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Facing public relations theory for the first time can be an overwhelming experience.  We refer to it in the singular, but in fact it is a collection of many different types of theories and concepts that relate directly to public relations or indirectly to areas in which public relations is involved. 

Confusion reigns when we look at this diverse range of ‘knowledge’ and see that not only do some of the theories overlap, but they often contradict each other too!  So how do we get a handle on all of this?

First, we need to acknowledge that we work in the field of social science where there is rarely a single answer to any question.  Second, we need to stop looking for THE holy grail of PR theory.  Third, we need to embrace the diversity of views that allows us to discuss, debate, disagree and argue in the process of uncovering new knowledge and ways of looking at the world.

In doing so, we will undoubtedly keep adding to the list of theories to learn. And this is a good thing.  We want to be able to explain why things work or happen the way they do.  We want to be able to use this to work out what to do next or to predict what will happen next so we are better prepared. Ultimately it is about making us more effective communication managers and creating an environment in which messages are understood, accurate information is passed and strong relationships are forged.

A year ago, I blogged about how the use of social media for public relations should be seen as an evolution rather than a revolution. Since then, the technologies have continued to move ahead, but my views have not changed. 

Two of the big changes in the last 12 months have been the rise of location-based social media tools (eg Foursquare and Facebook Locations) and the new tablet technology, led by Apple’s iPad and aided by thousands of apps. Again, I believe these tools have not fundamentally changed public relations but they have hopefully made it easier.  Easier in the sense that they provide new ways to engage audiences, rather than just broadcast information to them.

While that is a blessing, it also raises a challenge for new and seasoned public relations professionals in keeping up with, and staying ahead of, ways to use these new tools.

Fortunately, new social media gurus are popping up all over the place; blogging, tweeting and presenting about the changes as they occur. And we can learn much from them. However, the online conversation also warns the more experienced and senior public relations professionals that the new generations have a strong grasp of all of this, sometimes presenting them as a threat.  But is that really the case?

Yes, there are some up and coming professionals who not only know about the new media environment, but also walk the talk.  But as a lecturer of undergraduate public relations students, I’ve found that it does not come naturally to the majority of students.  They know how to use Facebook, but don’t initially see its use in business, government and nonprofits.  Very few tweet and less have blogged.  And many have not heard about LinkedIn, Foursquare or Second Life.

But their strength lies in their ability to pick up new technology quickly.  So as teachers, I see it as our role to open the door to this world, show them the possibilities, and encourage them to look beyond what is already being done, to what could be done.  In doing so, the teaching works in both directions.

Those who rise to this challenge, and ground it in a good knowledge of the principles of effective communication, will be the new force in public relations – regardless of age and experience.  Are you up for it?

Last year I established my blog and contributed on a weekly basis as my students were also blogging in the first semester of the year.  This year, the students will be blogging again, but as the teaching staff in the UniSA PR team start an official presence in social media, I thought it would be apt to continue the blogging outside the teaching semester.

So here we go for 2011. 

While my primary aim is to provide useful opinions and links for students of PR, I hope that some of our graduates, other PR teaching staff and PR professionals also engage in conversations on this blog.

To start the 2011 off, here is a link to a blog that provides some very practical ideas for students starting in PR. “How PR students can improve their marketability” is written by a student who is obviously walking the talk.  We often pass these tips on to our students, but they are typically embraced by only a few.  The success of those who do choose to become involved in the industry, outside of the classroom, is becoming more and more evident as our graduates start entering the profession.

While the tips are good for first year students, it is never to late to start – perhaps my resurrection of this blog has been partially prompted by the comments about being involved in social media….

To ensure we convey our meaning effectively, we need to choose our words very carefully. Some recent incidents however, provide some interesting examples of how words are selected and used in a political context.

While Prime Minister Rudd is frequently criticised for using complex words when simple ones would suffice, such as “detailed programmatic specificity” (see the Chaser’s take on it here), recent discussion has reflected on his use of hyperbole. Initial efforts to address the climate change issue had the PM talking about the “greatest moral challenge of our generation”. Yet when faced with challenges in implementing change, the solution was to “extend” the program effectively delaying any action for the next few years. One way that this message is being interpreted is that the government is happy to delay addressing something that it previously framed as being a priority. Was this an initial poor chose of words, or indeed a true reflection of how challenging the problem is? For one view of it as hyperbole, see the newmatilda.com article at http://newmatilda.com/2010/05/24/kevin-rudds-hyperbole-problem 

Showing that the problem with words is not limited to one side of politics, Opposition Leader Tony Abbot recently suggested that his words could not be taken as ‘gospel truth’ unless they were fully scripted. See the transcript of the ABC 7.30 Report interview here. While some saw this as evidence that he was unfit for the office of prime minister, others interpreted his declaration as a sign of his ‘honesty’. Some were not surprised by what he said, but perhaps surprised that he said it.

Choosing words carefully may help us to get our initial message across, but what these examples perhaps highlight is the importance of the intentions behind the words.

Good public relations strategy comes from well-formed objectives.  But how well are we focusing on what we want to achieve, rather than what we want to do?

Thorough research informs the development of objectives focused on outcomes rather than tasks. So rather than having a task to “inform staff about X prior to a launch”, we could have an objective that “increases staff awareness about the attributes and benefits of X, prior to the launch”.

Thinking about how we evaluate the outcomes can inform objective setting and therefore becomes intertwined with the early stages of the process, rather than being a section tacked on the end of the plan.  In the example above, if we were to measure the task, all we would need to do is assess whether information had been provided to the staff.  However, if we were to measure the objective, we could determine whether that information was received, read and understood.  In doing so, the evaluation can provide us much more valuable feedback concerning whether our actions were effective and what could be improved.

Think about what we achieve when we set the task to “achieve widespread media exposure”.  Is the extensive coverage the outcome we really want, or do we want something to happen as a result of that coverage?

‘Strategy’ is not just a different label for a plan.  It implies some form of strategic thinking, based on a considered analysis of the situation.  At its heart is the establishment of constructive and measurable objectives to guide actions that deliver something of benefit to the organisation.

For the past couple of decades (at least) we have been told of the important management-level role that public relations should hold within an organisation. Debates continue regarding issues of whether public relations managers should be part of the ‘dominant coalition’, have an ethical watchdog role, or report directly to the CEO.

In a sense though, the CEO is also an important part of the public relations team as ‘chief communicator’ both internally and externally. So it is good to see this recognised by the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) which presents an annual award to CEOs for communication excellence. The 11 “measures of excellence” used in the determination of the award provide an interesting insight into what is considered important in the CEO-public relations relationship and in communication more generally.

In addition to recognising that the CEO is part of the PR team, the measures value CEOs who:

  • create and communicate the organisation’s vision, using public relations department to assist
  • embody the goals and objectives in their actions and behaviour
  • make themselves available as one of the senior spokespeople for the organisation
  • engage with internal and external communities regardless of their importance to the organisation
  • are actively involved in shareholder communication, addressing concerns promptly
  • support the development of and is familiar with the crisis communication plan
  • ensure a high standard of integrity in communication, in accordance with the CPRS Code of Ethics.

In the business of public relations, perhaps the relationship between the CEO and the public relations department is the foundation on which all others are laid.

What makes your public relations work valuable?  This question lies at the heart of the ongoing measurement challenge in the PR industry.  According to Mark Weiner, CEO Prime Research North America, ‘proving value’ can be very subjective and requires an understanding of ‘the value drivers of the organization and its executives’.

Weiner states that in measuring PR value, there is a need to ‘assess and align’ the client’s definitions of what is ‘measurable, meaningful and reasonable’.  So what happens when the client wants to judge PR performance on the dollar value of the media coverage that has been achieved?  The use of Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs) was condemned formally by the PRIA in 1999.  Yet 10 years on, the practice is still fairly common, often due to pressure from clients who are looking for some form of quantitative measure by which to judge the success of the PR work they have commissioned.

The problem with AVEs is that they treat every piece of media coverage as valuable, without considering ‘content and tone’, according to Professor Jim Macnamara of UTS. Not only criticised by the PRIA, AVEs are also discouraged by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR- UK), the Institute for Public Relations (IPR – US), the Advertising Federation of Australia and the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA).

Macnamara highlights eight fundamental flaws of AVEs, summarising them as ‘invalid and irrelevant as a measure of editorial publicity’ for two main reasons.  First, the differences between advertising and publicity make them almost impossible to compare.  Second, that AVEs only measure cost, not value, pointing out that advertising value is never measured simply by the ad spend.  In another paper, Weiner adds to this list of flaws, discussing how there is a significant difference between a person having the ‘opportunity to see’ an article and actually reading it. In very basic terms,  AVEs lack meaning.

Both Weiner and Macnamara argue that the professional reputation of the PR industry is at stake with the continued use of AVEs as they are a misleading representation of the value of PR.  So what can be done? While AVEs may be easy to measure, highlighting their lack of meaning to the client, using Macnamra’s list of flaws, may be a first step.  But PR professionals also need to be able to present alternative measures to clients to assist them in defining what ‘value’ means to them. All the papers discussed here have alternative solutions which can bolster the credibility and professional standing of the public relations industry.

Note: This piece was originally drafted by me for the PRIA(SA) e-newsletter in 2009.