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Applications to the University of Colgate and the University of Weber Shandwick will close in two decades

Take two imaginary toothpaste brands. Let’s call them Merfect and Perfect (just because Y and X are too boring). The two products have the same ingredients and the same price. You check out their website. The website of Merfect has exclamations like “There is no better toothpaste than Merfect!”, “Our toothpastes are as scientific as spaceships!” and “Merfect will really make your teeth healthy, promise!” Then we have the website of Perfect. It doesn’t have exclamations like that but they have a set of blog posts and downloadable reports about scientific research that they used to produce Perfect. The content tells you what efforts the company has made to make up the perfect toothpaste compound and what kind of research they are working on right now to make it even better. Remember, the two toothpastes are the same and the same research has been done to produce them in their current form. Which toothpaste will you choose? Which toothpaste brand will a journalist ask if they are writing about oral hygiene and they need some quotes from experts? Exactly. Brand Perfect would totally take it all.

PERFECT and merfect

Brand Merfect did not lie. All it said was true – okay, maybe not the spaceship. These exclamations, however, do not really work these days. They stink of promotional. In the past, when adverts started to sneak into newspapers, these exclamations or statements really did work. People instantly believed them, since ‘no one would claim something so publicly if it wasn’t true’.

Instantaneous cure!

Instantaneous cure!

Nowadays, however, we are living in a promotional culture where we are constantly bombarded with promotional messages – everywhere! Try to count the number of promotional messages you face in a day, including TV, radio, newspaper adverts, billboards, ads and marketing posts and ads on social media, taxis, buses, milk bottles etc. You will lose count by 10am! (Unless it’s Sunday. Waking up before 10am on Sundays should be banned anyway.) With the proliferation of consumer products as well as promotional messages, brands face an unprecedented challenge to break through the promotional clutter. This is where PR comes to the picture. PR can make magic and sometimes the magic is called thought-leadership, like in the case of toothpaste Perfect. The website of Perfect is more convincing because it shows evidence that their toothpaste was developed and is being developed based on science. This gives credibility and visibility to the brand and earns trust from consumers as well as journalists (or clients and future employees – the Holmes Report has published a list of best practice thought leadership in PR – it is definitely worth a read!). Thought leadership is an added value and raises the equity of the brand.

Shelley Dunstone, who “helps lawyers have better businesses and more satisfying careers”, summarises well in 3 minutes from where the term thought leadership originates and how someone (or a brand), in any industry, can be a thought leader.

So what does thought-leadership will look like in the future? As there is an increasing need for some kind of thought leadership from brands, there will be a time when it won’t be enough to write a blog or issue reports and white papers as all the brands will be doing it. I think brands will go a step even further and they will not aim to lead thoughts in a specific industry but they will try to own the thoughts. I wouldn’t be surprised, if in a couple of decades our children and grandchildren applied for the University of Colgate, if they wanted to be dentists and for the University of PricewaterhouseCoopers, if they wanted to be actuaries. If they will want to study PR, they will be hesitating between applying to the University of Weber Shandwick and the University of Cohn & Wolfe. They will be able to complete the BA Sustainability degree at the University of Unilever and probably the MA Technological Innovation course at the University of Google will be quite popular.

This is not even that unthinkable concerning there is already a course called The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender and Media at Skidmore College and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University is offering a class called Politicizing Beyonce. Although the twerk queen and Sasha Fierce are used to attract young people to the course, brands will attract attention to their expertise by establishing universities. This will happen or call me Nostradamus!

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‘But what’s the story?’ and my most stressful class as a journalism student

(Please don’t look at the end of this post before you read the whole writing! Great, now you are scrolling down. Please don’t! Just read!)

Yesterday it was #WorldStorytellingDay (it’s rather unbelievable that there is a day for nearly everything – it is probably nothing to do with PR people *wink, wink*).  Storytelling has become a buzzword which is probably in connection with the proliferation of digital and social platforms that facilitate storytelling majorly. The rise of social media and the migration of traditional media online have fundamentally changed the relationship between brands and their consumers. They are now more connected and they share a more intimate bond than ever. Consumers now expect brands to entertain them and to be able to feel part of the brand’s story. A brand is not just about products and services any more. It is a media company. It is a whole different world with stories, conversations and a range of visual content.

Storytelling-600-605x400

I learnt the importance of storytelling during my undergraduate studies when I studied journalism in Stirling. We had a tutor who had a 100% no-bullshit policy (excuse my language). He was very strict and very bald with no sense of diplomacy at all – but he knew what he was talking about. Although most of the people were dreading to go to his classes – some left early crying-, I actually loved them. I loved how he pushed us harder and harder, how he challenged us and how good enough was not good enough. Because when you finally got it right, you got it very right and you knew it was a hard-earned and well-deserved recognition from him. Everything I know about storytelling is firmly based on those tutorials.

University of Stirling

University of Stirling

One day we spent an entire 2-hour class with him repeating ‘But what’s the story?’ He was first teaching us to write a lead based on the inverted pyramid model and then he put an Excel table in front of us with myriads of figures – and he asked again, ‘What’s the story?’ Then he put on BBC News with a really high volume to make it even harder to concentrate, make sense of the figures and come up with a story. ‘But what’s the story? But what’s the story? But what’s the story?’, he continued asking, dismissing all our ‘non-story’ story ideas. I think, this was the point when someone started to cry. Eventually, I managed to come up with something that triggered the casual reply of “Hm, that might make a story, actually”. This remark meant that the most stressful – but most inspiring – class of my Stirling career was over as we found a story. That class planted the seeds of storytelling in me. I learnt how to shut the noise out (let that be data noise or BBC News) and how to see the forest from the tree, namely how to make a story. It developed my sense of what a story is and what a good story and a bad story is like.

Although there are many types of stories, as a news story is different from a bed time story that is different from a brand story, the fundamentals are the same:

  • Have a point.
  • Entertain.
  • Get the audience involved in the story (emotionally or otherwise).

According to my Consumer PR tutor, there are five kinds of narratives that can never go wrong catching attention:

  1. The before and after story
  2. The discovery story
  3. Telling secrets story
  4. The 3rd person testimonial
  5. The Us vs Them Saga

All of these can be and are used by brands to catch attention and bond with consumers.  For example, the latter one is well illustrated by Domestos that has a brand story of ‘us against bacteria’.

The story is a powerful one with Domestos being the hero who will save you from the mean bacteria.

Now answer honestly: which part of this blog post did you enjoy the most? Where were you the most drawn in? I bet it was where I am writing about my extremely stressful class with my crazy no-nonsense tutor. How do I know? It was a story.

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Some businesses shouldn’t bother investing in CSR

What is common in Starbucks, Google and Amazon? They all have been in the news for the wrong reasons: corporate tax avoidance. Last year the British government claimed that it lost more than £1 in every £10 it tried to collect from companies to tax evasion and avoidance.

Corporate social responsibility has become a buzz word in the business word, yet a lot of corporate companies still act like they do not get the essence of it. A socially responsible company should act responsible on all areas, otherwise it will only do what is called ‘greenwashing’, just with CSR in general.  Spending huge amount of money on CSR focusing on helping social sub-groups will lose its value, if the company dismisses legitimate societal needs on other areas, such the expectation of paying corporate tax in countries businesses operate. In their 2013 book The PR Strategic Toolkit, Alison Theaker and Heather Yaxley refer to Peach’s model of the impact of business on its environment, where the initial level of impact includes paying taxes, observing the law and dealing fairly. So paying corporate tax should be an absolute basic for a company.

For example, Starbucks spends a vast amount of money on CSR, including backing youth and reducing their environmental footprint.

starbucks website responsibility

Yet, they have been failing to pay the right amount of corporate tax, sending the message that they are rather interested in profit than giving back to society. It is not a surprise therefore that traditional and social media have been full of their corporate tax avoidance and not with their CSR programme.

With the rise of social media businesses are even better scrutinised by the public on every areas where they should be responsible. A number of CEOs have recognised this – but unfortunately not all. Steve Holiday, CEO of National Grid Group Plc., thankfully belongs to the first group:

“The regulator and government have always been major stakeholders but today there is a very different new set of stakeholders , right down to you and me. The public at large are stakeholders because they can take part in discussions on social media. The can influence our decisions and we actually want them to do that.”

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Annual CEO Survey 2013, 62% of CEOs say that the tax burden is considered to be the top business threat to growth.

pwc ceo survey

The motivation behind minimising the paid tax is therefore understandable. However, if they would like to have a sustainable business and they do not want to lose the business’ social license to operate in the long term, they have to acknowledge that giving back to society through taxes is essential. Otherwise, they can save money by not doing CSR because it won’t be worth anything anyway.

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Is it possible to build trust through PR?

Today Robert Philips made an important, yet controversial point concerning PR and trust in his article PR is dead: Public leadership is the future in PR Week.

He said the following:

“PR has abused and exhausted trust. The restoration of trust is not a function of PR. Trust is not a message but an outcome. It is complex and fragile. There is no single action, no silver bullet campaign, to resolve the trust deficit. Trust is hard-fought, hard-earned, hard-won every day – by actions, not words. If trust is the desired outcome, then PR is not the appropriate sol-ution. Beware the PR firm that talks and promises otherwise.”

Although there are some brilliant points made here, let me generally disagree. PR is the bridge between an organisation and its stakeholders (or at least it should be). It helps the organisation understand what their stakeholders’ expectations are and how they should behave to be successful. On the other hand, stakeholders can gain valuable information about the organisation through PR providing information and explaining the organisation’s motivations and actions. This is essentially what a lots of PR definitions mean by ’mutual understanding’. And yes, most of the times this process is carried out utilising the written or spoken word. Following on this line of thought, if there was not this bridge (=PR) between organisation and stakeholders, there would be no way to make a connection between them and there would be no way to understand each other. In other words, there would be no way to trust each other.

Reputation, a huge part of which is trust, is defined by John Doorley and Fred Garcia in ‘Reputation Management’ (2nd ed., 2011) as

 REPUTATION = SUM OF IMAGES = Performance + Behaviour + Communication

All of the above are “critical components of reputation”, they say.

Accordingly, although it is true that PR in itself will not make an organisation trusted, if the trustworthy behaviour and performance of an organisation is not communicated effectively and clearly towards its stakeholders – using PR and words – trust will never develop or never will be maintained. In a nutshell, if stakeholders do not know about that an organisation is trustworthy, it is not trustworthy.

Indeed, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014, communicating frequently and honestly on the state of the business and listening to customer needs and feedback are key to build trust. Thus, PR can build trust – if used well.

edelman trust

Finally, watch a thought-provoking video about the importance of trust below.

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Nudge: How behavioural psychology is being increasingly used in PR

One of the main reasons why I like PR is because I love psychology. PR is very much about knowing how people think and feel and anticipating how they will react to different things. Arguably, PR is pure psychology with a scent of creativity.

keep-calm-and-love-psychology-78

So much so that, I was surprised to learn that the UK Cabinet launched a separate government unit in 2010, dedicated to “find innovative ways of changing public behaviour” using insights from behavioural psychology. The Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ took its nickname from a 2008 book Nudge by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Using ‘Nudge’, £300m could be saved from the taxpayer money thanks to the positive influence to areas like public health, the government claims.

There are two types of behaviour change. One is cognitive when the choices are rationally considered – this is how public policy has traditionally approached people. The other one is based on the context model where context and environment have a significant effect on choice outcomes and therefore it is less rational and more instinctive, automatic. The nudge method utilises the latter model.

According to a discussion document released by the Nudge unit the most robust effects that impact behaviour is covered by the acronym MINDSPACE.

mindspace acronym

So for example changing the way choices are presented can significantly change the outcome. According to the ‘Default’ effect, people tend to choose the option that is set by default. For example, concerning the low take-up of employer-based pension schemes the Commission pointed out that providing information and generic advice about the options did not really have an impact. They said in 2003 an estimated 4.6 million employees had not joined employer based pension schemes even if they had had access to it – because opting-in was not the default option. Making opting into the pension schemes the default option significantly raised take-up.

pension

Another notable example for that emotional nudges are more efficient than rational ones is OgilvyOne’s Crimestopper campaign. It is based on Loewenstein’s theory that people can be either in ‘hot state’ where they are affected by their emotions or in ‘cold state’ where they are thinking rationally. The theory goes that when we are in any of these states we fail to predict how we would behave in the opposite. So when it comes to pickpocketing, we would be in an emotional state if our smartphone was stolen from our bag. However, most of the campaigns or signs raising awareness of pickpocketers have tried to convince us rationally to take care of our belongings. OgilvyOne put people in an emotional state to be more receptive to their anti-pickpocketing messages. In the frame of the #putpocket campaign, they employed ex-pickpocketers to put wallet or smartphone-shaped cardboards into people’s bags. So when a person realised that something had been put in their pocket, they felt how vulnerable they were to pickpocketers and how easy it is to interfere with their belongings. Watch the fun and thought-provoking video about the campaign!

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I tried Google glass (almost) and what it means for PR

I am sitting on a Consumer PR class knowing that we will be talking about screens. I anticipate that it will be yet again all about how we are watching TV, how we read the ‘21 most socially awkward things that happen on the tube’ on our laptop and checking out the latest PR news on Twitter using our smartphone – all at the same time.

But then something extraordinary happened that made me break away from all the screens in the universe and I was filled with excitement (and weirdly I felt like I won the who-gets-to-try-the-latest-technology lottery). My tutor grabbed a black textile bag and pulled something out that resembled a Google Glass. ‘No, that cannot actually be an existing, real, touchable Google Glass in his hands just about one meter from me’, I thought as my heart started to race. It was!

Coming to terms with the emotions when it turned out that he forgot to charge it up and so we couldn’t try it was not easy. Being so close, yet so far from the experience displayed in this video was painful.

Yet, we could put it on to get a feel. It was surprisingly comfortable.

google glass susie

The experience made me think that wearable technologies have a huge future and provide limitless potentials for PR. Brands and agencies have started to experience with Google Glass even if it is only in the pilot phase and only 10,000-20,000 pieces have been sold to “explorers” who wanted to be the first to try.

Kenneth Cole is thought to be the first advertisers who built an app for Google Glass and prompted a campaign encouraging users to record 21-day of good deed with their device. “Even though the technology is still in the pilot program, we want to be looked at as an innovator and early adopter,” said a representative of Kenneth Cole.

Since then the ideas for Google Glass apps have been quickly proliferating. How about an app that detects that you are falling asleep, while you are driving and directs you to a place to rest? And how about one that helps you get an instant profile of a stranger in a party, so you immediately know whether you have common interests? How about watching the trailer of a movie when you look at a movie image, without a click of course? How about a calculator that you use with your voice? And now my favourite: how about an app that can tell you where you have put your keys or any other objects? These apps all exist! Amazing, isn’t?

I believe these technologies mean one thing for PR: creativity will become the biggest asset of a practitioner. We are entering an age where everything will be made possible by technology and the only limit will be our imagination. The one who will have the most impossible ideas will win the game.

A piece of statistics is worth a thousand words

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’, goes the often cited saying but the same can be true for a figure if it is chosen well. I learnt this as during this semester my class held debates about controversial issues in PR. I chose to debate about this motion:

“Social media has helped put the public back into public relations: two-way conversations and content sharing have replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation.”

The motion is based on Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) four models of PR. They argued that the two-way symmetrical model should be used by all PR practitioners. This has been accepted by the Excellence Theory which is the dominant paradigm in today’s PR world.

As I am always on the look-out for articles and blog posts about PR and social media (just check out my Scoop.it page, where I curate the ones I propose to be the most interesting/useful), I have come across the above notion myriads of times. So my natural instinct was ’Yes, that is probably true’ so I went to support the CONTRA side in the debate. (I know, this sounds illogical – I stepped up on the opposite side because I wanted to perfect my debate skills and the best way to do so is to argue against your beliefs.) I argued so well that by the end of the debate I managed to convince myself that two-way communication has a long way to go until it will become reality.keep-calm-and-debate-on-8

Right now I think that there is a huge gap between reality and the potential of social media for utilising the two-way communication model. The two-way symmetrical model remains, therefore, a normative model as opposed to a positive one. Statistics speak for themselves. I’ll just share two arguments against the motion based on facts.

Firstly, two-way communication on social media has not replaced the one-way model simply because the majority of the people on this planet do not have access to social media. There is a huge digital divide. The number to remember is 61%. For me, it was staggering to learn that 61% of people still do not have access to the Internet, according to ITU. Additionally, of those who have, a lot of people do not have proper social media skills, they do not speak English which is the dominant language on social platforms or simply they just do not care about social media. Brands use Twitter and Facebook the most frequently to interact with their audiences in a two-way manner (if they do at all), yet only 67.66% of Internet users have an active account on Facebook and 43.24% on Twitter, according to GlobalWebIndex. Social media, therefore, is far from being socially inclusive. This is very important to keep in mind when planning a global PR campaign.

Secondly, the basis for two-way symmetrical communication – the one that every PR practitioner should theoretically aim at – is to not only push messages at audiences but to gain feedback and to respond to them so that the interest and preferences of the audiences are served just as well as the organisation’s. A lot of people (if not most of them) are using branded social media as a kind of customer service. They would like to gain information about organisations or they would like to complain about, rarely praise, their services. Yet, based on Socialbakers.com figures response rates from brands on social media platforms are still far from satisfactory – and so the interests of the organisation’s audiences are not served properly. The airline industry is almost there but in the alcohol industry, which is doing the worst, only 32% of posts get a response on Facebook and it is even worse on Twitter.

response rate facebook twitter

So PRs are still far from ace-ing the two-way symmetrical model and it has definitely not replaced the ‘old’ one-way model. This is what organisations need to realise and they should not be satisfied with having social media accounts and posting contents regularly. The devil is in the detail. The devil is in how audiences get heard by organisations on social media.

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Valentine’s Day = PR heaven

There are not a lot of days in the year that offer brands a helping hand in getting some publicity as much as Valentine’s Day does. On 14 February everyone is super-receptive to messages associated with love (especially journalists), either because they are over the moon that they have a partner to celebrate with, or because they feel under the weather because they happen not to be in a relationship. And then there is the third group who simply do not care and it annoys them that so many people do, so they eventually end up caring about why so many people care.

So what are some of the brands up to this year? Read my second guest post on Omnirambles, the blog of Hope & Glory PR’s Don Ferguson, and find out which brand has come up with a kiss-detection app.

valentine

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Somerset flooding: how it washes away reputations

We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis”, said once  American Express CEO Ken Chenault. This is also why it is extremely important to react quickly, sparing not even a minute when a crisis breaks. This is one of the most important principles of crisis management, states Doorley and Garcia in their 2011 book Reputation Management.

The now on-going case of unfortunate flooding in England and the Environment Agency might be a great example to show the reputation of an organisation “is determined less by the severity of the crisis – the underlying event – than by the timeliness and quality of its response to the crisis” (Doorley & Garcia, p. 307).

uk flood

Today Lord Smith, Environment Agency chairman, paid visit to the most affected area, the Somerset Levels, first time since the area was slipped under water more than a month ago. He was not welcome. He received harsh criticism that made leading headlines in the British media. Local farmers refused to answer reporters of what they think of Lord Smith because “it would be inappropriate to say in front of the camera”. Local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called him a ’coward’ and said: “I will tell him what I bloody well think of him – he should go, he should walk…This little git has never even been on the telephone to me. When I find out where he is, I will give it to him.” Journalists and locals present at the visit suggested he should have resigned for mismanagement of the flooding crisis.

So why is this extremely harsh criticism? From a crisis management perspective, It could be a good move that Lord Smith went to the Somerset Levels to show care and to reassure locals that the situation is in control and to ensure residents everything possible was done to tackle the crisis. However, the problem is clear. He absolutely missed one of the two basic principles: timeliness. And so the incident-driven crisis developed into an issue-driven one.

The Somerset Levels are under water since late last year. Since then local residents and local authorities (including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger) got exhausted by the series of flood surges and had time to identify the Environment Agency and notably its chairman as the scapegoat for the extensive flooding. They feel “let alone” by Lord Smith who worked mainly behind the scenes since floodings started.

Public opinion seems to be that the Environment Agency failed to dredge the rivers and that caused water levels to rise (despite independent experts state that dredging the rivers hadn’t had a considerable effect because we are talking about a too huge amount of water). No proper communications effort was made from the Environment Agency or Lord Smith to stop this view spread. And voila! For now it escalated to a stage that anything Lord Smith says is regarded as wrong by the public and they want him to resign.

My anticipation is that it is unlikely he will be able to turn back time. We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis…

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I’ll soon be a PR graduate, I’ll soon be unethical?!

The most pressing issue in communication management for the next few years is strengthening the role of the communication function in supporting top management decision making, according to one in three (32.6%) communication professionals asked by the European Communication Monitor 2013 (p.  84). Although the situation has improved compared to previous years, this number is still too high. It feels even higher if we acknowledge that a big proportion of survey respondents were in high positions on their career ladder. Almost half of them held the position of communication managers or were CEOs of a communication agency and a further quarter was unit leaders or responsible for a single communication discipline. Consequently, a high proportion of those who would have the relevant experience and skills and thus unequivocal legacy to get heard by top management when it comes to decision-making, still get neglected.

And those who are in lower position cannot even dream about having their professional voices heard. The job adverts for junior roles speak for themselves. This advert only talks about writing and social media skills, while this requires content-writing and media relations skills, media-monitoring and evaluation. Then here is this one with admin and writing work in prospect (see image below). No word about any skills or activities that would suggest juniors will have influence on decision-making in any way (neither through just having the chance to present their views).

Job advert

On the one hand, it is fair enough. A freshly graduated PR person is unlikely to have the knowledge and experience of making decision in serious business issues. On the other hand, however, entry-level practitioners are the ones carrying out the technical duties, namely they produce most of the content released to the public domain, as Broom and Smith’s (1979) and Dozier and Broom’s (1995) research has already shown and this raises ethical issues.

They argue that practitioners can be divided into two major groups: the communication manager with the possibility to being involved into decision-making (to different extent according to certain sub-groups) and the communication technician writing press releases and organising events. The more experience a practitioner has the more likely to get promoted from technician to manager.

However, Broom and Smith (1979) argue it is only the role of communication manager that is fully ethical. This is the role that potentially invites the practitioner into the decision-making sphere and gives them the chance to veto a decision that they think might be unethical – in opposition to technicians.

Technicians, the one I am about to become shortly, cannot be fully ethical when they are pushing messages out to the world. They don’t have a true insight into the background, validity or ethics of those messages and they would risk their job by standing up against them anyway. At least, so the theory goes.

So what?

For me as PR postgraduate student wanting to enter the beautiful world of PR (agencies) in just 7 months it is a real concern. This is also why it is essential to research the PR agencies I want to work for thoroughly. As much as it is possible, I need to make sure in advance I only start to work for an agency which does not aspire to do ethical PR – but which actually DOES it. So I’ll (close to) never have to deal with unethical messages.

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