Reconnecting theory and practice in public relations

In many situations public relations practitioners and academics are isolated from each other. I’ve experienced this first-hand; graduating from a public relations degree in 2012 which was 80% theoretical, to working for a number of organisations who seek experience.

On my career journey I can count on one hand how many practitioners I met who had an in-depth knowledge of the industry’s theory and could apply this to working day examples. This isn’t to say unless you understand the theory you can’t carry out good work, but it does present a number of difficulties (in my mind):

  • Areas of contention remain without absolution (e.g. debate over AVEs)
  • The stagnation of popular theories (mostly from the 80s) as they are not challenged in a digital environment
  • The PR skills gap (are courses teaching the correct skills? Are we attracting the right talent?)

Most importantly, practitioners and academics can learn from each other.

To plug this gap the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has started a Facebook Group community which 72 hours later boasts 250+ members, 100s comments, and 15,000+ words. The project was initiated by Stephen Waddington who explains in his blog post why cooperation between academia and practice is needed.

One of the initial barriers to entry I can see for practitioners and academics alike is the time it takes to debate these issues. If you’re working 50+ hour weeks it can be difficult fitting anything else extra in – I’m not sure how many have found the time already. Anyway, on the train home last night I contributed the following:

It’s thanks to the genius of David Phillips and Richard Bailey that I’m a practitioner today – it feels good to be contributing to these discussions and my primary focus is continuing to build digital practices into the workflow of PR. This includes testing theory to work in digital contexts, securing the future of PR through upskilling workforce/students, and challenging the ‘traditional’ practice areas of PR in the marketing communications mix.

In exploring the relationship between academia and practitioner I believe I can offer a fresh perspective to this group having been a recent grad of the CIPR Approved Course system (2012). It may be due to my particular skillset, but my contribution to agencies has so far been the result of my technical skills; network analysis, website builds, data analysis/measurement, etc.

In this sense I’ve contributed towards client work by providing agencies skillsets that are traditionally ‘new’ but none of these skills were taught on my PR course. Why? Probably because when the course was designed these skills were not a requirement. Not to say that the degree was meaningless, I apply it every working day – but I felt the gap was with the course. Having said that my dissertation was on semantic analysis…

Grads need new skills and increasingly this is more about the whole marcomms mix than just media relations. If we’re trying to bridge the divide between theory and practice, let’s make an effort to apply this to digital practice areas as well.

Before any smart readers flag it I’m aware that part of the industry’s problem may be a semantic one; we really shouldn’t be defining practitioners and academics as separate groups. I consider myself both, and the best academics I’ve met have a solid track record of advising organisations.

5 areas of PR worth studying

September approaches which means it’s time for the next batch of budding PR professionals to begin their education. In my career I’ve seen shifts in the communications landscape that were not foreseen in my degree. It could be said that my PR degree became less relevant over its three years because of the rate of industry change.

It’s the challenge of lecturers and universities to make sure that courses are updated frequently. Students also bear responsibility by gaining enough experience to notice when aspects of practical delivery have changed. If you’re teaching, studying or working in PR, these are the areas I would focus on to stay relevant.

1) The relationship between PR and SEO
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and PR have a close relationship with each, tending to be a natural opportunity for embedding digital into traditional PR programmes. Having an expert understanding of the SEO industry and its latest developments will prepare you well for real-world work.

2) Online advertising
When I was studying certain guest lecturers enjoyed criticising advertising and its value as part of marketing. This is no longer the case as social advertising plays an important role for targeting the right people online. Social sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are near impossible to gain organic traction – advertising is a necessity.

3) Creative writing
This isn’t just about how to write a press release, which is becoming less relevant in my experience. This is about how to be a professional copywriter; absorbing information and then writing it in certain styles. I wish my course taught how to write for radio, for speeches, and newspaper styles – I’ve learnt this over time.

4) Measurement
Criticise Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) and talk theoretically about the Barcelona Principles – most importantly learn how to measure. Train yourself to use Google Analytics, understand the metrics of social sites, and apply these together to measure activities in PR programmes. You need to prove your value in the real world and this is only possible through measurement.

5) Confidence
The most important area is about being confident, or at least acting confidently. Working in PR is about becoming your own consultant within an agency or in-house team, convincing senior people of approaches and business directions. It’s by putting yourself out there that will ultimately get you noticed.

Is now the perfect time to quit blogging?

A dangerous thought has been running through my mind recently; is it time to quit blogging? It’s not through lack of ideas, but fun. If you have never run a blog before then let me tell you this, it’s bloody difficult. A burden of time and mental resource, a commitment that must become habitual otherwise a blog will quickly fall into disrepair.

When I began blogging 10 years ago the social media landscape looked entirely different, and with that, an entirely different culture. Blogging was a community experience where online ‘blog carnivals’ took place (essentially a monthly newsletter populated by bloggers and hosted by different authors each month), commenting was rife and it was easier building a social media following.

Through a range of external factors, these ‘old’ days of the Internet are now over. Perhaps it was inevitable that though the commercialisation of digital marketing that the original authors of the Internet have been left forgotten? Blogging is now an activity pitched up against mainstream media outlets, needing time and monetary investment to cut through the social noise. This noise itself also poses another challenge, creating original content that matters rather than joining in with the masses; regurgitating statistics, videos and images that have already made the digital rounds.

Sadly, the day of blogging may soon be over for individual authors, especially for these reasons:

Fragmentation of community
When I ran a blog on atheism/humanism I was very young, but still my ideas were heard. As part of a bigger community my followers were shared between likeminded publications and debates in comment sections were huge. Blogs or forums were the go to places for debate but that changed with Facebook in 2006. The community moved, forums became ghost towns and comments were left on Facebook rather than on blogs. User behaviour had changed due to new social media sites, and today the social media landscape has never been bigger. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn have become popular places to host your social personality. Standalone blogs are not as relevant as user experience has fragmented across a number of social sites.

Cutting through noise
Changes in search engine optimisation have meant that blogs ideally need to be updated daily with fresh content, contain a mixture of image and video, and are of a decent length (800 – 1200 words). This is to show Google that a site has fresh, digestible, shareable and in depth content. Along with some technical factors, these are basic rules of climbing search engine rankings.

Where is the best place to hide a body? On page 2 of Google Search results. Blogs need to be read by people and it’s likely that the majority of this traffic will come from search engines. Without traffic, a blog is unable to grow, and you may as well spend time writing articles using LinkedIn Pulse where posts are publicised in a contained social site. The big bad SEO world has got tougher due to the abusive influences of people and organisations changing rankings. We’ve all suffered as a result, especially bloggers.

The ‘why?’ Factor
When I first began blogging it was fairly easy to make money from banner advertising, it at least covered my hosting costs, sometimes more. Then sponsored posts came along and at times this helped pay for my University expenses. Today monetising a blog has never been harder. The fact that gaining traffic is harder, means banner advertising is a slow and unreliable revenue source. Alongside this is the decline in sponsored posts due to changes that have taken place in the SEO industry. Who wants to pay for content? More importantly, who needs to pay for content? Online competition has sapped the bank balances of bloggers and it’s no longer a reliable living. Selling consultancy really is the better option for bloggers in my position today.

Scheduling the blog into life
From all the bloggers I’ve spoken to there is a great deal of guilt in the community about worrying about traffic levels, the stats of individual posts, how many subscribers… The list really does go on forever. Decent blog posts take time to consider, research and produce – a commitment that’s a real challenge alongside everyday life. To the point above, to what end? If full time work provides the money, then how is a blog’s success being measured? Running a blog means thinking all the time about what the next post is going to be, who could be the next guest author, when will I have time to write my next 800 words? It’s a hamster wheel of repetition and I have to be honest, after 10 years of doing this, it’s almost enough.

All of these concerns are ones of a more ‘professional’ blogger, rather than a hobbyist. As an amateur (meaning lover in French), merely to love the act of blogging is enough. In the real world though, the purpose of blogging really deserves questioning. The digital landscape has changed immensely over the last 10 years; is it time to live life instead?

Is the future of PR in social advertising?

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” – is one of the ‘inspirational’ phrases making the rounds on LinkedIn at the moment. Unlike most memes, this one may have an element of truth. Perhaps that’s why the concluding answer of my interview on Chris Norton’s PR blog made the social headlines:

“We should all be concerned about the growth of the dark web. Social networks such as Snapchat and Whatsapp are locked down and near impossible to measure, at least compared with the openness of Twitter. When Twitter starts to decline, the entire social media industry may need to revaluate how it measures its worth.”

There is no doubt that Twitter is a godsend for those of us who work in public relations due to its approach to data sharing, the very thing that ethically burned the fingers of the charity Samaritans last year. A situation I was completely uninvolved with, but sadly was still trolled online for “being part of the same digital industry”.

The journalist Charles Arthur highlighted in his Guardian article last weekend, “Yet it is Twitter that is so often cited in news stories, TV coverage and even TV adverts, as established media businesses scramble to generate engagement with a tech-savvy mass of viewers, readers and listeners. Twitter is seen as the easy way to do that…  So why is Twitter struggling financially?”

Inevitably there are a multitude of reasons; struggle to monetise through advertising, competition from other social networks, speed of evolving the service, messages being communicated publicly (e.g. how Twitter is relevant in everyday life – sign up!). What isn’t a mystery to me is why Twitter has become famous; being mentioned on the news, by global brands and celebrities. It’s primarily about data.

All the social media monitoring tools on the market get deeper insight from Twitter in comparison to other sites such as Facebook and Google+. Twitter is a social network that balances organic activities with paid-for options – unlike Facebook where really advertising is the only option to get impact due to the throttling of organic reach. This leads to Twitter achieving global fame, whilst struggling to financially futureproof its existence.

So what happens to digital activities in PR after Twitter? It’s a concern of mine. Other popular social networks such as Facebook, Snapchat and LinkedIn are locked down, commonly referenced as ‘walled garden’ social networks. One of the inventors of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called such social sites in the past as a threat to the democratic and universal nature of the internet.

Whilst we still have time the PR industry needs to think ahead about this future possibility and start planning for a world without the data comfort blanket of Twitter. It may just be that the future of digital PR may be in social advertising.