Archive for August 2008

It’s not been a good week or so for the creation of authentic reputations (yes, that’s tautology) but the examples of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and the faked skyline of Birmingham, England (it was really Birmingham, Alabama) have done nothing to improve the reputation of either city. The Olympics have been a great success as an event, so why risk reputation with faked singers and minority representatives and CGI-enhanced broadcasts of fireworks displays?


As for Birmingham, it seems that it was a cock-up over imagery used in promotional material rather than a deliberate deception. The UK’s second city was in some ways saved by the generous view of the Alabama city’s mayor Larry P. Langford who graciously said: “Life is too short. I thought it was flattering. And please continue to use the skyline – it doesn’t bother me”. As a result, Birmingham, AL’s reputation has risen as a tolerant city run by kind-hearted people.


So does this matter? As Mayor Langford says, “life is too short”. I think it does because the use of artifice or deception reduces trust. And this has come through in a report by the consultants Deloitte reported in The Guardian yesterday.


Deloitte’s research amongst UK television viewers found that only 2% “strongly agree” that they can trust British TV, whilst over a third actively don’t trust the medium and a further third don’t express a view either way. Even 87% of TV execs believed trust had declined.


This isn’t a response to the artifices used in ‘reality TV’ but to hard evidence of rigged TV and radio competitions and editorial fakery. For those outside the UK, it may be a shock to know that the main terrestrial TV broadcaster ITV was fined £5.68m for persistently harvesting viewers’ phone calls (and revenue) after competitions had closed and that the BBC, so often the benchmark of trust in broadcasting, has misleadingly edited a promotional clip to imply that the Queen had walked out of a photo session with Annie Liebovitz when this had not happened.


It takes a long time to build a reputation but it can be damaged by corporate behaviour that erodes trust. Over time, that corrosive behaviour demeans reputation and that’s what the evidence has found about British TV. It’s a lesson for everyone.


In the almost 20 years that the BA (Hons) Public Relations has been running at Bournemouth University, a distinctive feature is that its students spend their third year in a full-time (40-weeks or longer) placement in industry before returning for their final year of studies.


After the first two years learning about PR skills, theory and practices, students put them into action. This can be in a consultancy, government, industry or not-for-profit. In 2007-08, some traveled widely within the UK and Europe and to Turkey and Morocco. Projects they worked on included major TV-based charity fund-raising, car launches, fashions shoots with celebrities and rock stars, and the very challenging ‘Cemetery of the Year’ award.


I have just been reviewing reports by students and their employers for 2007-08 and have found it an uplifting experience. These students have really progressed in their skills, confidence and initiative, whilst employers have welcomed their contribution and commitment. Several have been offered jobs when they graduate. All employers want BU public relations students on placement again.


As well as noting high satisfaction from both sides, it is also interesting to read students’ comments about what they found useful from two years of studies. In their first report, units like Writing Foundation, Written & Visual Communication, and Communication & Marketing Research were salient, as they offered immediate value. Later, the impact of theory, strategic planning and planned media relations could be seen. One commented: “At university, most of the work is theoretical, while on placement, I have been able to implement these theories or have a deeper knowledge of a strategy or action due to knowing the theory behind it.”


The annual organisation of the placements is a big task but it pays dividends all around – students put learning into practice and gain confidence, employers have a talented junior member of staff at a reasonable cost and the university (and Media School) gets reputation benefits.


Most of the world’s PR professional bodies seek industry experience within their accreditation of courses. Usually, this is a month to six weeks during vacation. Perhaps it is time to recognise a ‘gold standard‘ for courses which have the 40-weeks or longer placement as delivering high value to all concerned.

I was reading Shannon Bowen’s paper on public relations ethics on the Institute for PR’s site at about the same time that I was judging entries for PR industry awards.


Some recent award entries have very dubious strategies for evaluation that come up against the ethical buffers. Check these out:


“Objective 1: demonstrate the value of the public relations operation to senior management”.


“Measure how little unfavourable coverage [the organisation] has had compared with the competition”


“Demonstrate the high return on investment resulting from (a media relations action)”


Proving an organisational function like PR/CorpComms/Marcomms provides value is, of course, part and parcel of business life. But is it ethical to use corporate funds to engage a third party like a media analysis firm to do that job? Surely the evaluation objectives are about measurement of the impact of PR activity. In the case of the second and third examples, the objectives are skewed so that the supplier of evaluation information has a near-directive to come up with positive results. I think that’s downright unethical as well as being stupid.


Of course, these are errant examples and many award entries have sound, rational objectives but isn’t this the type of slipshod ethical approach that gets the PR industry into trouble with its reputation. To me, it is flackery that does us no good.


As a coda, I am amazed/appalled by PRistas’ dogged devotion to the ‘hypodermic model’ of communication. That’s the magic bullet model which says that a targeted message is directly received and fully accepted by the target. It had its heyday in the 1930s with the Nazis and has been succeeded by other models that give targeted messages rather less impact, which makes them harder to analyse. But in entry after entry, there it is in full glory with unsubstantiated claims that a direct causal connection is proven. Isn’t time to move on and accept that communication is a complex matter that doesn’t have simple metrics?

It’s hard to argue with the results of a research programme that has been running for five years and is focusing on Best Practices in public relations, but what’s your response to the list that follows.


It has been prepared by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, which each year investigates the Generally Accepted Practices (GAP) in public relations practice in the US. This year, using data from 520 senior professionals, their researchers have identified these Best Practices.


        Maintain a higher-than-average ratio of PR budget to gross revenue

        Report directly and exclusively to the C-Suite

        Optimize the C-Suite’s understanding of PR’s current and potential contributions

        Establish effective strategies for

o       Social responsibility

o       Digital media

o       Issues management

        Optimize integration and coordination within the PR/communications function, and between it and other organizational functions

        Encourage across the organization, beginning with communication,

o       Highly ethical practices

o       A long-term strategic point of view

o       Proactive and flexible mindsets

        Optimize integration of PR and reputational considerations into organization strategies

        Measurably contribute to organizational success.


Prof Jerry Swerling and co-author Major Jim Gregory say their approach to identifying the Best Practices is “a bit subjective because we cannot scientifically demonstrate causality” but that the consistency of the patterns is unmistakeable. The full report can be found at and the Best Practices can be found in the GAP V report, Section VII. 



After nearly a decade of social media, a new report from the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) has found that although it is clearly changing “the way we think about media and influence … [companies] are still struggling to find effective metrics for deciding who are the influential players” (p.16).


This is a refreshingly honest appraisal of where we are on measuring the effectiveness and impact of all those blogs, podcasts, websites and wikis. The report, New Media, New Influencers and Implications for Public Relations, also has a set of eight case studies which illustrate a wide range of measurements and non-measurements of outcomes.


For example, the world-famous Mayo Clinic has been encouraged by popularity of podcasts to expand its range of social media for health enquirers; Union Gospel Mission assiduously tracks online comment about it and engages with a new audience, but is unsure whether this engagement has the credibility of traditional media; whilst M/A/R/C Research can point to its CEO’s informative and quirky blog as creating opportunities for him to meet new audiences through writing and speaking. The case studies also show that a single metric for influence is a forlorn hope, as it is with traditional media.


The report summarises current measurement and evaluation practice as:


          Top criteria for determining the relevance or influence of a blogger or podcaster are quality of content, relevance of content to the company or brand, and search engine rank.

          For evaluating a person’s influence in online communities and social networks, the main measures are participation level, frequency of activity and prominence in the market or community.

          About half the surveyed communicators formally measure their social media activities. Their goals are “to enhance relationships, improve the reputation of their businesses, drive customer awareness of their online activities and solicit customer comments and feedback.” (p.16)


SNCR has reservations about the narrowness of current evaluation practices. It expresses surprise (its word) that, in evaluating influence generated by their own social media campaigns, practitioners placed more weight on “standard Internet measures like search engine ranking and website traffic … as being more useful in determining their organization’s own influence than audience awareness or bottom-line results. The popularity of the quantitative criteria was particularly intriguing because the benefits of conversation marketing have been widely touted to be brand awareness and customer satisfaction” (p.12). That is, volume was being measured at the expense of depth and interaction.


The way ahead is a more qualitatively-focused approach to measurement and evaluation of social media and influencers. Before an AVE is invented for social media, can PR people move on measurement of the conversation rather than over-interpret the peripheral data?


[Note: The author is a member of the Commission on Public Relations Measurement and Evaluation, whose host, the Institute for Public Relations, is a sponsor of the SNCR report. He was not involved in its research or writing.]

In July, the intelligence company SIGWatch surveyed European public affairs and CSR professionals on how NGOs are influencing policymaking in Europe.


In its soon-to-be published report, SIGWatch found that NGOs are considered more influential than business in Euro policy-making but have about the same influence as national parliaments, EU agencies and industry associations. NGOs, however, yield in influence to other stakeholders such as national governments, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the media.


It is in their interaction with the media that NGOs demonstrate their strength. The survey respondents, mainly from large manufacturing and financial services businesses, consultancies and industry associations, admire NGOs for their ability to win media coverage although they reckon that there is latent sympathy in the media for them. The NGOs are also rated highly for political lobbying skills and willingness to take a long-term approach to campaigns. They just don’t go away!


When asked why business should take NGOs more seriously, the top four reasons were:


        If we don’t, NGOs will limit our business opportunities (60%)

        NGOs are an important resource of knowledge and expertise (52%)

        Politicians expect it (38%)

        Customers expect it (32%)


As noted earlier, there is a fundamental and not surprising distrust in the NGO-business relationship which are expressed as:


        NGOs distrust the motives of business (over 70%)

        Business thinks NGOs tend to mislead the public (55%)

        Business distrusts NGOs (35%)

        NGOs think business is inherently bad for society / Business fears NGOs (both 25%)


And the obstacles to closer NGO-business relations are:


        Business and NGOs are too different in style and philosophy (47%)

        NGOs are idealists, businesses are realists (46%)

        NGO staff are anti-business (37%)

        NGOs don’t understand that business needs to make a profit (27%)


The most effective NGOs are familiar names – WWF, Greenpeace, Medecins San Fontières and Amnesty International. In future, Climate Action Network and Transparency International are expected to join them.


Although there might appear to be a large gulf between business and NGOs, many leading NGOs are rated highly for their “approachability” and desire to enter into dialogue. Larger NGOs are generally more approachable than smaller ones, possibly because they have the staff and experience to deal with business. This level of approachability is probably one of the best indicators that there is an increasing accommodation between business and NGOs. The survey also illustrates the range of stakeholders who influence European policy. It’s not just a battle between business and NGOs.


For copies of the report, contact

Recently, I asked PR educator colleagues in the UK for help in developing a list of films, television and radio programmes/series and books that either featured public relations as a core issue or referred to it in a passing way. They responded enthusiastically with suggestions that went back into the 1950s and forward to the present including films on current release and a soap opera set in a real PR consultancy in Manchester, UK. Here’s the list we can up with – Can you add to it so that we have a world-wide resource on the visual and fictional presentation of PR:





Wag the Dog


Thank you for Smoking


America’s Sweethearts


The Sweet Smell of Success



The Devil wears Prada


The Control Room 


Hancock (Alcoholic superhero cuckolds his PR man)


The China Syndrome


Sliding Doors – key character works in PR


Bridget Jones’s Diary’s_Diary


Documentaries and polemics:


Roger and Me


Century of the Self


The War Room


Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room   


The Corporation






Absolutely Fabulous


Absolute Power


The Thick of It


Some Mothers do Have’Em’Ave_’Em – Series two, episode three – the public relations course.


Party Animals




The West Wing


Spitting Image


Spinning Jenny – A new twist to PR film / TV with an interactive internet-based soap opera  set in Manchester’s Brazen PR and made by online entertainment service






Novels by David Michie – Conflict of Interest, Pure Deception, Expiry Date


Alistair Campbell (2007) The Blair Years






Absolute Power 





Miller, K. (1999) Public Relations in Film and Fiction. Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol 11, No.1, pp. 3 – 28

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Tom Watson

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