Monthly Archives: March 2013

Rhetorical Symmetry: I tweet, therefore I am.

Twitter has helped promote a democracy of ideas

Twitter has helped promote the democratisation of ideas

Twitter is the agency for the realisation of true rhetorical symmetry. It has forged a forum where the equality of ideas is nurtured and promoted, and where all participants are involved in the co-creation of shared meaning.

‘Shared meaning, a vital outcome of public relations, results when each market, audience, or public that has a stake in some matter co-creates meaning through dialogue.’ (Heath 2001)

Rhetorical symmetry is the idealistic notion that each idea contested in public has an equality of strength. It is ethical because it empowers participants to engage. It bypasses the market-like struggle for superiority, where the luxury of having the ability to speak loudest to the largest audience (the traditional media) is subverted, empowering the voices of everyone.

The outcome is favoured at the expense of the process.Photography by Matt Fowler

The outcome is favoured at the expense of the process.
Photography by Matt Fowler

The traditional media, in the days before Twitter, had the authority to be heard above any conflicting voices. Organisations with the financial means to command the process of transmission reigned superior over less powerful stakeholders.

Social media platforms have provided everyone with the resources required to become a journalist, and the audience, segmented and emancipated, are in control of where they decide to learn about news stories or where they seek new information. This shift of power has opened the door to true two-way symmetrical models of communication.

The idea of a two-way symmetrical model of communication was born at a time when it was an idealistic notion. An attempt to make the inherently unfair struggle for dialogic equality seem achievable. But this supposed utopia is now upon us.

Twitter functions as a negotiation situation for a pluralist society, providing every stakeholder with a platform to share ideas and co-create meaning through dialogue and engagement.

There is of course still a process of negotiation but the thoughtful idea is champion, not the transmission process. The better argument is superior to the stakeholder who is better at arguing, or who has access to more effective means of arguing their point of view.

The challenge for PR is how we embrace this opportunity. It will not go away and it can not be defeated; the counter argument to every argument has the potential to be in the public domain, and it is very likely it will.

It is time for the true value of public relations to be recognised and utilised. Public relations can play a vital role in the building of communities and assist in the construction of micro-societies where organisations can take part in the conversation, and engage in discursive challenges to their point of view or practices.

The days of organisations disseminating information to stakeholders on their own terms have passed. Genuine engagement is essential in the quest to gain social value, or build reputation.

Welcome to democracy, what have you got to say?

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Can you really afford Sky, cigarettes, bingo, drinks and other non-essentials?

Getting the correct message out is more important than ever in the digital era, where every disgruntled customer or offended passer-by has the potential to publish for a mass audience within seconds.

BBC news, along with several other print and online news sources reported on a story involving Eastland Homes and their attempt to engage with their customers over the subject of financial management.  Residents were quick to vent their anger on social media sites, ensuring their feelings of dissatisfaction became a national news story.



The Good

The company had clearly identified a potential problem for their 8,000 tenants with the introduction of the so-called bedroom tax and sent this out to inform people about the new changes to the welfare system which take effect this April. The advertisement, which appeared in their newsletter Streets Ahead, was intended to highlight their opposition to the tax and inform readers of the help and advise they would provide.

The Bad

But  within minutes a public backlash ensued, followed by an apology on their website which read: ‘We’re sorry if our article offended you.

We’ve lobbied continuously against the government cuts which threaten the quality of life for many of our customers.

We’ve increased the range of support and advice for anyone struggling in the face of these cuts as you will see from our newsletter.

We know there will be stark choices – our message is that we are here to help wherever possible and we’re sorry if we worded that clumsily.’

Surely, their key message was that they were offering an advice service. Good. Caring. Empathetic. However, their actual message, which as we know, is created in the eye of the beholder, was read as stereotyping, patronising, and degrading. Bad. Presumptuous. Detached.

and the Ugly

Unhappy customers are potential publishers with a mass audience

Unhappy customers are potential publishers with a mass audience.

Clumsy is an understatement. The residents took to the social media to announce their negative response at what they alleged as stereotyping, deeply patronising and contemptible.

This alerted journalists who published the story to a wider audience showing the power of online communications.

Companies of all types need to get the PR right in every communication they make. If they don’t there is nothing they can do about the whole world learning how people feel about it.  Of course, the story may have been reported in the local paper then picked up by a national (maybe), but the story would have been unlikely to gain so great a reach in so short time in a pre-digital media landscape.

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Why don’t schools have PR?

It has become increasingly more apparent in recent years that our schools; those revered institutions of knowledge, excellence and creativity must operate like a business.

Metro Station billboards have long placed private schools alongside the latest theatre listings

Metro passengers often see private schools advertised alongside the latest theatre attractions
Image courtesy of iambigred

Advertisements for schools are plastered all over our public transport systems; private schools have marketed themselves in this way for some time and public schools are beginning to follow in their footsteps.

But is advertising the best use of school funds?

Look at the principles of business and marketing and apply it to the functionality of an English secondary school. They compete for customers (pupils) and strive to attract the best staff. They shamelessly extol their virtues to unwitting parents and primary schools flaunting their best features and encouraging further contact with those whom they court. Sound familiar?

In the context of a time when the flow of information is in the hands of the masses, and journalists welcome with open arms a lovely negative news story, schools need to protect their reputation.

In a world of funding cuts and institutions being asked to justify their existence in an expanding free market where competition for pupils proceeds over competition for places, schools need to build their reputation.

The Press

Numerous negative news stories concerning schools, their pupils and their staff frequent the news agenda on worryingly (for parents) regular basis.

The Mirror published a story of a teacher from this school accused of rape

The Mirror printed a story featuring a teacher from this school

Every school has a duty to its staff and the local community to be recognised for the good things it is doing; the positive effect it has on the lives of pupils and the things it does to enhance the community it serves. Diminishing resources in local newsrooms have forged a big opportunity for stories to make it to editorial; this is an opportunity schools are not taking advantage of.

Public Relations
I’m not claiming that schools should pay for full-time in-house press officers, having an extra (non-teaching) name on the pay roll will not appeal to many head teachers or governors, but using an agency is a serious option. And not just during the spring term when the enrolment drive is in motion. Reputation management should be an on-going initiative.

It is not just about someone within the institution finding the time to curate all of the good news stories in one place and showing them on the school website – which many schools already do. It is about building a strong campaign around business and PR objectives, with creative tactics that connect to a purposeful, carefully considered strategy.

Messages need to be tailored to the correct audience, and thus, communicated through relevant channels; having a great website is fine, but how are you driving traffic to it? And, how are you engaging with your stakeholders?

A two-way symmetrical model of communications is something every business, especially state schools, should strive to achieve. How can you know you are making the right decisions if you don’t understand what your stakeholders wants and needs are?

A good PR campaign, informed by accurate research will not only build the schools reputation, but also help to improve the learning experience for current pupils.

What do you think?

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Brand Anarchy: Nevermind the generation gap!

Where does the future of PR lie?

I read Brand Anarchy this week, after waiting several weeks for the library to have a copy available for loan. Sat comfortably at home, I turned the front cover to reveal the contents page with much anticipation (for one, I had to wait for weeks for the pleasure) and intrigue; this would be the book that would bring it all together. This book would espouse the two most important things in my life at present. Like two arguing parents, to me they seem as if they should be perfectly happy together but they can’t quite get along and puzzling marriage guidance councillors are struggling to find ways for these soul-mates to reconcile and live happily ever after.

Here I refer to public relations and the so-called; social media. See? Even now I am bewildered to why I must refer to them as separate entities. Anyway…

On folding close the final page and laying down the book to rest on my unclean coffee table, being careful to avoid the freshly cast coffee cup ring, my wondering mind was prematurely stopped by thoughts of a generation gap…and worse still: The Sex Pistols (retrospectively, the title may have influenced my caffeine fuelled brain). My initial thoughts were that; I, the converted, had been preached to. The book seemed to prepare the reader for the influx of some immigrant force of social medias that would slowly but surely twist and turn everything one knew about public relations. Why? I thought, do me and my fellow PR students need to be warned about this? Why are people from the older generations trying to forewarn us about the way we communicate?

I stopped myself in my silly little tracks almost at once; took a metaphorical step back, walked into the kitchen, put the kettle on and had a rethink. This book was clearly written by the older generation, for the older generation. Brand Anarchy was written by experienced communications experts to get the rest of the industry up-to-date, up-to-speed and up-to-scratch, with how everyone but they are communicating with each other.

To my generation, and the generations in our wake social media is just an extension of our voice and our hands. We don’t consider the internet to be a media, like the radio or a newspaper; it’s much more than that, and much less to some extent; its natural, organic, and we’re not nostalgic about print because we’ve already seen off our CD’s, minidiscs, and I-pods. The velocity of technological advances is taken for granted, and they fit around our lives, we don’t fit our lives into them.

So, what am I trying to say? What I’m not trying to say is that youth is the way forward, and every PR office should have a philosophy of out with the old, in with the new; there are decades of priceless experience and knowledge and knowing social media is not understanding how it can be used to enhance a brand’s reputation. However, I do think there is a gap. What if the YouTube generation were taught how to get the strategy right, and to understand how social media fits into marketing and corporate communications?

Brand Anarchy is not, as first thought, people in their fifties who listened to the Sex Pistols knowing their parents could never ‘get it’ and then thirty years later trying to convince a teenager to play it on their I-pad. It’s recognition that PR was caught ‘on the hop’ (as the authors repeatedly remind the reader) and if they want the younger generations to listen to them they’d better start singing in the right venues.

What if we looked at it from the other way? How about a book, which takes social media for granted and explains the nuances of reputation building for the social media savvy? Could this be ‘The Son of Share This’?

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