Why publicity is public relations (and it’s all inherently amoral)

It is ethics month at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and to mark the occasion I finally got round to reading Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’.

As Stuart Bruce suggests in his review, it’s a book about much more than public relations – consumerism, sustainability and modern politics, to name a few monster themes.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Waddington also points out, it usefully rehearses the big challenges facing public relations as a consequence of media fragmentation and important changes to the way we defer and trust (of which, as a former Edelman consumer CEO, Phillips is well versed).

However it repeats two important fallacies about PR – one relating to how it is practised, the other to ethics. These also happen to be the source of much modern criticism of public relations. So, in defence of practice, I was spurred to write this post.

Affirming the consequent

Phillips’ central theme is that PR is a servant of unchecked consumerism and ‘hard wired to promote wants over needs’. He says many other negative things about PR but this one is particularly hard to swallow because it’s patently not true. (Just take a look at War on Want’s description of itself – working in partnerships to empower people, running campaigns, mobilising support, building alliances, raising public awareness. Sounds suspiciously like public relations to me.)

But Phillips has already played his get out of jail free card on page 5. By PR he really means consumer public relations, the suggestion* being that consumer PR is so dominant as to be synonymous with PR and other types of activity are a minority sport. His Jericho Chambers chairman pithily equates PR with ‘blowing smoke up the jacksy of late capitalism’…which leaves one to wonder whether, with old friends like these, does PR need any enemies?

This is a version of an old argument – cited by Phillips and made by Tom Watson in 2013 and much earlier by Tim Traverse-Healy in 1988 – that public relations and publicity, particularly editorial publicity in support of a brand, are different things.

Phillips’ points about the ills of ‘late’ capitalism seem very sensible. Contemporary measures of economic and societal well-being are, by and large, nuts.  We equate increasing levels of consumption with success but our resources are finite. Equally Professor Watson is a leading light on evaluation and measurement and Tim Traverse-Healy wrote the Credo for public relations, which for me is about as wise an aspiration for the PR profession as anyone could wish for.

But they are wrong about brand publicity. We might read about Sweatygate and wish they were right, but that doesn’t make it so. Editorial publicity, media relations, in the service of whatever sector or industry, is part of the public relations tool kit whether we like it or not. And just because it was traditionally the dominant methodology of practitioners working for organisations trying to sell us things we don’t really need does not alter that fact.

The argument about brand publicity involves a common error which, in the language of philosophical logic, is called ‘affirming the consequent’. An example of which is:

All London buses are red.
This is red.
Therefore it must be a London bus.

(When of course being red isn’t a property exclusive to London buses).

In this case the argument goes:

All bad PR is brand publicity.
This is brand publicity.
Therefore it must be bad PR.

Not necessarily, as any press officer for a ‘big brand’ charity would no doubt point out.

That’s not to say that Professor Watson’s wider point about differentiating (via membership criterion, say) between types of practitioners is wrong. He rightly points out that the majority of PR practitioners are not (and presumably don’t want to be) members of any professional body. We also know that the majority of CIPR members, sadly, think that professionalism is above all about pleasing clients. But in these trade versus profession tectonics, brand publicity is not the fault line.

To assign ethics to a discipline is to make a category mistake

Phillips also makes some very astute points about honesty, accountability, trust and empowerment and in doing so shines a light on the dishonesty, evasion and abuses of trust exercised by public relations practitioners in the service of, typically, corporate masters. The book is peppered with (partially redacted) anecdotes of unethical behaviours. Yet to assign ethics to public relations in itself is to make a category mistake,surely? I might use a hammer to help build a home for refugees. Alternatively I might use it to hit someone on the head and steal their purse, but in neither case does the hammer have any ethical properties. It is amoral.

There’s not enough space here to argue about definitions of public relations but (as in the CIPR’s) it is commonly described in terms of a discipline or an effort. The CIPR goes further and says that, to be public relations, that discipline should be used to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics. There’s nothing intrinsically ethical here. I might use my public relations skills to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between my International League of Litter Droppers and its members, for instance.

We should call out bullshit and lies because they are a) unethical and thus disadvantageous to clients and/or the wider public b) typically bad PR and c) tarnish the reputation of our profession.  We should abide by the codes of conduct for the same reasons. But the prescriptions and proscriptions enshrined within those codes apply to our behaviours in the practice of public relations and not PR/public relations per se.

*(I use the term ‘suggested’ above as it is never wholly clear which target – PR or public relations – Phillips has in his sights. He purposefully uses the term PR as a proxy for consumer public relations in order to support his main premise, that it is a prop for the ugly architecture of capitalism. But the marketing for the book takes a very different tact).


Science PR and communication – headlines from our background research

I am shamefully late in posting to this blog – we have been extremely busy with a number of research projects, but that’s a poor excuse.

Those projects include a study of science public relations and communication that we are conducting for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

In this predominantly qualitative piece we’re looking to understand more about the dominant themes in science PR and communication through the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of practitioners.

At the time of writing, we are particularly keen to find in-house private sector practitioners in order to better represent that population in the study – do please get in touch if you fit that bill and you would like to volunteer for a telephone interview (or recommend a colleague or contact).

We are currently sifting and analysing the study data and hope to publish in May.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of headlines from our background research to chew over:

  1. Television news and factual programming continue to drive public understanding of science.

However, where we get our information will depend, in part, on whether we are actively seeking it and information sources do differ by age group, according to the BIS/Ipsos MORI Public Attitudes to Science 2014. (There’s an astute summary of this research by Alice Bell in the Guardian’s science blog).

  1. Research and public commentary of science PR is dominated by analysis of media relations.

But PR practitioners working in or for organisations involved in natural, applied or formal sciences are no more likely to be engaged in media relations work than other types of practitioners, according to a break-down of the CIPR’s 2014 State of the Profession Survey.

  1. The Cardiff University School of Psychology is investigating ‘the potential role of press releases in creating misleading reports of science in the press’.

The team studied 2011 Russell Group press releases, the associated peer-reviewed journal articles that the instigated the PRs, and in turn, the news stories that arose. Results are due to be published soon.

  1. If you want to understand the impact on specialist journalists as a result of changes in the print and broadcast media business, then take a look at this 2009 Nature survey of 493 science journalists.

In particular the answers to the question: Do you have any other comments or thoughts that you would like to share regarding science journalism? (in the ‘Open ends’ tab). Often beleaguered, coruscating, sad.

  1. The most prolific sources of science and technology stories in the UK media are publically funded science or medical research.

Followed by ‘industry’, non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civic groups, then the UK Government, according to a study published in 2007 by Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

Hearty thanks to the individuals and organisations that have helped us with the study so far – a proper set of thank yous to come.

Crisis comms part two – what happens if you don’t have a plan?

In a previous post I set out the five main stages to a crisis management plan and argued against Henry Kissinger’s maxim that: “In a crisis the most daring course is often the safest.”

But what happens if you don’t have a plan?

A recent study of PR in further education indicated that a third of college teams don’t have a crisis communications plan. Is there anything that can be usefully done?

So you have no issues management plan and no crisis management plan. The satellite news vans are ten minutes away from your office. What then? Don’t give up on Aristotle’s advice that ‘the wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger completely’. There is still time to regain some control. Here are some things to consider as the clock ticks down:

  • Point of contact – Do all staff who may be contacted by media know who the point of contact is for these types of enquiries? Has the switchboard operator been briefed on how to field calls? Does the security guard anticipate that journalists might try and enter the building or question staff leaving the building? Who/how many people are monitoring social media activity and can others be found to assist with enquiries if needs be?
  • Spokesperson – Significant issues or crises require senior spokespeople, often CEOs; who speaks on your behalf in a crisis is understandably seen as a reflection of how seriously you are taking the issue. Is yours media trained and if not, who is? In some cases a written statement is the best option. Whatever happens you’ll need a single source of information going in and out of the organisation.
  • Messages – In a crisis, you should be genuinely concerned about the situation, accept responsibility for it if appropriate (but not necessarily blame), apologise and explain what has happened as far as you know, and what is going to happen next. Find out more and move towards resolving the incident so, when it is at en end, you can prevent its recurrence. Never speculate about what might have happened, make defensive excuses, blame anybody else, let anybody resign (immediately) or over-promise.
  • Room to manoeuvre – Do you think it is more sensible to provide a room (with hot food, Wi-Fi and coffee) for journalists within an organisation (but away from, say, the area where you might be comforting relatives) in which you can answer queries as soon as possible and keep speculation levels to a minimum, or to keep media standing outside in the rain waiting to buttonhole your colleagues?
  • Key facts – Do you have a key facts sheet that sets out what the business does? If you are a journalist looking for 350 words by noon and you have a choice between fact and speculation you will (generally) choose the facts…if they are available.
  • Broadcast basics – If you are working with breakfast broadcasters do you know how to get into the right building at an ungodly hour if they need to run power cables to vans?  Will I understand your key messages if I am watching the resulting piece on television while ironing my shirt and feeding the dog?
  • Social media – However you are planning to deal with traditional media interest you should allow time and effort for monitoring social media and understand its significance as a (two-way) communications channel in crises. Take care to prioritise, be open and understanding, be quick, outline next steps and tell your story clearly. Social media can make an issue look like a crisis or turn an issue into a crisis. It’s likely to be the catalyst that speeds up your response times and can be the most effective research tool available to you.

There is a very quick and basic practical checklist but it is no substitute for forward planning.

The scenarios you are working to avoid that I’ve (sadly) experienced first-hand include:

  • the communications manager ringing an advice line at the same time as the Sun journalist was asking her CEO questions
  • the PR agency that attempted to capitalise on unexpected interest from TV news channels but could not find the keys for the building in which they wanted film
  • a cosmetics company, having been asked to respond in a radio broadcast following a product recall, that fielded a spokesperson who had not been media trained, knew no key messages and had no idea of the line of questioning.


Why doesn’t mainstream media pay FE more attention? And other fruitless disconsolations

“Why doesn’t the mainstream media pay us more attention?”  A common cry in further education. Notwithstanding the popularity of apprenticeships as a news topic, primariy driven by the fact that they represent a flagship Government policy, these lamentations have some foundation.

Journalists’ opinions on this one differ. The late Mike Baker thought that colleges needed a cadre of controversial Principals in order to attract more attention from news desks. He definitely had a point in terms of how unattractive journalists find FE jargon and tendencies towards the platitudinous or bromidic.

But attempting to out-maverick the crack corps of (certain) head teachers and vice chancellors who comment on the opening of an envelope is a risky strategy. Particularly if what you are saying is, in order to attract attention and in the long view, daft.

Alison Kershaw, Press Association education correspondent, told an audience of education PR practitioners that the cause was more prosaic – too many of the press releases received from colleges were poorly written or presented and she never made it past the subject line. I received some of the the same releases for ten years; she had a point. Now the pool of eloquent, professional PROs in colleges appears to be deepening.

A news editor friend of mine (who wants to remain nameless for fear of reprisals) thinks it reflects the lack of familiarity among his peers with the state school system. ‘We hacks send our kids to the alma mater’, he admits.

In truth, it’s an exasperating question, and not just because of its ubiquity, being often (but not always) borne out of four mistaken assumptions, namely that:

1.    media prioritise topics and stories according to an empirical (but faulty) system of ‘merit’.

In the real world, they’re caught in a circle of responding to what readers and listeners find most interesting, which in turn is affected by complex and inconsistently-applied editorial judgements based on factors as diverse as the political affiliation of a newspaper or TV station, a breakfast conversation between the news editor and her partner and whether the sun is shining today.

2.    FE’s obscurity is somehow intrinsic to colleges.

When the causes are primarily environmental. Thanks to the Blair Government’s specialist school scheme (in the application for which hundreds of schools renamed themselves ‘college’) there are far more schools bearing the name ‘college’ than FE, specialist or sixth form colleges. A college can also be an American university, an independent school or an Oxbridge sub-set. The funding system imposed on incorporated colleges is spectacularly labrynthian, baffling for specialist education correspondents, never mind unfamiliar general reporters. Vocational qualifications, in which many incorporated colleges specialise, come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, compared to the uniform GCSE, A-level and degree. School is a universal rite of passage, university one of (sadly) relative privilege, both common experiences for the night editor of the Daily Telegraph or a Guardian sub (hello there), whereas college may not be. It’s no wonder journalists might pass over an FE story in favour of one they find easier to understand and so explain to the reader, listener or viewer.

3.    appearing in national newspapers or on television/radio is necessarily a good thing.

Often, it isn’t. As Alistair Campbell told an audience of college leaders back in 2005, if the ratio of positive to negative stories in a newspaper is 1:20 then putting effort into appearing in that paper might not be such a great idea. There are people who make a lot of money dedicating their lives to keeping organisations out of the media.

This isn’t to say media relations on behalf of further education is not worthwhile or, often successful. College students and staff, alongside expert commentators from organisations such as the Association of Colleges* appear in national newspapers, on radio and television stations every week.

*shameless but factually correct former-employer plug.

4.    it has to matter.

It doesn’t. In the splintering of our media and the promiscuity of our consumption, focusing on print, cathode rays or radio wave belies a certain level of unfamiliarity about the opportunities for communicating what colleges do and their rather extraordinary contribution to society**. Yes, talking about an issue on the Today programme often means it will reverberate across traditional and social media for the rest of the day, but there is now a luxuriance of channels we can effectively use to raise awareness, change attitudes or affect behaviour. On holiday in Greece this summer I couldn’t move for a cosmopolis of kids singing the chorus of ‘Dumb ways to die’, thanks to an Australian Metro public service announcement video uploaded to Youtube in November last year. I’m not saying that the campaign has stopped Australians from driving around level crossings (although the agency says early results are showing a 20% reduction in accidents and near-misses on the Melbourne Metro) but you get my drift.

**shameless but factually correct former-sector plug