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.

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!

 

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!

Report: PRCA State of Digital PR

I’m really late getting around to posting this, but last month Ketchum’s Danny Whatmough presented the findings of the PRCA’s State of Digital PR report.

The report, which surveyed 136 agency and in-house teams, highlights a number of key themes which for those in and observing the UK’s PR industry should make interesting findings.

It’s a good report but at the moment I just want to pull out a couple of revealing results:

  • Nearly half (46%) of PR practitioners surveys spend only 1-10% of their budget on digital
  • The top activity that measly budget is spent on is web design and build
  • Followed by social media monitoring
  • … and then SEO

I find this interesting partly as while optimists might say that PR is adapting is also highlights the fact that the core digital services undertaken by PR agencies overlap with wider – perhaps more specialised – sectors.

Great that PR is competing on more levels, but does it have the specialist knowledge to compete and win? See my previous post about PR, social media and specialisation.

Academia and Practice: Where next?

I was away in Sweden at Philip Young’s NEMO organised Flashpoint conference last week and was lucky to listen to some excellent academic papers, and more importantly become involved in an ongoing debate about the need to bridge the currently yawning gap between PR academia and practice.

Since returning there have been a number of blog posts pop up raising a range of issues which I broadly support. I won’t cover them off here but would urge you to go and take a read and participate for yourselves – there’s loads of comment and discussion going on.

Firstly of all the University of Wolverhampton’s Sarah Williams posted on the difference between academics and practitioners. This was followed up by Stephen Waddington’s post on the need for academia and practitioners to work together to support a “maturing profession” – a perspective followed up by Stuart Bruce’s in his post.

This is all great stuff, and an important marker for integrating theory and praxis. But…. the most important question is: what is to be done?

Most of the posts mentioned offer some thoughts and here are a few of my own:

  • Regular event(s) led by industry and academia to push forward greater interaction, debate and overcome the fear of the other
  • Some form of jointly agreed agenda that can identify and articulate some of the more common needs and demands for both areas
  • A forum to foster ongoing debate – online or otherwise
  • PR Week to carve out a niche to discuss developments and expose the agenda to a wider audience
  • Some level of engagement among high-profile employers, government, big agencies, etc
  • Some level of engagement from industry bodies

 

PR can’t respond to ‘structural’ challenges of social media. Discuss.

So. Here’s a thought. My old boss and friend, Robin Grant, told PRWeek last year that PR had missed the boat on digital. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced than that but there is a definite truth to what he says based on my own experiences and discussions with a range of people from within the PR world.

[Image via FRANk Media]

The full range of reasons behind Robin’s comment is something for a much longer post (or book, perhaps) but a series of recent conversations with smart people helped me clarify at least one aspect of PR’s problem.

For instance, in a discussion with an ex-digital director at a global PR agency we both agreed that some forms of social media, particularly community management, is becoming commodified and how PR agencies, again, risk missing the boat on digital, by placing their ‘social media offering’ firmly in this camp. Think of it as sort of replacing client press release churn with churning Facebook posts and tweets.

We agreed that the biggest barriers to PR getting social media right are structural. That’s as far as the conversation went.

Then today I was having a discussion with someone else about the increasing specialisation of social media and it dawned on me that one of the reasons why the PR profession has dragged its heals in terms of adopting and making the most of social media is its structure as a generalist industry where account teams are responsible for the full range of communication tasks (albeit with varying degrees of emphasis depending on seniority).

For example, as social media becomes specialised needing expert teams of researchers and planners; content creators, community managers and analysts, etc, PR agencies operating with employees that are trained as generalists to fulfil most, if not all of those roles, simply cannot keep up to date with the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed.

Advertising and digital agencies, on the other hand, are predominantly already structured into specialist teams. They only need to ensure that enough investment is made in ensuring their incumbent researchers, creatives, content producers, analysts, etc stay abreast of emerging knowledge and skills.

And then there’s the profit margins of PR. With their way bigger budgets, advertising and (some) digital agencies have more financial leeway to investment in training, resources and development.

So while, on paper, PR – with its theoretical foundation in understanding and building interpersonal relationships – should be on home territory when it comes to social media strategy in the main it is simply not structured in a way to make the most of this increasingly specialist landscape.

What is to be done?

Sharing Best Practice in Digital PR Education

I took part in an interesting (and eye-opening) workshop yesterday at Leeds Metropolitan University, Sharing Best Practice in Digital PR Education. Organised by Leeds Met and the Higher Education Academy the day was a sort of sounding board for the state of digital PR education in higher education with some case studies and workshops you can see my slides below or over on Slideshare).

I started taking notes but then gave up and just tweeted the majority of the event. You can find a Storify of the day here.

I did however, jot down some of the most interesting findings from a number of pan-European research projects that are currently underway:  Euro Communications Monitor and the European Communication Professionals Skills and Innovation Programme.

I was typing while listening so didn’t manage to grab the exact stats but these (and more data) should be available on the respective websites.

European Communications Monitor insights:

  • Dealing with digital/social media is second top issue for European communicators (survey respondents consist of 2,700+ senior PR practitioners across 43 countries; mainly in-house in global/big businesses)
  • Data shows they believe they’re currently doing online stuff (quite tactical) but weak(ish) on i) developing social media strategies; ii) evaluating social media and iii) developing/understanding legal frameworks . Some additional weakness in terms of engagement, i.e. “initiating dialogue with online stakeholders”
  • Also shows strong agreement that social media changes perception of organisation – both externally and internally (!)
  • Strong agreement that digital gatekeepers are relevant for PR, e.g. bloggers, community managers, consumers on social media (!)
  • Big gap between perceived importance of social media issues and implementation – i.e majority agree social media issues are vital, but the comparative number of practitioners doing anything about it is lower
  • Mobile dev is biggest gap among practitioners

ECOPSI insights (this survey is a more qualitative investigation and focuses on practitioner competencies). The data specifically refers to Social Media Managers and it seems my only two notes include:

  • strengthening visual story-telling is a key need
  • as is managing ‘real-time’ communications

 

 

Want to send a postcard via Twitter?

I’m a big fan of blurring the or crossing the boundaries between online and offline materials.Take, for instance, the fantastic Newspaper Club or the simply outstanding The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs. So, why has it taken so long for someone to create a ‘Tweet to postcard’ service?*

york_7369-2

The agency Brands2Life have done just that as part of their work with at800 – the organisation raising awareness of the issues the 4G network might bring to Freeview users. Their email informs me that if you send a tweet with the hashtag #at800postbox at800 they will print the personalised message onto a traditional postcard and deliver it by post for free.

Really nice idea, although as it’s been described as a “PR stunt” by one Twitter user I suspect that it won’t be a permanent service. Shame really.

* I’m sure I’ve read about a similar service sometime in the past few years

Wrapping-up PR and Disruption: Bringing theory and practice closer together?

Just getting around to reflecting on the great conference, PR and Disruption: Embracing and Surviving Change  we held last week at LCC.

Overall we had some great feedback (Storify here), but below are a couple of my key take-aways from the day:

  • Putting academics and practitioners into the same room is a great way to start bridging the divide between theory and practice (mainly abut the way in which we talk about the same things in different terms but also, more importantly, about the changing ways in which some of the key themes of the industry are understood)
  • Practical skills training, such as film-making, infographics, app development, are in demand among practitioners (handy for us as a university with graphic design, publishing and TV/film departments!)
  • Given the popualarity of the ‘face-off’ debate stream and discussions on Twitter there seems to be a real appetite among the industry (practitioners and academics alike) to discussion what’s happening in the industry and how to best deal with it. But where are these debates being held? Who’s facilitating them? Who’s listening? And what are they doing about it? We have our own ideas which we will be working on…

But, don’t just take my word for it. We have a couple of great post-event reflections from participants, including key note speaker, Oyvind Ihlen’s hand-grenade casually chucked into the room: “PR shouldn’t be measured”; Paul Seaman’s argument that PR should be leading economic change and renewal; Arun Sudhaman’s great insight on how changes in the media business should be changing the way brands communicate and Heather Yaxley’s post offering a great summary of the day’s main themes.

Hopefully it’s clear that there was a lot to take in from the day – and we’ll hopefully be getting more reflections and reviewsin the days to come. In the meantime, we’ll be continuing to plan how we can bring the industry and theory closer together. Leave a comment or drop me an email if you have any ideas – I’d love to hear them!

ICA Pre-Conference: ‘Power through communication technology’

I sat in on an interesting ICA pre-conference session earlier this week that sought to identify and address a series of questions around the issue of power and communication technology in a globalised society. There were a good range of speakers and topics up for discussion, including:

  • Michael L. Kent, University of Oklahoma, USA – Taking a Critical Look at Technology in Public Relations: We Have an App for That
  • Dean Kruckeberg, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA – Another Inconvenient Truth
  • Erich J. Sommerfeldt, University of Maryland-College Park, USA – Social Media Silos and Civil Society: A Role for Public Relations in Contemporary Development Communication Efforts
  • Katerina Tsetsura, University of Oklahoma, USA – In @ We Trust? Public Relations Realities of Fake Online Personalities
  • Chiara Valentini,  Aarhus University, Denmark – Social Mediars: The New Online Stakeholders for Public Relations?
  • Stephen Waddington, European Digital Social Media Director at Ketchum and President-Elect CIPR – Public Relations and New Communication Technologies – A Professional Perspective

 

I’ve embedded a Storify stream above for tweeted highlights but it’s I’ve added my own post-event reflections below:

  • Stephen Waddington remarked that many of the academics there were notably pessimistic about the potential of social media. I think this was partly due to the way the session was framed – and there were some definite critical perspectives explored, but there was also a number of pragmatic questions asked about social media which is needed. Some, such as whether communicators are measuring their organisation/client’s ‘sociability’ or building small, deep networks around customers/stakeholders, are being realised in certain areas; meanwhile other critical questions, such as attempting to unpick  social media’s role in driving a deeper marketisation of society, are worth exploring further
  • There was some agreement that scholars need to move beyond existing models of PR and communications when exploring social media. Stephen Waddington highlighted the apparent unsuitability of Grunig’s work to social media (despite Grunig’s protestations to the contrary) while Erich Sommerfeldt highlighted the centrality of technology and technological affordances in mutually shaping personal and organisational identity and behaviour among activist groups. I mentioned Bruno Latour and Actor-network Theory which offers a really interesting account of the role technology plays in mediating society. These are issues largely far from PR and communications scholarship and need rethinking as a matter of urgency
  • It also occurred to me how many participants – certainly those from US-oriented universities – have read their Marx. There were two particularly impassioned critical accounts of technology and its potentially negative role in society from Dean Kruckeberg and Michael L. Kent. But some of the most pertinent points and questions raised (e.g. technology’s role in creating social and economic precarity; in further reorienting social relations around capital/the market, etc) are squarely addressed – or least acknowledged – by Marx and groups of contemporary Post-Marxist scholars, including Terranova, Beradi, Negri… even Castells
  • Finally, speaking of Castells… while he had his name dropped a few times there was a definite dominance of interpretive research. Giddens’ Theory of Structuration was covered extensively by Erich Sommerfeldt and Chiara Valentini invoked Alan Kirby but a bit more theoretical underpinning of some of the ideas discussed wouldn’t have gone amiss (but then again, I am a bit of a theory fan)