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?*


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)


PR and Disruption: Embracing and Surviving Change

It’s been little while since I last posted – and one of the reasons for this is because I’ve been helping organise a one-day conference exploring future directions for public relations.

PR DISRUPTION logo Teal 1The event, PR and Disruption: Embracing and Surviving Change, takes place on 10th July 2013 at LCC in central London and aims to generate debate and reflection about PR’s identity and the future role it should play in the contemporary world, characterised by disruption. You can book a place here.

More specifically, the day will explore and map the knowledge, strategies and skills that communication professionals need to operate successfully and – ultimately – transform society. But we don’t just want the conference to be a talking shop so there will also be a series of workshops encouraging delegates to learn the skills necessary to survive in a disruptive world.

Speakers and participants will include:

This great line-up and others will be involved in delivering by a range of keynote presentations in the morning, followed by three parallel streams in the afternoon: ‘face-off’ debates, case studies and the practical workshops. The complete list of speakers is on the conference website and a full itinerary can be found here. The day wraps up with a drinks reception and networking.

We’ve kept costs deliberately low as we are well aware of the time and budget limitations people have at the moment, so full-day attendance is £125 (inc. VAT) and half-day (morning or afternoon) is £75 (inc. VAT). On top of that I can offer a 10% discount on the full price. Just book via the alumni rate and enter ‘SCblog’ when prompted for ‘year of graduation’. What are you waiting for? Book a place now: http://bit.ly/PRdisrupt

As a footote, the event is designed by the BA and MA academic course team here at LCC to help shape the future direction of the PR discipline at LCC – and ideally – create a theoretical and practical platform from which we can establish a research institute that will be positioned to explore PR from its wider societal and cultural perspective, rather than just as a business function. The idea being – ultimately – to push forward the conceptual agenda and help organisations and practitioners (from multi-nationals to grassroots movements) better navigate and deal with the challenges and complexities of the modern world.

Exhibition: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

The British Library has a fascinating exhibition opening today. Titled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion the exhibition runs from 17 May to 17 September 2013 and – quoting the BL’s website – “explores a thought-provoking range of exhibits” that will make you look anew at “the messages, methods, and media used by different states – discovering how they use propaganda through time and across cultures for both power and persuasion.” Sounds good.

The exhibition resonates well with a great book I’m reading at the moment, Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain, which reappraises the origins of public relations in a British context. The author, Cambridge Leverhulme Fellow, Scott Antony, argues that contrary to common misconceptions of its hard-nosed Bernaysian origins, PR in the UK emerged from a distinctly cultural and governmental agenda. Education, information and ‘improving’ society were imperatives baked into PR from the outset, Antony argues.

Aside from helpfully taking contemporary definitions of PR full circle, such a conception chimes wonderfully with the rest of the BL’s exhibition narrative:

“It is used to fight wars and fight disease, build unity and create division. Whether monumental or commonplace, sincere or insidious, propaganda is often surprising, sometimes horrific and occasionally humorous. […] Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. From the eye-opening to the mind-boggling, from the beautiful to the surprising, posters, films, cartoons, sounds and texts reveal the myriad ways that states try to influence and persuade their citizens.”

Tickets are £9 (under 18s free) and concessions are available. Check it!

PR & paid media: a new reality?

A number of smart PR agencies seem to be setting up new paid media divisions of late. First, Edelman announced its hire of Cassell Kroll as vice president, media strategy operating out of the firm’s digital arm. Shortly afterwards We Are Social revealed their new paid media offering, with ex-TBG Digital sales and client services director, David Gilbert, as Media Director. It is fascinating to see how the increasing convergence of owned, earned and paid media channels is rapidly driving organisational innovation in order to remain relevant and competitive. As We Are Social’s Global Managing Director, Robin Grant, puts it:

“Today’s social environment demands that media planning be integrated into brands’ social media strategies and for media buying to operate in real-time and in synergy with always-on social content creation and community management.”

Edelman also outlines its perspective on the contemporary converged media landscape that gives some rationale for their hire into a wider context and outlines nicely how the agency approaches digital in an increasingly integrated way:

The insights reflected in Edelman and We Are Social’s new business models and strategic offerings are part of wider trends I reiterate to my students when we discuss future directions for the PR industry. The reality is the PR industry they are learning about is arguably becoming less and less like industry they’re seeing represented in textbooks and also (perhaps worryingly) discussed by *some* senior industry speakers.

It’s also something that plays into my thoughts and speculation about the continued need to proactively innovate. The challenges and opportunities of social are ‘live’; that is to say they’re continual emerging meaning leading agencies or practitioners need to stay entrepreneurial in their approach to navigating this new media and communications landscape. This requires thinking freshly about what PR is now and where it’s going – or more specifically being taken by the flows of the social web.

Having worked with Edelman and We Are Social, this is a trait I can confidently say is present within the agencies’ senior leadership and embodied in employees. It must be there in others too undoubtedly, but how can we join up this thinking to ensure that ‘entrepreneurial’ agenda remains a priority – not just at the micro-level of individual agencies or organisations but more broadly at the macro, sector level.

I appreciate this is no small task requiring a focus on collaboration, rather than competition and again, potentially across sectors as well as organisations. Maybe it is already happening through industry events (but it’s not something I’ve come across recently). It’s an exciting time with a number of equally exciting opportunities for the PR industry; the question remains: how can we maximise these opportunities to ensure their strategic potential is realised? Hopefully more to come on this.

Social media helping PR operate more strategically?

The Chartered Institute of PR’s (CIPR) annual State of the Profession report suggests a potentially interesting development for the sector and the role PR plays within organisations.

In her introduction to the survey of 1,273 of its members, CIPR CEO, Jane Wilson, reports that PR “is moving away from having a primary media relations focus to embracing the opportunity presented to us by social media to participate in two-way conversations with our publics.”

While ‘two-way communications’ is an often misused or misunderstood term its adoption here is potentially significant as it might  indicate a shift from a traditionally media relations-focused tactical function to more strategic organisational as PR has to undertake greater research and planning to deal with the complexity of social media.

OK. So, this is pretty flimsy speculation but there’s another interesting insight in the report which adds some more – albeit speculative – weight to the hypothesis.

The increasing convergence and collaboration of siloed departments necessary to manage the increasingly social environment and support the move towards becoming a ‘social business’ is also affecting PR professionals. In the section titled ‘Converging areas of practice’ the report reveals that “[PR] [d]epartments working increasingly closely together has directly resulted in areas of work converging. Around half of PR professionals say that departments that now work more closely with each other share responsibility for social or digital media management (51%), branding (48%) or internal communications (48%).”

While it doesn’t indicate whether PR teams are taking the lead on driving forward a newly converged organisational strategy, these are interesting findings that may indicate that as organisations become increasing socialised and converged this may well be a catalyst for PR to recognise and capitalise on its long-absent organisational strategic prowess?

PR, it has long been argued, is best conceived as a strategic management function operating at board level to understand wider society and help shape the long-term vision and operation of organisations. In theory PR plays a central role identifying and connecting internal stakeholders with external ones, building long-term relationships with them, interpreting their changing needs and feeding this information up to the board to shape organisational strategy. The reality, alas, has seen PR all too often become relegated to marketing-led communications and reactive issue management.

But is social media forcing a change for the better? As building relationships with online communities and networks through two-way communications becomes increasingly central to an organisation’s success; and social media-empowered consumers and stakeholders are increasingly driving organisational convergence will PR’s ‘boundary-spanning’ role helping join up an organisation’s departments with its external environment help it operate at a higher, more strategic level?

I guess only time will tell. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised as I believe PR has the potential to play a central role in helping organisations adapt to the complexity of social media at a business level – in theory, at least!

As a footnote it should also be noted that two other findings from the report may have a bearing on this. Firstly, the report argues that in terms of its current strategic presence “three in five [respondents] say that they directly brief board members or senior staff, whilst over a third of those in-house with a direct responsibility for PR sit on the board“. However, “fewer than half say that this extends to influencing wider business and organisational strategy.”

And secondly, “by some margin, the area of public relations that is seen as presenting the biggest challenge is social or digital media management. Two-thirds of PR professionals (66%) say that they think it will present a challenge to them as PR professionals, whilst half (53%) say that they think it will present a challenge to their organisation.”

So, there’s still a way to go before PR operates consistently at a strategic, management level, although social media may be well be the catalyst necessary to shift this reality. But, it’s a catalyst that’s also perceived as a major challenge – both to the profession and individual practitioners. Perhaps it’s digital’s disruptive potential will win out and help the PR industry come of age.


PR needs to solve problems to stay relevant

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the scope and pace of innovation in journalism and the wider media industry. Just take a look at the multiple posts on Journalism.co.uk about using emerging digital tools for improved and innovative news-gathering and reporting. Or take a look at The Times’s Digital Experiments blog where the paper’s digital types talk about their “‘not quite finished’ projects and products […] share some best practice tips and tricks as we learn and try our new platforms and features.

In a great post on the Poynter Institute’s blog about mobile disruption in journalism, Cory Bergman argues that “News needs to solve problems”:

“A study by Flurry in November found that the news category only accounts for 2 percent of total time spent on mobile apps. Social apps gobble up 26 percent. Facebook alone accounts for 23 percent of all time spent with mobile apps, according to Comscore in December. That beats every news organization’s app combined by a long shot. As Facebook (and Twitter) grow in time spent – and since both are populated with plenty of news – they’re increasingly competitive with news organizations’ mobile experiences by sheer volume. As a result, simply extending a news organizations’ current coverage into mobile isn’t enough. We need to solve information problems for our users and drive measurable revenue for our advertisers. Mobile is not merely another form factor, but an entirely new ecosystem that rewards utility.  Flipboard is a classic example of solving a problem (tablet-based content discovery) while The Daily is an example of a product that did not.”

Such problem solving is an issue which I believe the media and news industries are embracing whole-heartedly but that the PR industry is failing to address adequately. I could be wrong and have just missed great examples of problem-solving and innovation… but my instinct (and experience) tells me that a) generally speaking PR is not adapting to the social or digital space as fully as other marketing industry sectors (see Jed’s recent post for macro-level issues) and b) where it is adapting it’s doing so reactively to the current challenges faced by the news or media sector. Thus as the sector innovates rapidly PR risks finding it practices and norms outmoded very quickly. Again, I could be wrong and it’d be interesting to see inside and study some examples of PR agencies that are – or consider themselves to be – innovating.

What’s missing as far as I can tell is what Cory Bergman refers to as a ‘startup mentality’:

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself,” explains Y Combinator’s Paul Graham. “By far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.”

There are some interesting and potentially powerful examples of great start-up ideas emerging for PR practitioners, such as Adam Parker’s Lissted – but not enough in my opinion.

And I guess this highlights two further questions: 1) who is responsible for this innovation and 2) where does innovation lie. Firstly, Lissted is developed by Realwire, the online press release distribution service. It’s not developed by an agency. Why is this? Clearly a number of factors come into play but considering the structural challenges faced by the PR industry mentioned earlier it could be argued that while PR agencies operate with tighter margins than other more ‘business strategic’ players in the marketing service sector, such as media and advertising agencies (the result of PR’s historical legacy as a tactical media relations discipline) there’s no capacity or desire to invest in innovation. And such a reality is surely set to worsen as digital increases the cannibalisation of the sector.

Secondly, if we accept this reality then where does potential innovation lie? In-house innovation – if it happens – may well be retained as proprietary to justify investment (although you’d hope that open sourcing, transparency and sharing would be remain the spirit). The news industry has think tanks to help identify problems and spur innovation in a way that the PR industry doesn’t have. Perhaps we should look to other areas obliquely involved in the PR industry where people have time to step back and analyse the industry, its practice and future direction and spend time developing solutions.

What I’m thinking about is the potential for universities with PR courses to lead in this space. It’s something I’ve been starting to do with my students through assessing student’s ability to identify communications problems and using tools such as IFTTT to create solutions. Similarly, industry bodies, such as the CIPR’s Social Media Panel should be steering industry leadership through innovation. As a member of the panel this is something we will be seeing more of through out 2013.

Such independent and collective groups can surely help build solutions and bridge the innovation gap. Forward thinking agencies could pool resources – financial, creative, etc – and and collaborate with the groups mentioned above to help drive innovation and help PR stay abreast of wider digital and social developments.

Future of PR: We’ve been here before

VCCP’s Jed Hallam offers a meaty blog post about the ongoing debate as to the relative strengths and weakness of the advertising and PR industries when it comes to taking ultimate ownership of social and/or digital. Although, of course it’s much more nuanced than that.

Jed appears firmly on the side of advertising as eventual winner – while nodding to the reality that the way we consign certain agencies into industry types is largely flawed as whether an agency is an ‘advertising’ or ‘PR’ agency is increasingly blurred in today’s socially mediated landscape. And moreover, who wins will be ultimately determined by the clients who will want the best work regardless of a perceived historical and industry legacy.

Anyway. This perennial debate reminded me of another great post by Anthony Mayfield on similar issues. Except his post was made in November 2007. That’s nearly five years ago. In his post Anthony argues not so much that advertising will win the digital battle royale, but rather that the PR industry had structural and legacy issues to overcome if it was to succeed in a digital-led world.

Here’s the quotation:

PR agency models may be less able to assimilate than be be assimilated: One of the curiosities of the PR agency business is that aside from the very largest agencies (and even including a few of them) most are businesses comprised of generalists, with business development, marketing, HR, client management, creative, copywriting, event management, media relations and measurement all done by the same people. I’ve never met the PR agency that has a project manager or a quality assurance person. This makes it hard to scale these businesses and it also means than they are perhaps less able to bring in new disciplines and approaches than businesses that are structured like, well, businesses.


Of course, you could argue that PR agencies can restructure to accommodate new models, but compare this to big agencies in comparable sectors who already operate in this way. Compare this to smaller, more nimble social/digital-first agencies (not unlike my old brethren at We Are Social) who are growing and building their structure in this way from day one.

Just sayin’.


Communicating protest: Some notes on police PR tactics – Part 1

First and foremost I want to set these blog posts into some context.

I posted previously about The Met's use of staged or managed events at the second student demo as part of its communications strategy and suggetsed I might write a follow-up post to examine some of the Met's more conventional PR tactics to shape media coverage and public opinion.

Also, as part of my PhD I'm planning on using my blog as a way of keeping notes and sharing thoughts that will come in useful as my research progresses. These posts are part of that iterative process. 

In addition to the above, these posts will also hopefully serve as a handy – if modest and incomplete – reference guide for journalists to help them undertand and decode some of the communications tactics employed by the Met and thus potentially improve the depth of questioning and breadth of coverage.

Part 1 – How 'framing' media stories is used for effective political policing

In US academic, Robert Entman's, book on the way issues or stories are 'framed' (that is how relevant information is gathered and edited into 'news') by the media he asserts that by establishing the terms of a potential story, strategic actors (in our case, the Met) can command and control the way the subsequent news is perceived and – more importantly – how it continues to influence future stories.

Specifically, in Projections of Power (2004) he outlines what Curran (2002) calls the "definitional power" of the media:

"A dominant frame [i.e an official way of interpreting information] in early news coverage of an event can acticat and sprad congruinet thoughts and feelings in individuals' knowledge […] that guides responses to all future reports. First impressions may be difficult to dislodge." p.7 [my emphasis]

This theory can be used to explain the PR tactics adopted by the Met even before a demonstration takes place who you will often find issuing a briefing to 'define' the direction of the media narrative.

This happened ahead of the most recent student demonstration on 9th December where Commander Bob Broadhurst, the head of the Met's public order branch, told media they were expecting the student demonstration to be violent.

It also happened ahead of the 2009 G20 protests in London when weeks before planned demos Superintendent David Hartshorn, who then headed the Met's public order branch, exclusively told The Guardian the Met was: "preparing for a "summer of rage" as victims of the economic downturn take to the streets to demonstrate against financial institutions."

With hindsight these examples offer a useful opportunity to interpret the way they potentially shaped public perception of events.

Take the recent student demo as our first case study: telling the media they were execting violence firstly activates in the public's mind that the demonstration is goin to be violent. Whether it ever turns out to be or not this perception and mindet towards demonstrators is established. Secondly, it acts to legitimise police violence because, as the Met has aldready confirmed in advance, it was expecting violence so any brutality on its part must be a response.

This technique neatly reverses cause an effect of violent public order situations and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Met.

The ' helped significantly by the news management technique of 'embedding' journalists within forces to help ensure the event is interpreted from a specific perspective – despite the best aims of 'objective' reporting.

Another 'set piece' in the police's PR toolkit to help 'frame' news from within protests or public order situations is the use – and reporting – of injuries.  

**Before I go any further, please note: I am not excusing or valorising any kind of violent behaviour or resultant injury to anyone. I am trying to explore and explian how injuries that happen within tense situations can be used to establish a particular perception in the media.**

The reporting of injuries can be used both qualitatively to reinforce the notion of 'violent demonstrators' and 'police as victims' and also quantitively to show how much of a battle the police won/lost (depending on the public's wider perceptions post-event).

As an example of the first tactic see this quote from a police spokesperson from Nottinghamshire police during the demonstration at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in 2009:

"Throughout the day officers have been assaulted but police remain in control of the site. We have one officer who sustained head injuries at the protest. He was airlifted to Derbyshire Royal Infirmary where he is being treated. His wife has been made aware but we have no update on his condition.

"One protester also received treatment on site by police officers and was taken away by ambulance. His condition is unknown."

It would later transpire that the office didn't sustain a head injury – which, of course, was good news.

What is noticable is the formal and melodramatic reporting for the injured police officer (e.g. "his wife has been informed") that's clearly missing from comments about the injured protester – along with a more complete total of injured protestors which was much higher than 'one'.

Now, this may seem rather extreme: exploiting injuries to shape media covergae, but wider context and examples will hopefully illustrate the point further.

The injured officer airlifted to hospital was actually treated by a medic that was protesting on the day. From tweets at the time and emails I've seen subsequently it would appear that at the time the officer was being treated it was apparent that he was unlikely to be suffering from head injuries, as the hospital or police later confirmed.

The Guardian – as I understand it – was party to the development in the story, but of course by then it was old news and the public's perception had been set.

A further – and by now, infamous – example of the quantitative use of police injuries in PR is Kingsnorth Climate Camp.

During the 2008 Climate Camp gathering police used extreme measures to intimidate protestors, such as sleep deprivation and excessive stop and search activity. In addition, police revealed to the media and Parliament that a total of 70 officers had been injured during the police operation.

It wasn't until a FoI request from the Liberal Democrats that it became apparent not a single injury was sustained from protestors; rather records showed injujuries were mostly toothache, diarrhoea, cut fingers and "possible bee stings".

I won't labour the point, but you get the idea that by the time the reality of the situation has unravelled it's old news and the public perception has been crystalised.

For a good overview of examples of this, specifically related to climate change and climate justice campaigning, see Kevin Smith's post for the Guardian's CiF blog.

The next post in this series will look at post-demonstration tactics, the use of language and perhaps look at some of the additional reasons for the effectiveness of police PR and media management, e.g. the formalised news production processes and cultural values of the media.



Curran, J. (2002). Media & Power. Routledge.

Entman, R. (2004). Projections of Power. University of Chicago Press.