clifford World
  • Glenn Tutssel, Executive Creative Director, Brand Union – Where Next For PR and Visual Communication

Panel discussions will feature case studies from Edelman, Wolfstar and Unity as well as academic papers covering:

  • Images of Public Relations in Popular Media – How is PR and its practitioners represented in fiction, television and film? What impact do these visualisations have on the way PR practitioners see themselves and the ways in which the public sees PR?
  • Public Relations Identity – How do PR practitioners view themselves? What are their identities and how do these shape contemporary professional and personal practice?
  • PR and Immersive Environments – How can PR practitioners use experiential tactics and performance as a communications tool? What role does creating new physical realities play in changing behaviour, beliefs and galvanizing word of mouth?
  • Branded Spaces: PR as Place and Space – How can spaces and objects be used as PR tools? PR practitioners are used to exhibition and event spaces but what more can be learned about the way the built and designed environment creates narratives?
  • Designing Stories: PR as Visual Communication – How can the relationship between PR and design be used to full effect? From graphic design to poster and film; from comics to animation; how can visual storytelling be used to persuade and stimulate relationships?

A series of practical workshops will also be available during the conference:

  • Film-making for PR
  • Creating Vines as branded content
  • Using animation in PR
  • Creative photography for PR

The cost for attending the whole day is £50 (inc. VAT) and has been kept deliberately low to encourage participation. The cost includes access to all keynotes, presentations, workshops, lunch and post-event drinks reception. Book your place now: http://bit.ly/ConferenceSignUp

Call for Papers: Public Relations and the Visual

Myself and fellow colleagues/members of the The Network for Public Relations and Society have been busy planning our Summer conference over the past few months and we’re delighted to reveal the date and theme of the event and issue a call for participation as well.

Titled Public Relations and The Visual: Exploring Identity, Space and Performance, the conference is a one-day event being held on Wednesday 9th July 2014 from 10am-4.30pm at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

The aim of the conference is to bring together PR industry experts and academics to explore and debate the role of visual dimensions in public relations theory and practice. From media representations of PR professionals to branded spaces; issues of identity and performance, the conference will explore these and other visual themes from a societal perspective.

Participants will explore a variety of viewpoints to conceptualise the industry and debate new ways of thinking about and visualising practice. The overarching aim of the event is to encourage collaboration and partnership between practitioners and academics to develop new thinking across the field.

We welcome proposals undertaking an analytical and/or critical examination of the PR industry and practice focused on any aspects of the visual or representational dimensions of public relations. Submissions can be made by individuals, groups or organisations.

Moreover, we encourage challenging and thought-provoking proposals from both practitioners and academics that seek to critique existing areas of PR and help the industry and practice move forward.

The event will be led by two keynote speakers (currently being confirmed) and two broad themes each containing three debates will be explored in greater detail during a morning and afternoon session.

We are looking for academics and practitioners from a range of disciplines who are interested in presenting 15-20 minute papers covering some of the following areas:

Stream 1: Visualising the PR Profession

a) Public Relations in Popular Media
How is PR and its practitioners represented in fiction, television and film? What impact do these visualisations have on the way PR practitioners see themselves and the ways in which the public comprehends PR? Does this change professional and personal identities and the way practitioners behave?

b) Public Relations Identities
How do PR practitioners view themselves?  What are their self-identities and how do these identities shape contemporary professional and personal practice? Moreover, what are the dominant and marginalised identities in PR and how do they shape the industry and the wider professionalisation project?

c) Visions of Future
 Practice
With the boundaries between PR, advertising, digital marketing and search engine optimisation blurring at a frenetic pace what does the evolving landscape of PR look like? Is it possible to sketch a vision for PR practice in a digital world? What knowledge, skills and competencies does such a vision require?

Stream 2: PR as Visual Practice
a) Dramatising society: creating immersive environments
How can PR practitioners use theatre and performance as a communications tool? What role does creating new physical realities play in changing behaviour, beliefs and galvanizing word of mouth?

b) Branded spaces: PR as place identity and spatial communication
How can space be used as a PR tool?  PR practitioners are used to creating and using exhibition and event space but what more can be learned about the way the built and designed environment creates narrative and discourse?  How can this be used as a creative PR component?

c) Designing stories: PR as visual communications
How can the PR and design relationship be used to full effect?  From traditional graphic design to poster and film; from comic strips to animation; how can visual storytelling be used to persuade, influence and stimulate relationships?

If you would like to present please email: s [dot] collister [at] lcc [dot] arts [dot] ac [dot] uk by 30th April 2014 to express interest in participating. Fuller papers and presentations will be due by 31st June 2014.

Let me know below if you have any questions!

Launching the Network for Public Relations and Society

Last week we held a small event to officially launch a new research network based out of the Public Relations department at London College of Communications, UAL. The Network for Public Relations and Society aims to explore – academically and alongside practice – the social role of PR.

This is an area which has received renewed interest in recent years from scholars addressing the discipline from a range of perspectives united by the view that PR operates beyond the organisation in making, shaping and influencing society. These directions extend the more dominant and conventional academic accounts of PR as a management discipline. You can see more about how we contextualise our research areas in the Slideshare below:

The event featured a presentation by myself and my colleague, Sarah Roberts-Bowman, and some short talks from the University of Cambridge’s Dr Scott Anthony and our colleague from Central St Martins, UAL, Dr Paul Rennie, on some of the historical aspects of PR.

Paul, in particular, gave a fascinating account of the role posters played in the early era of PR focusing on the work of the artist (and LCC’s first ever head of design) Tom Eckersley. An exhibition of Tom’s work was on display at LCC and after the event guests were able to see some of the ground-breaking visual communications work which Tom created for the GPO, RoSPA, Ministry of Information, Shell and others.

Our other speaker, Scott Anthony, provided guests with a revisionist history of PR practice in Britain based on his fantastic book form last year, Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain. Scott began by discussing how, contrary to earlier histories of modern PR which locate the discipline’s origins at the feet of early – mainly US – C20th capitalists, modern PR in a British context was initiated primarily by a group of “idealists” led by Sir Stephen Tallents.

These PR pioneers, Scott suggested, were “Asquithian liberals” who began their professional life attempting to counter the sensationalist and alarmist information presented to the public by the early press barons. More ideologically, as he makes clear in his book on the history of the PR profession in the UK, Tallents and his network of film-makers, artists and designers sought to conjure up and ‘project’ a vision of a progressive Britain where democratic enfranchisement, improving living standards and liberal values were at the heart of a new and exciting Britain.

PR’s practical role is this project, Scott argued, was more than news management – the perspective from which PR is all too often understood and practiced as today. Rather, PR began as a socio-cultural endeavour drawing in cultural and artistic avenues such as art, architecture, design, film, posters. Moreover, these weren’t seen as “instrumentalist” delivery channels or media platforms, they were a core constituent of what it meant to communicate publicly.

And while much of this early PR activity was located and sponsored by big, state owned organisations – the GPO, BBC, London Transport and Ministry of Information are obvious examples – the “social mission” of PR, as Scott described it, extended to corporations, such as Shell, BP, Guinness, Gillette, too.

Referring to the aim of his book, Scott remarked that its sought was to “recover the history of PR” as a practice that really mattered – socially, as well as personally, to the early British practitioners. This neatly captures, too, the aims of the Network for Public Relations and Society.

Although time and society has been transformed since Tallents’ day – the state-owned industries have disappeared, the public service role of local authorities has all but been obliterated, the role of the ‘public’ has been displaced or lost in many areas of society and the media – there is a growing impetus, we believe, to renew interest in and scholarship of a range of areas related to the ‘social’ role of PR.

The specific aims and scope of the Network can be understood in more detail in the slides above but we feel that areas of particular interest include: the interpolation of social theory in understanding PR; the exploration of the social history of PR (in a UK and globally comparative context); the role of PR in communicating socially aligned, as opposed to corporate, narratives (such as through social change and activist campaigns) and the increasing rise of social media and the expansion of the social into hitherto unexplored domains of public communication.

If you would like to find out more or get involved drop me an email s [dot] collister [at]. lcc [dot] arts [dot] ac [dot] uk. If you’d like to be kept informed of developments please sign up to the Network’s mailing list: http://eepurl.com/Ljt-j

We look forward to hearing from you!

Infographic: A History of Social Media

Chris from Prohibition PR has put together this handy infographic providing a history of social media and outlines some of the big game-changing moments in this blog post.

It contains some surprises – who knew Tripadvisor launched the same time as Friends Reunited? – and a few blasts from the past. Ning or Friendfeed, anyone (both still live, btw)?

Thanks to Chris for a nifty resource (I’ll be using for teaching my students!).