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

 

 

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!

Digital innovation: some reading

Serendipitously I stumbled across a couple of great articles about digital innovation in the advertising space recently which dovetail neatly with some of the thinking and writing I’ve been doing.

Following on from Adam’s comment about the diffusion and adoption of innovation within the PR sector (which warrants some analysis and a further blog post in its own right) it’s equally interesting to see how the same issues are being played out in the advertising space.

According to Digital Planning Director at BBDO/Proximity, Vincent Teo:

“This shift toward creative innovation and product development will be a continuous evolution in the agency space and one in which I believe will form the foundation of the digital agency of the future. There is a real synergy between product innovation and what agencies are currently doing and this looks like the next evolution in extending what agencies can offer to their clients.”

What this looks like in detail can found in Vincent’s great survey of the current ad/digital/innovation landscape, The Digital Agency of the Future. And following Vincent’s vision and line of questioning, a number of other posts and article’s further explore the same issues, including Rei Inamoto‘s Why Ad Agencies Should Act More Like Start-ups and .net magazine’s Inside the Labs of the World’s leading Digital Agencies.

Although there are some distinct differences between the ad and PR industries, both are rapidly converging around digital. Some level of comparative analysis will undoubtedly be useful to see where each industry is succeeding (and not succeeding) and looking for clearer paths to innovation, adoption and sharing/commercialisation. Hopefully more to come on this.

 

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.

 

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.

Bingo.

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’.