Cleaning Up Communications

Champers, sweetie?
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On the thupr event, Cleaning up Communications

Despite the fact that the World Cup and various PR conferences were on, despite the fact that it was a hot and sunny Friday afternoon, and despite the fact that I hadn’t been able to put in the normal amount of effort around the thupr event on June 25, there was a committed core of people who cared enough to come and talk around the subject of ‘Cleaning Up Communications’.

It was anything but a normal thupr event – although each event has been so very different that what ‘normal’ is remains a moot issue. Each has taken on its own personality and this one was all discussion.

So how do we ‘Clean Up Communications?’

Several themes emerged: diversity, training, behaviour, transparency and measurement.

Diversity.

If the PR industry  doesn’t want  a white middle class image, the issue of diversity needs addressing. Even if it was small, the thupr  attendees were pretty representative of the industry as a whole – lacking in all but a spattering of racial diversity.

At the time I didn’t give it much thought. I would love my life to be a whole lot more ‘ab fab’ and a little less tied to my desk and phone.

But you can already  see the social media ‘scene’ beginning to reflect the same pattern as PR . Most  conferences reflect white, middle class male speakers. The subject was raised, so they started wheeling out some girls. And Jon Akwue. Who’s very lovely, but seems to be  turning into the Meera Syal of social media scene diversity. In the UK at any rate.

(But don’t stop booking him – he’s a great speaker!)

If we want people to stop believing the stereotypes, we’ve got to stop living up to them. Which, I guess, as a white girl who had a privileged education (even if my background wasn’t) is very easy for me to say.

Training

Entry – and exit – barriers to the PR and communication industry are very, very low. Anyone can set up to operate. Richard Ellis of the PRCA argued that the bigger consultancies give some assurances because they offer training. But then, that’s the people that the PRCA represents.  Most small consultancies and freelancers would quickly be out of business if they didn’t have the expertise to operate, whilst big agencies often have interns and fresh graduates to balance the experienced practitioners, so I don’t subscribe to that particular train of thought.

PRCA membership does guarantee a certain level of process and accountability. Which is good. But it’s there to represent rather than regulate the industry.

So we are left with people taking responsibility for their own training through organisations like the CIPR and private training courses.

And no minimum standard that guarantees that we are fit to trade.

As a result of the thupr event, the PRCA will be talking with WOMMA (Molly Flatt) about taking a look at extending their good practise guide to cover word of mouth activity. Which is a great step in the right direction.

Behaviour with each other

PR people aren’t particularly nice to other PR people. If someone’s done something wrong, we’re quick to point the finger and share advice on how we should have done it. So much so that BPs been blaming it’s falling share prices on bad PR.

Guilty as charged – I take on a fair amount of (selective) crisis management work, which  pays well and which I enjoy, and sharing thoughts seems the right thing to do. I’m not sure that this was what was meant by references to ‘dissing ‘each other, but I will now think twice.

The important thing is to be sharing examples of good practise. Which I’ll try to do from here on in.

Behaviour with the media

Tim Phillips runs a blog, Talk Normal, in which he campaigns for PR folk to get off their jargon-filled behinds and ‘talk normal’. He also works with highly irreverent IT blog, the Reg.

(Do I include bloggers in ‘the media’? In that they are a medium, yes.)

And the central tenet to our conversations were the old common sense things around making sure that information is delivered in an appropriate way to whoever you’re delivering it to.

I’m not going to dwell any further on that.

I will say one thing, though. After the event, I went on to the memorial barbeque of technology journalist Guy Kewney. Guy had a long career, and many PRs will, like me, have benefitted from working with him. Yet PRs were a little thin on the ground.

And we’re supposed to have good relationships with the media?

Measurement

It was interesting to note that of those attending, several came from the industries that serve us. Given that it’s technology and press release services that allow us to send out ‘splat at the wall’ ‘write once, release many’ press releases, and that’s where many gripes begin, it’s easy to see why they would want to hear what we need.

But one of the suggestions mooted by Adam Parker of Realwire was that if we want to change perceptions, we need to demonstrate the value we bring.  Which leads us, of course to measurement. I personally don’t believe that there’s some Holy Grail of measurement. There’s a lot of work going on around the semantic web and sentiment analysis, and according to Molly Flatt 1000 Heads has a relatively sophisticated tool for measuring sentiment. But it’s only available to 1000 heads customers, and there’s no likelihood of an industry standard any time soon. Which I find vaguely reassuring as the minute there’s any kind of measurement, people start behaving in a way that massages the figures rather than achieves the objectives. (Just look at doctor’s surgery queue figure fiddling.) And the communications industry encompasses so much, from campaigning to stock markets, that it’s much easier to agree metrics before you begin any campaign.

There have never been more tools available, at a reasonable price and even free, to give indicators of the progress of campaigns. No excuses.

Transparency

Transparency is a good thing. My experience is that *most* PR people are more transparent than some of the people they supply information to.  But that may be the company I keep. Another debate for another day, I suspect.

And the last word…

We did discuss the diet of celebrity and surveys that PR people are putting out. And I’ll confess to having been down that route myself on occasion. And why do we do it? Because the surveys and celebrities get clients coverage.

Which brings me full circle, and to a realisation that’s been bugging me ever since the event.  PR people are intermediaries. They will use the tactics that work. The spam emails selling dodgy stuff that land in our inboxes keep coming presumably because someone’s responding and buying from them. For as long as the products of ‘bad practise’ get used, they’ll continue to be served up.

AS PR folk we can, I suspect, only ever reflect the clients and ‘media’/consumers we serve.  If they l don’t demand high standards of us, and kick back when we misbehave, best practise may continue to be evasive in some quarters.

With thanks to everyone who participated, and to Tempero for loaning us the space.

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1 Comment

  • By Tim Phillips, July 5, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    Thanks Claire! One or two points that I’ve been thinking about since the session.

    1. When supply of PR outstrips demand for it, a self-regulating PR industry will inevitably be captured by the client – because clients know what they want, are prepared to pay for it, have single-minded self-interest, and employ PR companies on that basis. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in the discussion two positions were put forward:

    * that PR should always be ethical from the POV of the consumer, and that
    * it’s not the PR company’s responsibility if news outlets don’t have the resources to check the veracity of what PR people tell them.

    I agree with the second point. But, when push comes to shove, you can’t have both at the same time.

    2. The idea, expressed in the session, that when marketing uses social media the priority is to develop emotional engagement in a fact-lite environment, worries me as a basis for mainstream communication. I can see how it works for “buy some stuff” marketing such as trainers or soft drinks, but I can think of a lot of more important subjects where putting people in a group with others who agree with them, and amplifying emotion in the absence of evidence, just polarises opinion. Think BNP. Hence my point that social media often just gives powerful groups a bigger megaphone.

    3. Even at the consumer level, we are all affected if the de-skilling of journalism leads to an open field for brands to control the news agenda. For example, when Dell had a problem with faulty capacitors which affected thousands of PCs, it denied the problem despite widespread customer complaints, and its corporate bloggers are still in denial based on this evidence: http://bit.ly/d81fDD (scroll for the comments for links to the news stories). On the other hand, Dell has been quick to trumpet social media, transparency and honesty with Ideastorm, because it’s a “buy more stuff” type of social media app. For me, this is an example of how old-school the behaviour of corporate social media evangelists can be when the short-term priority is to protect shareholder value.

    4. Sometimes I have edited corporate blog copy to be “authentic” as part of my job. This “authentic” voice that users detect is a facade, achieved by taking out 400 words of waffle and errors and checking the blog aligns with company policy. Not exactly a crime, but selling the idea that corporate bloggers offer more integrity than a press release is like the idea that old people are wise or that working class people are the salt of the earth. Attractive and easy to sell but, as we all know but rarely say, sentimental codswallop.

    Sorry for the long post! I enjoyed the discussion, which is why it has been on my mind.

    PS A message from our sponsors: much more of the same from me at http://talknormal.co.uk.

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