Thursday, 26 March 2009

Six months on...

I have to say I found the last class of the course a bit of a strange experience. While the intention was to end on a reflective note, sometimes reflection can be a bit like eating your own face.

The teams debated the question of whether employers value PR degrees, and while this was entertaining enough, it brought back some home truths - employers really just want raw workplace experience, or at least the willingness to work for nothing until you have it. This made me reflect on whether I would have done better just doing a few internships, saving the PR reading for my spare time. Of course employers in this country don't want academically trained PR types, when all academia trains you to do is think too hard about boring things.

I was, however, pleased and heartened to hear that one of my classmates has been promoted, in part because of his qualification. Interestingly, it also seems that in some other countries, employers actually favour degrees. So its not all doom and gloom (if I'm willing to up shop to some far off country).

Perhaps I'm being too negative about this. Really all this class made me want to do was to get out there and actually get a job. I certainly feel a lot more confident, I know about all kinds of new stuff, and I've picked up some bitchin Adobe and copywriting skills. If PR agencies don't want to employ me for more than 16 grand, that's their loss. I'm definitely better than I was 6 months ago, so why not go for it?

Friday, 20 March 2009


It is possible to look at public relations purely in terms of attitudes, opinions and relationships, and to expect the hardest metrics come from ad value equivalency calculations. Lots of PR seems to be couched in these terms, including some of the core academic texts on the subject. Borrowing from psychology, Grunig and Hunt talk about cognitive, affective and conative objectives, which all live "inside the head", and which equate roughly with the stirring of rational, emotional and behavioural impulses.

Prompted in part by Mr Sean Kidney's interesting talk in this weeks seminar, and in part by my campaign planning assignments, I've been thinking about what psychological objectives actually mean for the PR practitioner. Certainly, unless you're prepared to conduct expensive research, theres very few ways to find out what people are thinking. Indeed the notion that Mr Kidney spent a while developing was that even if people say they've changed their minds, what does this actually mean for the campaigner? Sure, its probably a rhetorical win for the communicator, but if it doesn't translate to action (eating more healthily, going to see Watchmen, setting up a direct debit to Oxfam), what have you actually acheived?

Mr Kidney's ideas made me lapse into a weird solipsist trance for a while. Sure, we want to see results, and, come to think of it objectives should be measurable, so why not skip all the psycho-babble and go straight for the brutalist jugular? And on that basis, why not look to the ideas of people like Thaler and Cass, who claim that structural change, and physical change where appropriate, are really what make people behave differently. According to Thaler and Cass, we behave in a predictably lazy way, which suits us well to being funnelled around. Using the nomenclature of the writers, the best way to make people change the way they behave is to 'nudge' them, by making the right choices 'easy'.

So for a few hours I wondered how I could funnel people around, thinking over crazy ways in which I could adapt the physical nature of the environment to ensure that people could live happier lives. In my head, I began to construct a custom moulded neotopia, where people lived in harmony with their environment, whether at work or at play. I imagined crisp blocks, intuitive walkways, fragrant open fields just minutes from the centre and lots of cows...concrete cows. Wait a second. In an excited flurry of social engineering, I had somehow managed to build a mental version Milton Keynes, a mere 50 miles to the north west of my brain.

And this is the thing with making big physical changes in the world - you can get so wrapped up in your grand plans that what you think is the future is not quite what the future had in mind. People build urban funnels that in future years function only as halfpipes for skateboarders and hideouts for petty thieves. This holds of things like laws and other structural changes. Laws have been created for one purpose and then used in defence of all sorts of awful things. I like the idea of making grand changes for the best, but are we ever equipped to know what future generations will make of it?

Perhaps something like the Countryside Code should be introduced for social marketers, encouraging them to pursue their aims without bringing too much of a violence upon their surroundings. Communicative methods remain one such way to change ideas and behaviour. I'd maintain that what goes on inside heads is actually pretty important in terms of prompting and informing behaviours, and that to leave communication behind is to relinquish an important tool for change.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Crisis management

OK, so I missed the class this week, but I have been doing a bit of reading about crisis management, so that's OK. Actually I've been reading about issues management, which is similar, except that you should be able to see it coming. The book I've been reading has the sexy title of Strategic Issues Management. Here is a picture of the cover:

Slinky no? The author argues that most crises are actually issues that an organisation has failed to address which, if the case studies in my corporate communications class are anything to go by, is a view borne out by reality. Krysten's talk on the remarkable implosion of Peanut Corporation of America has stuck in my head as a case of a business is unwilling to look further than the end of its nose. I am reminded of Seymour and Moore who talks of "cobra" problems, which strike rapidly and without warning, and "python" problems which slowly strangle the life out of you. Just how many of the crises facing organisations could have been averted by proper planning and risk management?

Nonetheless, real and unavoidable crises do happen, and business contingencies have to be made. The first rule is to have a crisis team ready to be committed to the problem - I've been in offices when crises hit, and the havoc they can wreak on management is unreal. The second is to act decisively, partly because the problem needs to get sorted, and partly because people are judging you according to how swiftly you deal with it. The third, from the point of view of communications, is to accept that the press want a story and to give them one: Why did it happen? Who is responsible? What are you doing about it? How do we know this isn't going to happen again?

I'd like to read more about the use of resignations in the wake of a crisis - can anyone recommend any literature on the subject? From the point of view of the onlooker, there's something comfortingly wholesome and genuine about resignations. Nothing says "I'm sorry" quite like spot of early retirement. I for one would like to see more of it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Google vs PRS

Youtube have taken down thousands of music videos from their site. The move is part of a licensing spat between Google, who run the video streaming website Youtube and the Performing Rights Society (PRS), which collects royalties for musicians. Google claim that the licensing terms proposed by PRS are prohibitively expensive, and would lead to a financial loss every time a video is played.

Understandably the move has created quite a buzz across the internet. Youtube is a staple of the contemporary online experience, and a move like this is guaranteed a huge amount of public attention.

My feelings are that the dramatic and wholesale removal of music videos by major artists is not just a strongarm negotiating tactic, but a calculated public relations move. Google is well aware that widespread loyalty to its brand will motivate public opinion against PRS, and it is has every interest in dragging this tiff into the public sphere. The PRS on the other hand has received bad press recently for demanding license fees from all manner of unlikely and inappropriate venues, (including police stations and workplaces) and is unlikely to receive much sympathy, especially among internet users who have become accustomed to obtaining free music. That Google are appealling to the court of public opinion is made clear by their reference to the Arctic Monkeys, a wildly popular band which rose to prominence through social media sites.

It is an increasingly common opinion that the music industry needs to be rethought, and that the regime run by the PRS is symbolic of a business model who's time has passed. This fallout gives real life form to that debate, and for that reason it will be interesting to see how it pans out. A cultural gulf lies between both sides, and it is the role of communications professionals to bring these differences to the fore.

In particular both sides assign different cultural meaning to Youtube. For PRS, Youtube music videos are an end in themselves. For the vast majority of Youtube users however, Youtube music videos are simply marketing tools, too low quality to be comparable to the final product. The assertion is that while hearing music should be free, music which warrants ownership will be bought. Indeed a comment on the Guardian website suggested that music companies should be paying Youtube for advertising space.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Ryanair wage war on blogosphere

Just had this article brought to my attention. It concerns Ryanair's approach to a blogger's comment about their website. It's a good story because it contains a sort of double reveal.

First theres the ridiculously pumped up Ryanair IT technician, who swoops on the post, accuses the blogger of being "an idiot and a liar", proceeds to attack his web development credentials and finally produces some weird semi-threat (see picture) which centres around giving away a million free Ryanair flights.

Undiplomatic backoffice staff member starts slinging insults around on the blogosphere; this is where you'd expect the comms department to wade in, issuing some sort of humble apology to quell the impending swell of blogo-rage. Right?

Wrong. In a statement released to Travalution a spokesperson for Ryanair said:

Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion. It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won't be happening again.

Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel.

So theres our second reveal - Ryanair do actually hate bloggers. Naturally, elements within the blogosphere have taken exception, calling Ryanair's statement "woeful", and threatening never to fly with the airline again. But despite the limited ire caused by Ryanair's statement, I don't think it is the worst thing the company could have said.

At least they're crystal clear about their online strategy. A large number of neo-PR types would balk at the idea of taking on the internet in a PR war. But I don't think its so desperately crazy to conceive of a communications approach that not only attempts to isolate the inhabitants of the blogosphere (see picture above), but resolves to take a dump on them as well. Research has shown that bloggers are not trusted (except by other bloggers). They have a reputation as self absorbed timewasters and it is beyond debate that the 'blogosphere' contains some of the most pointless fluff ever committed to type.

Whereas some businesses might have a lot to gain from getting into bed with these self appointed guardians of the internet, many might just as reasonably conclude that associating with bloggers is so counterproductive that the best strategy is to ignore them or, should they get narky with you or your staff, sling faeces from a distance.

I think Ryanair have judged their target market well. As a customer looking for a cheap flight, I would indeed prefer that Ryanair staff were "driving down the cost of air travel" (whatever that physically involves) than taking part in virtual love-ins on wordpress, blogger and the like. I'd take comfort in Ryanair's focus and their everyman contempt for the loudmouth internet nobody.

But while I've got some admiration for the sentiment of the release, I do feel it could have been written a bit more better. Comms staff really needed to offset the clumsy beligerence of the original blog postings, and I'm not sure they managed to do that. Words like "idiot" are a bit harsh to be used in a press release. "Lunatic" I quite like though. Even though it masks hundreds of years of mistreatment of the mentally ill, I'd generally consider it an affectionate term and one with considerable PR purchase.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Meanderings on the subject of corporate ethics II

OK, so I asked Adam Garfunkel whether my fictional boardroom exists anywhere, and he was diplomatic in his response. His answer went something like, sure people are well motivated, even in boardrooms, but ultimately CSR initiatives have to make business sense. This, I suppose should be self evident, unless obviously you're a tambourine weilding idealist like myself.

Luckily he was pretty good at convincing me that at least a lot of the time CSR initiatives do make business sense. CSR, he explained, is about risk management. Increasingly, companies are conducting their business in public, improved means of communication making it easier to notice poor practice. Companies should avoid future scandal by looking long and hard at what they are doing, and putting it right if it offers any cause for concern.

Although this seemed to make fine sense (it always does at the time), I've been considering the extent to which the logic tied to market conditions. What if people don't care where their slacks are being manufactured? What if people who patronise your business are indifferent to ethics? What if people are distracted from ethical considerations by other imperatives? The current financial environment seems less conducive to ethical scrutiny than the boom which preceeded it. Businesses have also dropped the amount they're donating to charity.

I suppose the failsafe should be the law, which we imagine is creeping (very slowly) in the direction of making business acknowledge and seek to limit its impacts. In principle, a business would do well to make a gradual transition to more sustainable operations, rather than getting into some ruckus with a regulator. Unfortunately, law makers (at least in this country) seem to be doing very little to make things uncomfortable for unsustainable businesses, and this has also been compounded by the economy. It would be a great shame to see emergent business values like transparency and social responsibility going under before they've had a chance to make an impact.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Meanderings on the subject of corporate ethics

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a class debate. Our team opposed the motion that you could only practise ethical PR in the not for profit sector, not with little difficulty. Especially ferocious was the attack from my classmate Saema, who argued that business simply can't be ethical, on the basis that they must, first and formost, cater to their shareholders. This view holds that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a sham, and that ethics simply cannot exist in the boardroom.

Sadly I've never sat in a boardroom, at least not with board of directors, so I can only imagine (see above for my rather tragic graphical rendering of ethics in the boardroom). However, I 'm lothe to belive that every single one of them would be operating without a moral compass of any description. Presumedly these leaders of business would all be pariahs by now had they not, in general, abided by the ethical codes which define individual ethical conduct. Why should they as broadly moral people, who have probably wrestled with a dilemma or two, not be allowed to take a step back to examine and adjust the ethical direction of their organisation - the way that its vision and strategy work towards the (admittedly fairly vague) ideal of a good society?

Maybe people are right that as long as shareholders are there to be sated, and a profit seeking imperative remains enshrined in law, this ideal will never be acheived.

Or maybe it is in fact the case that for certain kinds of company, not only are conditions like sustainability and ethical agreeability becoming bound to profit, but also shareholders can be persuaded of this with greater ease. I reckon you can have a company that is both financially strong and actively ethical. What do you think?