Archive | January, 2012

CIPR Strike an important blow in the battle for UK PR industry credibility and trust.

20 Jan

The Brilliant Andy Barr (@10yetis) once told me about a great saying: I couldn’t tell my mum I worked in PR so I told her I played piano in a brothel!

My last post was about the Dark Origins of PR, how that still continues to shape public opinion of the industry and why I felt it was important that we, as practitioners, have a vested interest in changing these perceptions. With this in mind I was pleased to hear the news from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) this morning that they have taken the rare decision to expel a member of our professional body for misconduct.
The person in question is Northern Ireland practitioner, Jennifer Maguire, MD of Consultancy, Core Communications who:

‘is on public record as having fabricated evidence, lied and acted vindictively, aggressively and unreasonably at two employment tribunals in 2008 and 2009.’  – Read more in the CIPR Press Release.

I totally support the CIPR decision to take this action and think it’s important for our industry that they do. It is decisive action that demonstrates clearly that the Code of Conduct that all members of the CIPR sign up to when they join has teeth and is more than just lip-service to the concept of professional ethics for our industry. More than this, it demonstrates clearly to members and the general public that the leading body for UK PR practitioners IS committed to getting its house in order when it comes to ethics and professional standards. It’s important to note that CIPR did not respond to an external complaint on this case, they brought the action themselves against this member. This can only be good for the way people perceive our industry.

I do also think that there is more than a slight element of foresight here in relation to the bigger picture in the UK. 2011 was the year of phone-hacking and expose-after-expose into the so-called ‘Dark Arts’ of the Journalism, but it goes further than just Journalism. It would be naïve to suggest that Public Relations is totally free of practices that are perhaps ethically ambiguous (or just plain wrong) and short-sighted in the extreme to assume we won’t receive the same level of public scrutiny this year that Journalism received last year. I think CIPR are pre-empting this scrutiny by acting, not because a select committee tells them they must, but because action is the only and right course to take.

Today, I’m reminded of why my CIPR membership matters to me and why CIPR matter to the UK PR industry.

CIPR Members, today may be a good day to refresh ourselves on the expectations of us in our professional Code of Conduct.

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Public Relations: Dark Beginnings

9 Jan

The best, or at least most amusing, piece of advice I was given about working in the Public Relations industry was:

“If you ever want to gain the upper hand in negotiations with an older practitioner then simply mention the word Propaganda as much as you can.”

It was a jokey quip from a highly respected practitioner but it does hit to the heart of the profession’s greatest hang-up and the main reason that many people hold a dim view of our industry: the entire foundation of the profession is impossible to separate from the idea of Propaganda and, therefore, the dark art of Psychological Operations during times of war. I made this link on Twitter last year and was shocked by the amount of Surprise shown by some of my PR followers and even the odd accusation that I was in some way making it all up. I’m not making it up, here’s the story of the dark beginnings of PR and it all begins with one man: Edward L. Bernays.

Bernay’s was the nephew of Sigmund Frued and became the father of Public Relations (many argue Ivy Lee was the first true practitioner and certainly gave us the art of Crisis Communication) when, inspired by the impact his message of ‘Spreading Democracy to Europe’ had in American when he worked in Woodrow Wilson’s administration during the first world war,  he made the move of combining the idea of  Crowd psychology, Group Dynamics with the psychoanalysis of his Uncle Sigmund to form what he called ‘The engineering of public consent’. It is of note that the only reason those of us in Public Relations are not working in the propaganda industry is that Bernays’ felt the word had been tainted by its association with the German regime during the WW1, which is why he finally settled upon the term Public Relations, although Propaganda did become the title of his seminal work in 1928. Even from it’s beginnings, Bernays’ approach to shaping the Public Relations industry was not exactly high on the morality scales. Here are two things he quite openly stated and that were at the heart of his beliefs:

“If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” – Propaganda (Page 71)

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” – Propaganda (Page 37)

But Bernays’ did not just stop at sayine morally and ethically questionable things, he was also a man of action:

  • In the 1920s, he worked for American Tobacco where he was instrumental in persuading a generation of women that smoking in public was no longer a taboo by sending a group of débutantes to take part in the New York City parade where they were pictured puffing on their ‘torches of freedom’. This was picked up by the New York Times (1 April 1929) who ran the headline: ‘Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom’. Sticking with smoking, in the 1930s he convinced many women that the forest green Lucky Strike Packs were the height of fashion.
  • Also in the 30s, he went a long way to convince consumers that disposable cups were more sanitary than over types of cup, arguably contributing to the disposable society that still endures today.
  • His influence was felt outside of the States and his most audacious campaign was probably to facilitate the overthrow of the government of Guatamala at the behest of The United Fruit Company and the US Government (Operation PBSUCCESS). In doing so, he gave the world the term ‘Banana Republic’ which was used in relation to the companies overthrow of Guatamala and other corrupt South American States.

The legacy of Bernays isn’t all negativity though, he was clearly a man with the capacity for conscience! He expressed his shock and sorrow that his book Crystallising Public Opinion featured in Joseph Goebbels’ library of Propaganda and was being used as a primary text in the justifying  the extermination of the Jewish People during World War Two. He also seems to have changed his position on smoking and throughout the 60s, after his retirement, he worked with anti-smoking group ASH to raise awareness of it’s dangers. He saw himself as always in adherence with democratic process suggesting that a public relations counsel ‘must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society.’ Considering some of his actions and beliefs, that are well documented, it’s not clear that he paid much more than lip-service to this ideal.

What he gave PR

We have Bernays’ to thank for the practice of the press release (although Ivy Lee pipped him to the post slightly in 1906 with the first documented release) and also third party product endorsement, whereby products are given credibility by a seemingly neutral, but well known authority or celebrity; both practices endure within the profession today. He also set the scene for the melting pot of psychology, philosophy and sociology that still defines PR theory.  As an interesting aside, the practice of PR possibly began hundreds of years before Bernays with the much less well known Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, whose efforts in the 18th century included celebrity endorsements, press relations and lobbying.

Bernays’ most enduring legacy however is his dark shadow; PR academics still wrestle with the separation of the image of profession from the legacy of manipulation and propaganda that Burnays left in his wake, you only have to look at Grunig and Hunts for models of Public Relations to see evidence of this. It’s a futile act, we cannot change the past of our profession, but we can be content that the Public Relations most of us practice bears little resemblance to the work of Edward L Bernays, the grand manipulator and celebrated/loathed braggart.

As for whether I’ve ever used repeat mention of the word Propaganda to gain any sort of upper hand in discussions with older practitioners…that would be manipulative, wouldn’t it?

Further Reading

There’s a lot out there, but here’s some of the sources I’ve enjoyed and learnt from:

  • Crystallising Public Opinion – Edward Bernays
  • Propaganda – Edward Bernays
  • Public Relations – Edward Bernays
  • Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of a Public Relations Counsel  – Edward Bernays
  • Engineering of Consent – Bernays, Cutlip et al
  • The unseen power: public relations, a history – Scot Cutlip
  • Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry – Stauber & Rampton
  • Mass communication and American social thought: key texts, 1919-1968 – John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson

Why the PR Industry is desperate to have some Klout…

7 Jan

Here are some questions to think about before we begin:

  • Can you measure the number of new customers a company gets over a given period following promotional activity?
  • Can you measure the number of complaints received by an organisation against the number of compliments received?
  • Can you give a number that represents the love that you feel for your wife/husband/partner?
  • Can you give a number that represents the enjoyment you get from taking part your favourite hobby?

How we doing? Let me guess, you could answer the first two because they are things that can be measured objectively in terms of numbers, but the second two would have caused you some head-scratching because, of course, emotions are highly subjective and certainly don’t lend themselves to measurement with number. If you’d have come back and said 37 is the number that best represents your love for your other half, even if you truly believed this to be the case, it would be ultimately meaningless as a measure. If you accept the accuracy of this assertion then you already know why online influence cannot be measured by a computer algorithm and, furthermore, that any score derived from such a process would be as meaningless as the number 37 is for expressing the love that you have for your partner.

Despite of all this being no secret, 2011 saw a lot of start-ups appearing and making bold claims that they can measuring online influence with Klout becoming the most popular service offering the measurement of the unmeasurable. I’m not going to spend too long discussing why it’s next to impossible for a computer program to measure and represent the intricacies of influence, but I recommend reading these posts by people who explain it for better than I:

@41MindsWhat is Influence  and The Truth about Influence

@ThinkingfoxWilly Waggling

@Robjones_TringThe One with the Influential Lists

Neville Hobson (@Jangles) – What is Klout worth to You? and Out of Klout

On to the the main subject of this post, the Public Relations industry and the measurement of influence. It really should go without saying why measuring influence (on and offline) would be of interest to PR Practitioners as the very basis of the profession, as set out by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), is:

Public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its publics.

The key words above are ‘goodwill’ and ‘mutual understanding’, these concepts are key to the idea of Relationship Management, which is rapidly overtaking the practice of Reputation Management as the core function within Public Relations. Here’s the thing, Relationship Management is impossible without the concept of influence and a lot of Relationship Management takes place online in social spaces, so it’s no surprise that the industry would want a way to measure it, but it is a surprise that so many chose to invest their faith in services such as Klout, but measurement has always been a problem for PR.

Emerging from the Shadow of AVE

Since the very beginnings of the PR industry there has been a question that no one has found a satisfying and unifying answer for: How do we measure the effectiveness of of what we do? The fact there has yet to be found an answer to this question is seen by many as one of the major reasons our industry often scrabbles around to demonstrate it’s credibility and any type of return on investment (As a rule PR costs a lot of money).

For far too long we have relied on something called Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE), which assesses the value of any activity based on column inches in newspapers: you calculate the number of column inches following activity and then work out how much that would have cost if you placed it as advertising. You will be hard pressed to find a supporter within the industry for this approach to measuring value (you’ll find a lot of Finance Managers who like it though as it makes spreadsheets make sense to them) but many of us have used it for years and many of us, begrudgingly, still use it. The flaws of AVE are pretty evident, but summarised below:

  • PR is not (and never will be) Advertising, so a measure that suggests such a comparison does little for our credability;
  • AVE ignores tone of coverage, it simply measures the length of coverage. No press is bad press is the mantra; and
  • So much PR activity now exists in online and word-of-mouth spaces and may never reach the printed media. This does not make the coverage less valuable, simply because the newspapers do not cover it, but it is totally invisible to AVE measurement.

If you want to read the case for and against there is a good article in PR Week from 2009 on the AVE Debate, that is equally relevant today (largely because not much has changed). There is a very interesting quote, that I totally agree with from Robert Phillips, CEO of Edelman PR, on what the future should look like:

The model of the future must be able to analyse the depth, resonance, importance and influence of the conversation. But of course no such model currently exists. Options currently available include reach, opportunities to see (OTS) and frequency, alongside the somewhat mysterious catch-all phrase ‘PR value’

No Such model existing in 2009 and, despite lots of very bright people thinking about the problem, there still doesn’t exist a measure for PR that everyone is content to agree on and use. There is also a worrying trend of practitioners looking for third-party, out-of-the-box solutions that they hope will address the problem, but that always fall short.

So what now?

I don’t have any quick answers to the problem, but here’s two things that I’d like to see for Public Relations in 2012:

  • Better explanation of why AVE should no longer be used as a measure for the effectiveness of PR activity and a wider commitment to its total abandonment. We have suffered under its shadow for too long; and
  • Less focus on third party measures for activity effectiveness and ROI. If we want an effective measure that lasts it needs to be created by Public Relations people, for Public Relations People (catchy, huh!).

Two short bullet points but a huge achievement if we manage them both! It certainly won’t be easy, but it is important and if we care about the industry we work in then it’s what we need to do!

It’s not just Klout

I’ve found myself feeling a bit sorry for Klout of late, they’ve been getting a lot of criticism and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are the only service out there claiming to be able to measure online influence, there are others. Some of the other services occasionally come in for criticism (PeerIndex, Kred etc) but there is one service that everyone seems to neglect to mention: enter stage right Edelman PR with their TweetLevel.

Yes, that’s right, one of the biggest and arguably most-respected PR agencies in the world, seen as experts in the field of Relationship Management seem to have a vested interest in us all believing that online influence can be effectively measured and attributed a score by an algorithm…they even make money from it if you want more in-depth functionality. Reading back through the Robert Phillips quote above on the subject of measurement, I feel decidedly uncomfortable by this fact.

What do you think?

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