Journalism and PR at odds?

Journalism is partially predicated on confrontation and divisiveness. In one word: conflict. The discipline, by default, tends to believe conflict is needed in the majority of stories told. It’s what sells ‘papers’ (or so some people think), what generates eyeballs and, these days, instigates the viral dimension.

In many cases I am sure this is true, as old school and tiresome as it sounds to a PR professional like myself. The question, however, is whether a professional schooled in this ‘half glass empty’ attitude can cut it in PR, which by default has a ‘half glass full’ mindset.

Listening to, empathising with and understanding the perspectives of others is a fundamentally important part of public relations. Then there comes negotiation, potentially applied to seek stakeholder and organisational change.

My presumption is that journalists are not trained as fully in these skills as PR practitioners and, just as importantly, they are not educated as to the relevance and importance of these approaches.

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Of course, anyone moving into a new field can learn these skills, but here is another presumption/observation I’ll challenge anyone to refute: most journalists do not study PR at university after they change professions.

A result of this is they will probably not understand the strategic power and potential of public relations to a sufficiently sophisticated degree. This is partially because on the job learning is simply not capable of replicating the intellectually demanding and rigorous environment of an excellent masters course in this or any field.

Journalism is a poor introduction to achieve organisational change

Organisational evolution is as important to PR as stakeholder behavioural change. Journalists can’t be expected to realise this or understand the strategic depth of PR and its capability of helping achieve this (to start with, anyway).

It takes education and practice to achieve this capability. I would not like to see PR become focused ONLY on stakeholder-focused awareness raising and behavioural change, at the expense of achieving organisation-stakeholder mutually beneficial outcomes, so (ex-)journalists will be dragging the PR chain in these latter aspects.

The big bonus of journos moving into PR

Clearly, the advanced capability of journalists to write and/or to tell a story in a compelling manner is their USP. And it’s one PR can absolutely benefit from.

Additionally, journalists are trained to not accept the status quo but, rather, to challenge orthodoxies and dig deeper to ascertain the crux of the issue.

And they frequently have plenty of experience in dealing with a range of people, from CEOs and politicians to the broader community. Similarly, many have reported on a diverse array of issues so have a strong understanding of society and, in some cases, specific industries.

And of course, due to their many media contacts, they will have an advantage in placing stories in the media.

All of these traits are highly valued in PR.

Sales skills needed by agency PR professionals

For anyone, journalists included, moving into a PR agency at a senior level, by default, involves the procuring of new business.

So, selling skills are highly valued. Journalists, not normally trained in this aspect, would do well to bear this in mind, no matter how the issue is positioned in the PR agency’s recruitment pitch. Not that you find sales as part of any PR undergrad or masters course I’m aware of, either – which is a whole other story!

With its greater remuneration and diversity of tactical dimensions, not to mention the societal benefit effective implementation of PR can have, I can certainly understand the allure of the discipline to those working in the media. All of us, however, should consider the ramifications of the two fields seemingly moving closer and closer together.

Collaboration between the media and PR is increasing by the minute, with the primary driver being the economics of contemporary media. Which in turn is being massively influenced by the internet and its star recruit, social media.

What do you think the impact journalists moving into PR is having, and will have, on the discipline? What are the positive outcomes for both professions? Can you give examples? Will the increase of trained journos in PR create opportunities for all parties, or lead to a diminishment in the value of public relations to business and undermine utilisation of its strategic heft?

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Does business exploit employees’ social media real estate?

Using personal social media profiles to promote content for businesses potentially means compromising, and diminishing, who you are as an individual human being – it can be dehumanising. This issue is likely to become an increasingly vexed one for not just professional marketers and public relations professionals, but for any employee of, and/or consultant to, an organisation.

Business pressuring employees for social media sharing

Is there anything wrong with a business asking its employees to use their personal social media real estate to promote a product, service or business? The easy answer is no, because it’s just asking. There is no need to actually undertake the social media sharing/commenting requested.

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But that ignores three factors:

  • Merely by asking, some people will feel pressured to undertake the social media sharing
  • Many people on social media tend to be fairly non-disciplined when it comes to sharing/liking/RTing etc, so the business is on to a ‘winner’ by asking its employees to undertake this activity at all
  • What if the organisation monitors what employees/consultants actually share and then use non-cooperation against the individual? Big brother stuff.

You think the Big Brother approach doesn’t happen? Seriously? If so, I think you’re being hopelessly romantic and/or naive. Even if it doesn’t happen very often, it remains an approach which a business can take if it wishes.

The moral dimension of Craig Pearce (me) asking for social media shares

I ask in my blog posts and on social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn for people to share my posts, hoping it increases readership and the perceived credibility of my blog and, by extension, myself. I do this for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a bit of sport/fun to see subscriber numbers to my blog increase and for social media shares to go up
  • It might lead to increased and better quality work opportunities
  • It helps raise awareness of what I like to think are interesting and valuable thoughts on PR, corporate communication and marketing
  • It will hopefully lead to greater engagement on the blog and get people adding value to thought leadership I have written.

So if I can ask for social media sharing to take place, why shouldn’t businesses?

It’s a good question. And I’m not sure if I have a good answer!

The morality of business asking for social media sharing

I tend to think of facebook as a purely personal platform. LinkedIn I think of as being purely professional. And Twitter is a bit of a mixed bag, but mainly professional.

The upshot of this being I think it fine for business to ask for shares on an employee’s LinkedIn platform, and also on Twitter, but not on facebook. This is a purely personal perspective and millions will probably disagree.

And a good reason for disagreeing is that we have, really, become promiscuous sharers on social media. For many people the line between keeping information personal on social media is about as non-existent as the line which exists regarding shouting out personal information on mobile phones in public places (but don’t get me started on that one…).

There are three approaches I think businesses should apply as a default when seeking employee shares on their social media real estate:

  • Make it a hard and fast written policy that no monitoring of employees sharing of business news/imperatives on social media platforms will be held against them, unless the sharing contains comment which compromises the organisation in some way or is unlawful
  • It should also be policy that a lack of social media sharing about the business will never be held against the employee
  • Be non-pushy in the asking of shares on employees’ social media platforms. I would be putting it something like this: ‘Please consider sharing news of XYZ on one of your social media platforms such as LinkedIn….etc’

And I would certainly be prioritising the asking of shares on business-oriented social media platforms, not personal/social-oriented ones, the reason for which seems self-evident.

Not least of which there is less risk of employees thinking the business is infringing in their personal space – which will impact on employee perceptions towards the business, how much they admire the business and, crucially, their productivity and how long they work at the business. Increased employee turnover is, in particular, a massive cost which a business does not want to increase.

Advantages for employees in business-driven social media sharing

In the context of a platform such as LinkedIn, I think there are a number of common sense advantages to employees agreeing to share news of their business on LinkedIn:

  • As LinkedIn is a very visible window into the history, attitude and ‘soul’ of you as a professional, sharing – and commenting positively – on an employer’s news indicates you are a supporter of the company you work for – this is, patently, going to be perceived as being a good thing
  • If the news is relevant to the employee’s actual professional line of work, it could help them learn something about the topic being discussed through other people’s comments and/or information sharing, thereby potentially becoming more adept at their profession.
  • By promoting an employer on LinkedIn, it will probably help in some way to the business increasing its brand equity and enhancing its reputation. This will contribute in some way to the longevity and potentially even income of the business, making it a more secure long term employer of the individual.

Personal choice and personal credibility on social media

At the end of the day, of course people have the right to choose what they do and don’t share on social media. What they share and how they comment on the shares tells us a lot about the sort of person they are.

Personally, I am mystified why people would want to share something related to fast food products, FMCG products or anything with an obvious and in-your-face commercial focus.

On the other hand, I totally get social media shares on activity related to the arts, culture, politics, social issues and sport. Yes, there are plenty of cultural and sport ‘products’ out there, so my delineation between these and FMCG, for instance, is a personal and, perhaps, spurious one!

What do you think about this discussion? Do you share news of your employer on social media? if so, which platforms do you think are appropriate to do this on? Where do you draw the line in platforms to use for business purposes and the kind of news you will share on your employer or other businesses on social media? Have you ever been offended or felt compromised by being asked by your employer to share news of it on social media?

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Who should be spokesperson in a crisis?

The best person to be an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is its leader. Unless, of course, it’s not. Expertise, empathy and credibility are key factors a spokesperson needs to possess if they are to be effective. And if the big kahuna lacks these qualities – aren’t you setting yourself up for failure by using her?

You can lead a horse to water...but CEOS?

Expertise is needed to be able to discuss all relevant crisis issues. Without this expertise, the leader will come across as unprofessional and insincere. The lack of sincerity perception stems from them being seen as not caring enough about the situation and the impact it is having through his lack of knowledge, especially if human lives or the environment are involved.

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It has been observed time and time again that unless an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is perceived as empathising with those being impacted on,s then she will be failing in her role. Empathy will manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • The way in which language is being used. Are people, for instance, being referred to in a caring enough manner? Are their families being referred to?
  • Actual physical presence. A leader who is able to locate herself physically at the actual site of the crisis, or within close geographical proximity, will be perceived as having more empathy with the situation and those involved than a leader who is on another continent or who is, for instance, in a capital city miles away from a mine disaster in a distant rural area
  • Clothing. Would you agree that a leader who is in high vis workwear, at the site of a mining crisis, is more likely to be perceived as having empathy to the situation than a leader who is in a corporate office set up for a media conference office wearing corporate suit and tie?

Or, on the flipside, is a corporate leader normally seen in a suit and tie going to be perceived as ‘try-hard’ and insincere by, all of a sudden, donning the gear of the ‘common man’?

The credibility factor in crisis spokespersons

The issue of credibility is relevant to both expertise and empathy. Credibility is rarely won overnight. Like reputation, it’s built up over years. And a challenge with this is that different groups of stakeholders may perceive totally different levels of credibility within people.

The CEO of a mining company, for instance, may be credible to employees and business media, but may not be credible to environmentalists, politicians and environmental media.

It would seem patently obvious to me a public relations/corporate communication etc employee should not be the spokesperson for an organisation in a crisis.

Despite PR professionals being adept at proactively communicating key messages, responding elegantly to difficult questions and effectively positioning the organisation, I would argue there is no way known stakeholders will perceive this as positively as the organisational leader putting himself out there.

What were we saying about sincerity? If an organisation doesn’t care enough for one of its leaders (if not the leader) to take the time to lead from the front in difficult times then, really, does it care at all? And if it doesn’t care – then why should I?

Being practical, however, there are subtleties to this situation. It may simply be that there is so much media wanting information, an organisation’s corporate communication leader may well need to respond to media with a smaller, and/or less geographically relevant, readership etc as the organisational leader simply can’t tick all the boxes. That would seem an appropriate use of resources to me.

Desire – impacting on the credibility of crisis spokespersons

One challenge it is not unusual for anyone leading corporate communication for an organisation to face is having a CEO who does not like being interviewed by the media. Escalate this to a crisis situation and, um, it’s only human nature that this dislike turns just a little bit more passionate.

At the end of the day, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

If the CEO is someone who isn’t normally the organisational spokesperson as a matter of course (e.g. for good times), then there is a strong argument for her not to be the spokesperson in a time of crisis:

  • She won’t have done the hard yards of consistently dealing with the media, so will probably come across as clumsy and lacking in expertise and empathy – not to mention she may well not have done the requisite media training, so won’t have the technical skills to adroitly manoeuvre her way through difficult lines of questions
  • Stakeholders may not attach credibility and relevance to the CEO as she isn’t normally seen in the media. Whereas they may attach relevance and credibility to the spokesperson who does normally represent the organisation.

Whilst without any doubt whatsoever there is a very strong argument for any CEO or CEO-equivalent to be adept at dealing with the media, there is a difference between what should be occurring and what the reality is.

And, yes, whilst having the desire or passion for communicating to important organisational stakeholders should be a default, considering the profound importance stakeholder relationships and organisational reputation are, sometimes it’s just not a happening thing.

So if this passion and desire does not exist, I think there is a strong case for using a senior organisational employee who does have this passion and, just as importantly, possesses the expertise, empathy and credibility to do the job well.

Multiple media spokespeople for organisations

In a crisis, to help with consistency of messaging and positioning, by default it is best to have a single spokesperson as much as possible. An assumption in this observation being that the spokesperson is doing a pretty good job!

Outside of the crisis situation, however, I am an advocate of there being multiple organisational spokespeople. As long as the organisation’s brand and positioning has been clearly defined, which includes the tone it should use in its spoken, written and visual communication, then multiple spokespeople achieves multiple organisational benefits.

Having multiple spokespeople achieves a number of outcomes:

  • It helps external stakeholders and employees understand talent is recognised and the organisational leader, for instance, is humble enough to recognise this and not want all employees to operate in his shadow
  • In enriches and humanises the brand
  • Employees operating in a specific area of the organisation will have a deeper degree of expertise on topics than employees from outside this area. By allowing them to speak on behalf of the organisation, it builds awareness of the depth of capability of an organisation
  • The ownership the various spokespeople have of certain areas of the business and the frequency with which they deal with the media, for instance, will make them more attuned to issues in the media and amongst stakeholders. This gives them enhanced capability to be an early warning issues management detector for an organisation
  • It provides ‘insurance’ for the brand if the leader or other spokespeople leave the organisation. If all media commentary is centred in one person, if she walks out the door so does a great deal of brand equity.

So, one spokesperson for one crisis. But business as usual? Multiple spokespeople is the way to go

What war stories can you share of working within a crisis and facilitating organisational spokespeople? Do you think there should be one organisational spokesperson or a number of them – in both the crisis situation and a business as usual setting?

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