CIPR Northern Conference: professionalism, Peston and work in progress

This is the text of a speech that I gave to the CIPR Northern Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University today.

It includes remarks about the modernisation underway at the CIPR, a reaction to Robert Peston’s comments on public relations, a summary of ten areas of change in public relations, and concludes with my view on why there’s never been a better time to work in our profession.

As with all my speeches this is what I intended to say and not necessarily what came out of my mouth.

Thank you for your invitation to speak today at what promises to be a fantastic event. Thanks to Abi Whitfield, the CIPR north west regional group, the team at Cloud 9, and our hosts Manchester Metropolitan University.

March to professionalism

I’ve spent the last five to six months working with CEO Alastair McCapra, the board, council and the team at the CIPR, as we have got back to basics and focused the organisation on its core vision and purpose as outlined in the Royal Charter that we received from the Privy Council in 2005.

That work culminates this evening at the AGM when we’re asking members to vote on a new governance structure. In my view it is critical to making the organisation fit for purpose and more business-like. If you’re a CIPR member I’d urge you to support the changes.

The CIPR is unusual, like other Chartered organisations, in having its vision and purpose enshrined so formally. But that focus is helpful in defining our priorities.

Our purpose is to promote the highest level of professionalism in public relations through skills, knowledge, and research. We exist to serve the public interest and advance the expertise of our members.

In my view, best practice in public relations must increasingly be about skills, not just experience. Media fragmentation and the increasing recognition of the value of reputation in boardrooms is an awakening for the public relations industry.

Peston: an outdated and media-centric view

Last weekend The Guardian published the text of the Charles Wheeler lecture by BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston, delivered at the British Journalism Review.

Robert Peston put the boot into “professional bullshitters” and spoke of “unhealthy deals” taking place between journalists and “enemy” public relations practitioners.

But he also claimed that the public relations industry had become “more machine-like, controlled – and in its slightly chilling way – professional”.

I take the latter point as a thinly veiled compliment; one that acknowledges how our profession is moving towards becoming an essential management function.

In Robert Peston’s own words “more powerful and effective as gatekeepers and minders of businesses”.

Robert Peston’s analysis of public relations is of course one-sided and media-centric. But frankly it’s also old fashioned.

In his view public relations starts and finishes with media relations. He doesn’t grasp what the CIPR has been saying for years through its definition of public relations – as well as through our training, qualifications and Code of Conduct – that public relations is about building relationships, mutual understanding and goodwill between an organisation and its publics.

Today public relations is helping change the way in which companies operate, not just communicate.

We are the ones guiding the occasionally reluctant and inexperienced into the sunlight of public opinion. We are the ones encouraging a positive dialogue between organisations and citizens as well as journalists.

The news media is just one of the channels we use.

I firmly believe that our profession is at a fork in the road.

Public relations is no longer defined by media relations or publicity. It shouldn’t ever have been so. Instead it should be a strategic management discipline focused on building influence and reputation by promoting mutual understanding and dialogue.

Today’s Northern Conference is about the digital public relations landscape. It’s about the future of our profession and the professional practice we champion.

It’s an issue that I’ve been exploring with regional CIPR groups up and down the country.

I want to kick off by talking through ten areas of work in progress that I see as critical to our future.

#1 Workflow

Despite almost 20 years of new forms of media, communities, and the emergence of new influencers alongside journalists, public relations remains wedded to a workflow model that is more than 100 years old. Modernising public relations agencies and communications teams is one of the biggest challenges that the profession faces. That’s my day job at Ketchum.

It’s an issue that Battenhall founder Drew Benvie and McCann’s Joanna Halton will tell us about this morning.

#2 Networks, platforms and new forms of media

The fragmentation of media and shift to social forms of media is the narrative of the last decade for the public relations business. We’re shifting from mainstream broadcast as a means of communication with an audience or public, to individual two-way communication.

Catherine Turner and Gail Lyon from The Co-operative Group, Google’s Alex Blaikley and Dee Cotgrove from the Met Office are here to share their insights.

#3 Big data insights from listening to publics

We have access, unlike ever before, to data that can enable us to understand audiences or publics, and listen to what they think about us, our products and services, competitors and our market. In this sense the social web is a massive market research exercise that no ever commissioned. Increasingly there are tools to help us to cut these large amounts of data down to size. I call that little data and its adding rigor to our jobs.

#4 An academic and a historical perspective

One of the characteristics that marks out an industry from a profession is a memory and body of academic work. Other professional disciplines such as management consultancy firms aren’t shy about incorporating theoretical models into their pitches but when it comes to public relations more often than not we rely on instinct rather than academic rigor and data. There’s a related pointed that students coming into the profession need a period of a practical training or conversion. The simple fact is that academics and practitioners need to work better together.

#5 Insight and creativity

This weekend is the start of the Cannes Lions festival of creativity. Content in all its forms is the drum beat of public relations campaigns. We need to get out of our comfort zone of text and images. A modern practitioner needs to be confident in working, and ideally producing, all forms of content whether text, audio, visual or video.
It’s a topic that Harkable’s Will Francis is here to talk about.

#6 Brands need a human voice

Consumers in Europe and North America are exposed to 3,000 brand messages per day. Most are corporate nonsense that don’t resonate with their intended audience and are lost in the noise. Those brands that do resonate almost always do so based on a creative idea that is integrated and engages with its intended audience across multiple channels.

I’m looking forward to hearing about this from LateRoom’s Rich Kemp. That me, my wife, and my Mum are customers is testament to LateRoom’s ability to tell authentic stories across a variety of channels.

#7 Understand how to make money

The public relations business has traditionally been lousy at proving its value. Rather than addressing this issue head on we’ve relied of faux proxies such as advertising equivalent value. That’s changing thanks to the work of the Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and a rigorous focus on setting and measuring objectives. If you haven’t investigated AMEC’s work I suggest that you do. It’s annual conference is currently underway in Amsterdam. It has produced template models for every conceivable type of campaign.

#8. Earned, shared, owned and paid

We operate in a broad media environment, yet frequently limit our campaigns to owned, shared and earned channels. Typically these will be siloed rather than integrated. Our audiences make no such distinction. The changing nature of media means that increasingly campaigns need to include a paid component. If you’re a public relations purist that believes that paid media isn’t something that we should consider, then please think again. It’s an issue that we are firmly focused on at Ketchum.

You’re going to hear more on the future of media from the BBC’s James English and E Word’s Dan Nolan.

#9 Shift to social business

Social media has no respect for the traditional hierarchies within an organisation. Organisations in 2014 are porous. Messages are shared via text, email, and social networks.

There is no longer any distinction between internal audiences or publics, typically employees, and external audiences. With the right communication strategies, content and engagement; employees have the potential to be the most powerful, and crucially, trusted advocates for an organisation.

This is the shift to social business in which public relations ceases to be a siloed function and instead has a role within every department within a modern organisation.

#10 The Confident communicator

We work in the business of communications. We need to be good at communicating. If you want to get on you need to be confident in producing your own content and presenting. You need to be able to persuade senior managers or clients of your view. I used to be lousy at formal presentations and it remains my least favourite form of communication and an area of my own professional development.

And so we return to where I began and the role of the CIPR.

Work in progress

Public relations practitioners rightly want to claim their place in the boardroom. And yet we haven’t held ourselves accountable to the same standards set by professions such as finance, legal and human resources.

That’s foundation knowledge, a Code of Conduct, a community of knowledge, including exchanges between academia and practice, qualifications, and continuing professional development.

The building blocks for professional practice are in place but many public relations practitioners are yet to be convinced, let alone businesses. I believe that’s the single biggest challenge facing the CIPR in 2014.

My ask is to consider what professionalism means to you, and sign up to the CIPR’s Continuing Professional Development scheme and start your own journey toward Accredited and Chartered status, helping us gather momentum together and shift professionalism to centre stage.

You’ll get ten points for participating in the event today. You’re already well on your way

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Professional advisor for agencies and communication teams, Wadds Inc. Author: #brandvandals, Exploring PR and Management Communication. #PRstack, Share This, and others. Visiting Professor, Newcastle University.

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