Gen Y graduate still kangarooish about PR theory in practice
Guest post by Katie Sheppet
PR practitioners of Generation Y, including myself, often are pigeonholed as the “I want it right now” generation (The PR Practitioner). We’re criticised for thinking we know everything or for wanting “it all” too fast.
Whilst this can ring true for some, it’s unfair to say we’re all the same.
That was then….
At my Australian university I studied a bachelor of arts in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne and graduated with honours in 2009. At uni we learnt about public relations and media theory, as well as journalism practice, including how to write for traditional and digital media (note: just three years ago it was website and blogs only)—but nothing about other social media platforms and tactics.
Grunig’s four models of public relations were taught in our curriculum, but appeared to be soon forgotten or put aside when we PR students joined the workforce. We made a big jump from the classroom where students consider theory and literature, devise methodologies, critically analyse case studies and discuss the findings before making a point or reaching a conclusion, to the workplace.
…this is now
In our workplaces—in my case, a global PR agency with a focus on digital—we’re often encouraged to search the web for research without drawing on academic articles (unless practising in certain areas such as healthcare PR). This is a definite transition from textbooks to real life, where some flourish and others flounder. One day, you’re writing your thesis, the next, trying to source a high striker for an event in rural Australia. This is no small feat for a young intern, as you can’t really compare the two concepts!
However, even after a few years of distance, looking back to the theory from university suddenly makes much more sense once you’ve had some practical experience for underscoring purposes. In PR, we seek to create meaningful stories to engage the relevant audiences or stakeholders and hopefully make a difference in some way (i.e., be it political, educational, social, environmental or economic impact).
Theory to practice
For example, we’re instructed in modern society that Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations is the ideal outcome or best practice of a communication program or campaign. This model allows for two-way communication or open dialogue between an organisation and its publics, rather than one-way persuasion.
I’ve learnt a wide range of methods of communication, particularly for PR campaign activation, however the two-way symmetrical model often is not employed in traditional media campaigns.
Among the many communications materials I’ve come across and collaborated on, some fit Grunig’s public information model, which is one-way communication that distributes organisational information (through a media release, for example), without much room for public commentary or debate.
However, a construct that does allow for a free flow of information from organisations to its stakeholders and back is found in social media. It’s a platform for companies to disseminate information or to receive stakeholder feedback and engagement very easily (which can be very good or bad for a company or brand, depending on how it manages the flow of information, inquiries, complaints, etc.).
There were many social media platforms in existence whilst I was a university student, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and others. How to use these platforms for a brand or company wasn’t taught in tertiary school; it’s something you learn on the job.
My take on adapting social media practice to PR theory
The world of social media is evolving quickly, and with it a range of influencer measurement applications and programs are emerging.
Some would assume that Gen Y automatically and willingly adopts influencer and sentiment metric programs, but this isn’t always the case.
In August 2012, an online shopping site was launched in Australia with a novel barrier to entry for the website opening, possessing a Klout score of 50 or above. Klout uses your social media profiles to evaluate your level of influence.
Klout defines “influence” as:
“… The ability to drive action, such as sharing a picture that triggers comments and likes, or tweeting about a great restaurant and causing your followers to go try it for themselves.”
The online shopping site’s launch made news, but not everyone thought it was a great idea.
I certainly didn’t, nor did the majority of my agency colleagues and peers.
Looking at Grunig’s communication models, the company used the one-way symmetrical model of PR, defined as using persuasion to influence an audience to behave as the organisation desires, without using research to find out how its publics felt about the organisation.
To me, using social media elitism for this store launch made no sense at all.
It seemed obvious from the designer brands stocked at this online boutique that the store’s target market is affluent, young- to middle-aged women. What if a woman working at a bank, communication firm or still studying isn’t active online? She might very well check her emails, visit Facebook once or twice a day and shop at designer e-boutiques to save a trip to the mall, but not be on the sites Klout ranks most consistently, such as Twitter.
Yet isn’t she the ideal person to be invited to the store launch?
The campaign was targeting influential consumers, but influence doesn’t equal affluence. The campaign blocked potential customers due to a barrier designed to create media interest and challenge its target market.
Theory would consider the potential barriers
Influencer metrics are important to PR consultants, as high follower numbers will generally put a person on a target list. However, this campaign turned marketing on its head by erecting a barrier to potential customers.
I’m not interested in ongoing monitoring of the site, which makes a case for why the one-way symmetrical model for communication won’t work, because it isolates or alienates people like me. And it’s for this reason I won’t shop there, not because of my Klout score!
A new-found appreciation for PR theory, for the long term
From the 18 months I’ve spent working in the industry, I can see how—at least initially—PR theory in the throes of PR practice takes a back seat. When your primary resources are web browsers, media contact databases and surveys it can leave you wondering why you spent so long in front of the books studying the academic version of public relations.
But when I stop and think about it, it’s the research skills, the attention to detail, meticulous writing, presentation and interpersonal skills that all come into play even at the beginning of one’s career. I even had the opportunity to make use of these skills when I did an interview with esteemed, senior PR practitioner, John Paluszek, here on PR Conversations!
And as I’m in this occupation for the long term, I’ve realising that being involved in the strategy elements of campaigns and programs are when my theoretical backbone will really kick in, such as thinking about what the core messages are, how you’re trying to communicate it in a way that’s interesting and relatable to your audience, as well as the overall reputation of client companies. This is when the learned PR theories creep back in, probably without one even noticing, providing a reference point in important PR decision making.
I wonder how many of my Gen Y colleagues feel this same way: that our PR academic studies were indeed a great investment for long-term, practical careers in this field?
Katie Sheppet is an account executive at Edelman Melbourne where she has experience across marketing, digital and organisational communications. Katie is also contributing articles to the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management (GA) monthly e-newsletter on a volunteer basis. Contact Katie by email, follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.
On behalf of Edelman, long recognized for its sponsorship of PR education, Katie volunteered digital support to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), the GA member/national PR association host of the 2012 World Public Relations Forum (WPRF), which took place in Melbourne from 18-20 November 2012. Her efforts include initiating this earlier interview with John Paluszek from Ketchum PR, and formulating the questions for first-publication on PR Conversations.
Notes: “Kangarooish” was chosen as a culturally distinct play on “bullish.” And Katie and I extend thanks to Heather Yaxley for creating the “bouncy” PR Theory graphic that accompanies the post.