Why CSR programmes will never be ideal

So what’s in the dominant paradigm nowadays on the land of PR? The systems theory, that is! Are you still here? Please don’t leave! It may sound like a bit far-fetched term for the first sight, but in fact it is a very useful framework that can be applied to many disciplines to explain how things work in practice. In PR it relates to its function. In her influential book Public Relations: Concepts, Practice and Critique, Jacquie L’Etang (2009) describes the systems metaphor as an approach that “sees the world as a living, interacting organism” where PR constantly helps organisations to adapt to their environment (p. 71). In PR it simply means that organisations and publics need to interact effectively with the goal of reaching mutual understanding and benefiting both sides. That is to say, they need to interact symmetrically to develop an ideal relationship. This resonates with Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) four communications models where the two-way symmetrical model is regarded as ideal.

systems theory t shirt

The fact that this is the prominent best practice organisation-publics relationship model in the UK is well reflected in the definitions of the most influential trade bodies. The CIPR states that PR’s aim is “to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”, while the PRCA definition suggests that PR is „to gain trust and understanding between an organisation and its various publics”.

What strikes me in this theory is how impossible it is to put it into practice. It is simply because organisations have numerous publics that are highly segmented. It is impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs or meet each public’s expectations without hurting the organisation’s interest.

Corporate social responsibility campaigns are great examples of this.

Let’s look at Unilever. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, declared in a recent International Business Times article that the systems approach is the way forward.

“We need to begin now, to work across the value chain and across the systems we touch and which touch us. This is what we are doing in our own business, as well as in collaboration with others…catalysing global business action on a focussed list of priorities.” -Paul Polman

Polman begins his article by noting that extreme poverty, unemployment and climate change are among the most pressing issues today’s society has to face. He suggests that businesses need to recognise that they are obliged to play their role in tackling these problems. This is a valuable suggestion, which bears some problems, however, both on a practical and a theoretical level.


It is a conscious decision from organisations that how they would like to give back to their (social) environment. PR practitioners spend an awful lot of time and effort to develop a CSR strategy and to find out what kind of CSR programme would be the most beneficial for their organisation. Yes, for the organisation. I might be a cynical budding PR practitioner, as some would certainly hiss at me here, but I am sure no CSR programme has been developed based on objective criteria of where help is the most needed. It would be impossible anyway, because it is a subjective view whether, say, terminally ill children or newly diagnosed dementia patients are more in need of help, or whether money should be invested in preventing climate change and thus help future generations or should be invested in improving sanitation facilities in India and thus help the current generation. As Polman writes organisations has to write a “focussed list of priorities”. My view is that priority list will be highly selective and subjective and will be prepared in accordance with the interest of the organisation.

Unilever’s Project Sunlight initiative has various components. Just having a glance at one of them for the sake of an example, the ‘Destroy germs and create smiles’ campaign associated with Domestos improves sanitation facilities in 9 countries: Gambia, Ghana, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan and Vietnam. How were these countries selected? Are they really the ones that need improvements in sanitation the most? Is it improvements in sanitation that they need the most?

Don’t misunderstand me. It is an absolutely valuable and valid CSR campaign that probably improves thousands of people’s life. Obviously, a company cannot support everyone and everything in the world because it would hurt its business goals (and would go bankrupt). The point is that systems theory supposes that an organisation and ALL its publics can mutually depend on each other. It is idealistic, however, because when it comes to CSR campaigns for example, an organisation has to decide which publics to favour over one other.

This should be acknowledged in order to have a clear picture on how exactly organisations and publics interact and how organisations hold the power to decide about the level of interaction with each public. Thanks for staying with me! Any views are more than welcome in the comment box below.

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I have become a guest blogger

Until recently I used Twitter as an information source about the PR industry and indeed about the world in general. Only now I am discovering the networking potentials of Twitter and other digital media platforms. It is amazing that you have access to experienced industry practitioners and leaders from whom you can not only learn an enormous amount of wisdom about PR but you can also connect with them.

I don’t exactly remember when I ‘followed’ Don Ferguson, Account Manager at Hope&Glory PR. However, I am reading his mostly interesting tweets for a while. A few days ago one of them caught my eye.

Guest blog tweetI grabbed the opportunity and asked whether he is only interested in establshed industry professionals or a keen PR student could be seen adding value to his blog, Omnirambles. He was open to a fresh impetus and my first ever guest blog post was born. I wanted to write about something fresh and exciting that allows analysis from a PR aspect as well. So I wrote about ‘How The Naked Sledding World Championship can help your PR‘ – obviously! Enjoy!

Thank you for the opportunity, Don!

The list of the PR lists of 2013

Running up to, in and after the festive period, Twitter, Facebook, online newsites, blogs and industry newsletters have been all about lists. They collect everything collectible from the ‘Top 10 Miley Moments of 2013‘ to the ‘Six worst attacks on reproductive freedom in 2013‘. It’s not a surprise therefore that somewhere between two Christmas crackers the Honourable Internet Browser (such as you or me) develops perfect immunity to these lists having too much of them. With a rather cheeky move, I have made the list of the lists with regards to PR, so that you can catch up if you refused to read the lists choosing Holy Night instead, or in the rare event of being a committed list-hunter you can check you haven’t missed any of the most-useful-lists-of-2013. Happy listings!

  1. The most awesome articles of 2013 (Razor Social)
  2. 2013 in review – Top 20 PR campaigns and stunts of the year (PR Examples)
  3. 36 content marketing ideas from 2013 (Content Marketing Institute)
  4. The biggest PR blunders of 2013 (Business Insider)
  5. Top 10 audience development strategy posts of 2013 (Mequoda)
  6. The greatest PR campaigns of 2013 (The Lincolnite)
  7. The top 10 PR stories of 2013 (Cision)
  8. Top 10 PR blog posts of 2013 (Stuart Bruce)
  9. Five biggest social media lessons of 2013 (Bloomberg)
  10. Top 10 brands on social media in 2013 (Mashable)Keep calm and bye 2013 year

I know I am on the right track to get into the profession I will enjoy when reading the European Communication Monitor 2013 I get so excited that I want to put on my jacket and go to finally DO PR. Good job I have an intership day tomorrow!

I am itching to do real-life PR

Can you trigger creativity? No – I would have said 3 days ago.

The neurons in my brain are after a particularly busy couple of days. I had a PRCA webinar by Rebecca Rhodes of Now Go Create about how to unleash your inner creativity. She supplied me with plenty of really amazing techniques for getting my thoughts moving and for making random connections between even more random things. Then the next morning we, PR postgrad students, were invited to an undergraduate PR brainstorming to give students planning their final campaigns a fresh, outsider perspective. The session was led by practitioners of Ketchum PR (PRWeek Agency of the Year in 2012) who gave tips on how to get into the relaxed, positive mindset when there is a need to be creative and introduced even more techinques to go wild with our thoughts.

I’ll choose one technique that particularly caught my imagination from Rebecca Rhodes and one from Ketchum PR.

1, THE IDEA from Rebbecca Rhodes

Have a group of virtual advisors on your side – that’s your mind dressed in someone’s ‘body’ advising you. It’s pretty much about getting a different perspective.  You choose a few people you know enough to have a raugh idea how they would solve a situation and ask yourself: what would they advise you to do? So let’s say you have to come up with a communications solution for people not saying thank you when someone holds the door for them. What would Barack Obama advise you? Probably something along the line of everybody having the right to be equally thanked for a nice gesture. This can be a good starting point.

2, THE IDEA from Ketchum

Write the alphabet on a big sheet of paper with leaving plenty of space between the letters. Come up with a random word beginning with each letter and write them down. There you go: try to combine each random word with your problem to come up with a solution and see whether you can figure out something meaningful. So if you write cucumber for ‘C’, ask yourself how you could make people say thank you if someone holds the door for them with the help of cucumbers? (Suggestions are welcome in comments.) I love the randomness to this technique; it could really kick off a brainstorm!

And finally, I hereby declare my official ‘advisors’ for now (see them below) (THE IDEA 1) – the line-up is subject to change depending on how they do. Who would you choose?

Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama), Bridget Jones and Maurizio Cattelan

Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama), Bridget Jones and Maurizio Cattelan

PR evaluation is killing PR

On Mondays and Tuesdays I am an ambitious PR intern at Terrence Higgins Trust, Europe biggest HIV and sexual health charity. On a sidenote, they are an extremely nice bunch of people and they are very passionate about their job and that makes them very good at what they are doing.

At the moment I have two main regular tasks. One is doing internal communications. Every morning (or afternoon – depending on how it gets ready) an internal email goes out to employers including the day’s main news relevant to the charity , THT’s coverage in the media and internal news. A big part of this involves me sitting there for hours reading national newspapers and looking for relevant content and compressing each story into a sentence for the email – when my fingers are completely black of ink, I know I am ready. I actually really enjoy it! My tutors at Westminster Uni keep saying that we will have to bring the world into the company, so we really have to know what’s going on . By skimming through the papers for relevant content, you get an idea that what’s going on and then you read more closely what might be relevant so you are also fully informed of that. Then you bring all that into the company, by sending out an extract of the world. It works! This is not the point of my blog post by the way; I just wrote it down because before my internship I remember asking one of my teachers how PR people monitor the press. I couldn’t believe that there is someone actually sitting there going through all the papers. Well, there is.

My second main task is to help with media evaluations. By media evaluation I mean evaluating the amount of coverage of THT in any media every day. They have to do daily reports of in what medium (+type of medium: platform as well as topic), how many mentions of THT had, what the mention was about and whether it contained a quote from someone from THT. They have to keep track of each little mention in two separate documents in different categories of whether the coverage was proactive or reactive. Then they also have to report the reach of each mention – how many people could have read/seen/heard it if all the consumers of the medium would have recognised the mention. Then there are monthly reports of how many mentions could reach how many people and so on, as written above, and then do graphics. And then they have to report reach and participation of social media. On the bright side, thanks to all this I started to make friends with my old enemy, Excel.

What is all this administration good for? Is it good for anything?
As far as I am concerned, they really do not show a real picture of the impact of the Press office’s work. By counting mentions, we get no idea about the quality of reach. Starting with who knows how many people have really seen it/heard it, continuing with who knows whether it made any impact provided someone realised it, finishing with who knows whether those people are the right people (the target audience). It just does not make sense to equal a whole page Guardian article about Terrence Higgins Trust with a line “you can get help from THT” having a type size of 6 on the bottom of a niche magazine. So why is it important to count the mentions then?

It’s probably because board rooms are still sceptical about the value of PR and practitioners have to prove them somehow that it has a game-changer impact of what they are doing. PR still hasn’t got the taken-for-granted legacy from company leaders. So practioners are obliged to produce fancy charts and tables that show growth and that how many million people could hear about the company that month, even if it doesn’t make too much sense and my former TOK teachers would probably kill themselves seeing it (TOK = Theory of Knowledge, a core subject in the International Baccalaureate program I attended and it’s all about questioning and critical thinking; one of the biggest lessons is not to believe to statistics because they can be manipulated endlessly).

The point is: if I have spent all those hours with, say, thinking up a stunt that really surpises commuters on the way home from work, would have probably make a much bigger impact than counting mentions. Of course, it is important to monitor coverage, but maybe it is not neccesary to translate it into numbers? This is something those in the right position should give a thought to.

Beautiful statistics

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It all starts with a man who is bald

I have to be honest with you. I don’t like bald men. Where I am coming from (Hungary), bald men are associated with having sports cars, finger-wide gold necklaces, blond Barbie girlfriends and they are all empty-headed jerks. This is utterly prejudicial but frequently true.

So when Colin Byrne, CEO of Weber Shandwick, made his way onto the podium at the University of Westminster to lecture budding PR students (including me) on how diversity and challenging the status quo is/should be/will be in the heart of PR, my self whispered an *ouch!* inside reflecting on the shining boldness.

In 3 minutes I was drinking his words, I wanted to be him and I wanted to touch him in the hope of getting some PR genius-ity landed on my hands. Okay, maybe I didn’t want to touch him, but you get how I felt. He is everything what you would not expect from a bald man. He is cool. He makes PR cool. He makes baldness cool. He makes me cool studying PR. Maybe I go bald.

Seriously, I needed this. Previously I studied Film & Media with Journalism at the University of Stirling and I had brilliant teachers who planted in me the seeds of praising the Fourth Estate. I won’t bore you too much what that is; in a nutshell journalists operate as watchdogs over the powerful/rich to prevent them exploiting their position. It’s the journalists’ responsibility to get rid of bullshit and let people know about the truth. And so, in many of my journalist lecturers’ interpretation PR equals bullshit. PR has the power to manipulate and influence, so journalists have to guard society from those mean PR practitioners. This is of course a very bald account of the idea and it’s arguable (A LOT). Anyway, based on this sentiment which was deeply planted in me in Stirling, I was struggling to justify to myself morally why on earth I am attending a postgraduate course in PR.

Colin Byrne answered my question. PR is not necessarily about writing press releases, emailing and making calls to journalists in the hope of being able to suck up to them effectively enough to get your message across (or it shouldn’t be). It can also be about being creative, going insane in your head, brainstorming like you are completely out of your mind and so challenge the status quo. Instead of sitting down in front of your screen and type a release, go and place 2000 sunflowers in the City and put lights on the London Eye reflecting the mood of the nation. And that’s not arguable: that’s baldly cool.


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