Archive for November 2008

One of the early speeches at IPRA Congress in Beijing was from industry doyen, Harold Burson, President of Burson Marsteller, who called for changes in PR education, away from a highly industry focused model to a more generalised education. Here are some of key paragraphs from his call for a deeper and more focused educational preparation for young people entering careers in public relations.


“My starting point would be to recognize public relations as an applied social science with a vast body of behavioural, cultural and motivational knowledge on which to draw. The curriculum should include basic courses in behavioural psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, history, economics and politics. There should be greater emphasis on writing than is now the case. Graduates should have a sense of the role of public relations in society and some historical underpinning on the evolution of public relations as a management function.


“In addition to adding courses in social sciences, I would devote a full year to one of four to five years of employment specialisation. In fact, one large American university has done just that for 10 years or more. Students choose among business, technology, health care and government (public affairs) as part of their public relations curriculum, devoting a full school year to that one area of specialisation.


“Increasingly, I find that employers (including our own company) are seeking from job applicants a knowledge base that is in addition to public relations experience. Increasingly corporate employers want its public relations people to know what business is all about. Information technology employers and agencies want their public relations people to know what’s in the back box. Health care companies seek employees with hospital experience or who know how pharmaceuticals are marketed or what the regulatory agencies which oversee their business are all about.”


What Harold Burson says is at variance from industry feedback in the UK which has a strong emphasis on employability skills. Indeed, I have had at least one international consultancy CEO (from one of BM’s main competitors) say to me that PR graduates need ‘de-programming’ on theory and ethics when they start their first jobs. There are also important differences between the structure of US programmes and PR degrees in other countries. In the US, students study for four years with a predominantly liberal arts framework at the outset of their studies with PR coming later. In the UK (and many other countries), PR degree programmes are usually of three year duration with PR taught from the first weeks, although business and political units accompany them.


I’d be interested in your comments.


One of the best attended panels at IPRA World Congress at Beijing was on PR evaluation, with the star speakers being Prof Don Stacks of University of Miami and Peter Verrengia of Fleishman Hillard


Measurement of social media was one of the main discussion points. Don Stacks said that data on social media output, such as traffic and click-throughs, was easy to collect but the penetration of messages was much more difficult and mathematically complex. His view was that social network analysis was the way forward with methods, such as Marcovian chain analysis, coming from sociological research.


To understand how messages are being processed and passed along in social media, we need to track bloggers, code the content of their text and work out who is talking to whom. “It’s a highly complex analysis”, he told a packed house.


[Since Beijing, I have seen an example of the use of network analysis tools to track movements of messages between websites and bloggers. I hope to report soon]


Peter Verrengia said that social media is difficult to measure but it is so important to the future of PR and communication that we must develop more sophisticated methods to track it. There is great (and growing) volume of internet traffic to track and the volume of analysis grows geometrically when more than one language is being monitored. Peter says that there are opportunities to monitor some message content by computer but human analysis is needed on tone and context.


Fact: China has 200 million ‘netizens’ in a population of 1.3 billion (and growing)

Earlier this year, I blogged about the value of placements and internships in supporting excellent public relations education. I took this message to the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Congress in Beijing, where I spoke on a panel on public relations education and training, alongside colleagues from New Zealand, Peru, China and the United States.


Universities welcome the public relations industry’s partnership with academia on placements and by giving guest lectures and providing students with ‘real life’ scenarios to work on.


But the PR industry needs to commit itself more deeply to public relations education and research. Apart from the United States which has exemplary philanthropy for education, there is a lack of financial support. From my experience in several countries, the PR industry welcomes our job-ready graduates but is very reluctant to fund research or to support faculty appointments.


Industry can become more deeply engaged with PR education and research in three ways. The first is to seek appointments on university PR programmes’ advisory boards and so provide industry perspectives when they are designed or reviewed.


The second is to make the appointment of graduates from accredited PR programmes a top priority. Too often, industry leaders pay lip service to PR education but choose not to recruit students who are job-ready in favour of those from non-vocational universities.


Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s time that this industry actively funds university education and research as a long-term investment in its future. Endowing a professorial chair, offering funding for research related to your organisation’s interests, giving staff time for secondments to universities as ‘practice fellows’ and engaging with universities on joint funding bids to national research bodies are all actions to consider. Governments everywhere are looking for research bids that demonstrably benefit industry.


In summary, if the industry wants to derive advantage from academic education and research in public relations, it has to increase its active engagement and to start funding it in a much larger and longer-term manner.

I have just been attending the International Public Relations Association’s (IPRA) conference in Beijing and have witnessed the extraordinary growth of public relations in China.


For most of the past decade there has been 30-35% annual growth in the public relations sector in this vast country. Annual expenditure on PR is estimated to be 11bn RMB (c.£1.1 billion). And this is taking place in a country which sees itself as backward in media and communication, compared with developed countries.


Other dimensions of the Chinese PR industry are that there are 10 million companies and organisations engaged in public relations and that there are more than 30,000 PR providers with turnover greater than 10m RMB (£1m) – and that’s historic data. The real situation continues at a fast pace.


Speaking at IPRA Congress, Zhao (Oscar) Wenquan, boss of China’s biggest PR consultancy Blue Focus told us, “the whole picture is very encouraging. We are at the tip of the iceberg on which to explore.”


Government public relations has shown great expansion, too, perhaps emerging from its strong control on information and entering a new form of democratic engagement (Although I could not access this blog whilst in Beijing nor could other colleagues).


The growth and expansion of the Chinese PR industry has come in a remarkably short period. Its leaders date its from 1984 when China was beginning its policy of greater openness and the transition to the “socialist market economy”. Its first undergraduate PR studies started soon after.


It’s notable that although all the major international PR consultancy groups have been represented in China for two decades, it is the regional and national PR industry that is growing fastest. Another example of industry growth is that there are more than 150 PR associations across the country, all acting as centres of training and industry promotion.


The industry growth may be hit by the downturn in the western economies but it is most likely to dampen the rate of growth rather than stop it. The next step will be the expansion of Chinese PR and marcoms organisations on to world markets. If this is not evident already, it will take place soon. 


A survey of 78 corporate communications directors published in PR Week (UK edition) on 31 October 2008 had warning signs for PR agency bosses. It showed that the use of agencies/consultancies was likely to fall in the coming year. As the survey was undertaken before or during the recent financial shake-up, the results may only be a partial indicator of tough times to come.


Here are headlines from the PRWeek/Brands2Life survey:


Has your comms planning been affected by the credit crunch?


Credit crunch has affected communications planning – 72%

Cut use of agencies in 2009 – 19%

Asked to cut head count – 11%

Under a third said plans had already been ‘adjusted in light of financial conditions’


Do you rely on agencies more or less than five years ago?


More – 23% (mainly from big corps with > £1bn turnover)

Same – 53%

Less – 18%


The plans to cut the use of agencies in 2009 indicated by answers to the first question may have a correlation with the 18% of corpcomms directors who rely on them less than five years ago (second question). When added to the cut of 10% in handling overflow work for these clients shown in the third question below, there is a clear indication of tough times ahead.


What is PR agency/ies main contribution?


Proactive media relations – 51%

Creative input – 50% (same as 2007)

Handling overflow work – 43% (down by 10%)

Strategic input – c.33%


So start planning for tighter belts!

[This update includes films and TV listed in Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy’s new ‘PR – A Persuasive Industry? (2008: Palgrave Macmillan) and suggestions from colleagues. How could I have left ‘Spin City’ out of the first edition?]

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


Days of Wine and Roses


Four’s a Crowd


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit


Phone Booth


Primary Colors


Sex and the City (movie)


Waikiki Wedding


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


PoweR Girls


Sex and the City


Spin City




Christoper Buckley (1994) Thank you for Smoking. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0679431748;

Paper back Random House ISBN 0812976525


Alistair Campbell (2007) The Blair Years. Random House. Paperback August 2008, ISBN 0099514753


Eric Dezenhall (2004) Jackie Disaster: A Mystery. St Martin’s Press. ISBN 0312307713


Anonymous [Joe Klein] (1996) Primary Colors. Grand Central Publishing, ISBN 0446604275


Graham Lancaster (1997) Grave Song. Coronet. Paperback ISBN: 0340667117.


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


Daniel Price (2004) Slick. Villard. ISBN 1400062349


J.B. Priestley. (1996 reprint). The Image Men. Mandarin ISBN 0749322969


Mimi Thebo (2002) The saint who loved me. Allison & Busby. ISBN: 0749005041


Sloan Wilson (1955; 2002 reprint) The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Four Walls Eight Windows/ Capo Publishing. ISBN 1568582463



Absolute Power




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


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 18 other followers



Subscribe in NewsGator Online


Tom Watson

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.