We need bigger ambitions in public relations

Last year I wrote about ‘excellence‘ suggesting that PR needs to stretch beyond specified performance standards or comparative pre-eminence. I’ve been thinking about this during my recent hours spent marking student work – and when looking at the winners of various PR industry awards.  My conclusion is that I’d like to see much bigger ambitions than I currently see in most such work.

Abandon grading

One idea is to abandon all percentage marks or grades in assignments. Instead, the starting point would be to set very clear criteria for work that is good enough to receive the qualification. And I’d like to emphasise GOOD – so that a pass is a clear indication of competence at a high level. Not average, okay or satisfactory as I see in many marking criteria – but at least GOOD.  Let’s go further and say that perhaps the majority should not pass an assignment as seems to be the case today.  Expectations are often of at least an 80-90% pass rate (frequently 100%).  That seems nonsense and we should establish a clear demarcation of what is GOOD that is agreed by all markers.

That is my second area for change. Much in PR is subjective and for me, this implies that qualitative analysis should be applied to the process. One of the dangers of many of the marking approaches I’ve seen is that they overlay a mirage of quantitative analysis with tick boxes and breakdown percentage points, which have the ultimate result of grade inflation.  Instead of this spurious approach, let’s engage with, and embrace, qualitative aspects with greater upfront debate around an assignment and what our standard of success should be.  Indeed, accompanying the high pass rate, we’ve had hyper-grade inflation with many students expecting to get top grades rather than these being the exception.

More time for guidance

I’d much rather spend my time working with students on formative guidance to improve their work than on marking and providing summative feedback. Similarly, we should spend time as a body of assessors on determining what constitutes GOOD work that we are proud to hold up as evidence of meriting a qualification.  I’m not saying that a high bar can only be reached by a few students, but let’s encourage more students to stretch up and over this rather than setting it at a toddler level.

Another change I’d make would be to offer real recognition of work that is outstanding and exceptional. This would need to be agreed by a number of markers, and hold up to wide scrutiny. But we need to encourage the smartest, most intelligent people working within public relations. I see too many times when we reward what is little more than good work – or the best that we have seen this time around – with the highest grade, often at the lower end of any such criteria. Or, even worse, I’ve seen trends to give over-inflated marks to work that is nowhere near perfect.

Of course, any such gold standard has to be justified and not subject to the bias of particular perspectives or favours. When we supervise individual students it is easy to give credit for their achievement or development over time. That is understandable but it doesn’t cut it in the real world where being nice or overcoming difficulties isn’t judged when you are required to stand up to clients or bosses to justify your work.

Qualifications are different to continuous professional development although they can be part of it.  The latter is a spirit of kaizen, where we should set ourselves ambitious goals alongside smaller incremental improvements.  Gaining a qualification should be an ambition that when realised carries kudos and pride.  This is not time for a certificate of participation – that’s training!

No more mediocre Award winners

Which brings me onto Award programmes. Frankly most of the winners of these are mediocre and immediately forgettable. They may be judged on being a clever idea or submissions with unsubstantiated measurement (i.e. when is an entry ever independently verified?). Or perhaps judges are swayed by a brand name or a ‘celebrity’ consultancy since few if any programmes have any anonymity in entries. Again subjectivity is at the heart of such work – this needs consideration in a robust methodology – alongside more verifiable quantitative measures. Plus we need to judge harshly and by experienced and qualified practitioners, and academics, if awards are to be a blue riband standard.

Of course, we know that the reason for giving out awards and qualifications like Halloween candy is too often financial as these are revenue generating rather than strategies to improve the standard of practice and recognise those who stand out in our field.

We are in effect working in a ‘cash for honours’ world and I’d like to have bigger ambitions for PR than that.

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13 Replies to “We need bigger ambitions in public relations

  1. Thanks for sharing your suggestions on improving PR education in universities. Changing from a percentage grade to a pass/fail system seems like an interesting way to encourage success.

  2. I can’t speak to the marking of student work, Heather, but I’ve long been somewhat disillusioned by national PR association (and other) awarding bodies. Even things as simple as who makes it on to “lists,” etc. (A big part of the impetus to write Making Honest B2B Endorsements, Part I and II on CommPRObiz.

    When something has to be “applied” for and includes a registration fee, it’s already less objective as to what individuals and companies are doing the most innovative, creative, ethical, etc., public relations and communication management work.

    Smaller companies may not have the budge/staff t or the desire to participate. Agencies see it as a marketing tool, but are also constrained as to which clients will allow the work to be showcased. And when it comes to agency submissions, who should really get the credit–the initiator or contracted workers or the organization that took the chance that this was the way to go?

    I also know of far too many practitioners who have the “formula” down pat regarding measurement, length of document, etc., to pretty much guarantee a willing entry (or at least an “honourary” mention).

    I find what is more objective and worthwhile (for the most part) is the awards of distinction given to association members. Particularly the ones where you have to have third-party nominators and seconders AND a fairly comprehensive form has to be filled out.

    What I would like to see is the awards model changed for associations, whereby a portion of each member dues is set aside for the resources (necessary budget, staff/volunteers and time) to actually research who amongst the membership is doing the best work–and nominating them for awards.

    And not just for flashy campaigns or a nice website. Long-term public relations and communication programs that actually advance us as an industry/craft, in line with other necessary disciplines like business development, law, accounting, human resources and so on.

    Or is that too ambitious, for the main goal of awards programs to truly celebrate the “most excellent” over the “most flush” companies? 😉

  3. Hi Heather, excellent article. I agree that PR ‘Could do better’. Not only in terms of the people coming in to the industry, but also in the standards the industry sets itself. As you point out, some awards are questionable. That’s why the industry must pull itself up by its boot straps and improve the quality of its creative work and strategic thinking. See if you agree with my thinking on the matter?


    1. Chris – it is a great post, thanks for sharing the link. Although PR is more than publicity and can achieve more than marketing goals, the points you make are certainly valid. The PR team at Jaguar Land Rover has been doing some very interesting work that picks up on the concept of having ‘big ideas’ which they see as more cost effective and successful than spending budget in the same old ways that the industry has for decades.

      Indeed, by having a big idea and being able to sell this into the senior execs – for a far smaller price tag than marketing would charge for a similar concept (let alone our advertising colleagues), the money is readily transferred.

      The Range Rover Evoque launch for example generated leads and pre-sales well in excess of the company’s ambitious target, solely from public relations activities. The same looks likely to be the case for the Daniel Craig connection to the Range Rover Sport.

      What I particularly like about the potential of big ambitious ideas at the present time, is that we have an opportunity to draw on the truly brilliant stunt history of PR (much of which isn’t even realised by many practitioners) and marry it to our increasingly strategic approach (again PR used to be more strategic before the Mad Men outshone PR with their fancy ways!!).

  4. Heather,

    Love the idea of setting higher ambitions for public relations. That is was drove me to co-edit the Melbourne Mandate http://melbournemandate.globalalliancepr.org/ where after a six month co-creation process involvng more than 1000 people from thrity countries, we published an ambitious decalration of of role professionaly, personnaly and at the organizational and societal level. I think most readers would agree that it is an aspirational advocacy platform that is pushing us in the right direction and calling on all of us to elevate our game.

    I like your suggestion about turning grading on its head and forcing everyone to meet an established standard as a minimum to pass a course. As for awards program, of course there is subjectivity and judges can be influenced up to am point. However, I do think that in most cases where I have been involved in judging, there is a high standard and published criteria to be met and exceeded. I would not throw out or discount the results of award programs altogether. I think they point to good case studies where one can learn from the success or failures (a nod to TMF’s recent push for publication of failures as well as successes) for that matter of PR activity.

    1. Thank you for your comment – and I’m so thrilled to be chairing your session at the International History of PR Conference this year (where you, Anne Gregory and Fraser Likely have a paper on the GA’s origins, influences etc). I’ll have the hotseat for hearing the presentation.

      I do think that the Melbourne Mandate is ambitious and I appreciate the attempt to both set an agenda, and work out a path to achieve this. The challenge, I believe is ensuring such initiatives can cut through into the practice of the majority for whom even thinking about looking at such a declaration doesn’t resonate. We need ways of accelerating our ambitions into the majority practice.

      Interesting to hear of your positive experiences of Awards. I believe they have significant potential to act as really valuable case studies but that needs a more objective analysis and presentation than simply reproducing an entry paper.

      I am so glad that you mention learning from ‘failure’ – I think ‘lessons learned’ is the most valuable part of any campaign review. My belief is that there is success and failure in most practice – some things work, some don’t. The problem with Awards is that often the context and ‘lessons learned’ get lost.

      1. Heather, we are on the same page re ‘lessons learned’. It is hugely important.

        In the coming weeks, we (Daniel Tisch and I) have been invited to pen a post on PR Conversations explaining how we see practitioners at all levels implementing the Melbourne Mandate. We have prepared a tool kit, a professional development map that one can use to chart their own needs based on what the MM describes as our role. Dan has also released already “Eight ways you can use the Melbourne Mandate”, which will give you a taste of what”s to come.

        Looking forward to seeing you at IHPRC and of course I will behave as you are chairing! Anne Gregory and I will tell the story of how the Global Alliance was formed and what obstacles we had to overcome to achieve agreement.

  5. I really agree with what you have said. I am a mature student studying for a B.Tech degree in Public Relations Management at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa.

    What I would like to see in students is more passion, which I would imagine goes a step further than ambition. It means that the matter is upper most in your mind. We need young people with drive that will improve the image of Public Relations. I am worried about what I am seeing.

    Most students are ‘trying to get through this year’. I am wishing there was more!

    1. Amanda – thank you so much for commenting. I am with you with regard to passion – which I tend to think of as an accelerator of the motivation we need to achieve our ambitions. Passion needs some focus and direction, but it certainly enhances our drive and willingness to be the best we can be.

      It is so sad to see students who lack this drive and commitment to being the change that PR needs. I suppose the only good thing, is that those who are willing to be exceptional, like yourself, should shine through against the others.

  6. If not PR who else should evolve or strengthen strategic communications?
    Stakeholder relations and the impact to reputation become more important.
    Beside going this path, programs like USI an GA are key to strengthen PR!

    1. I do agree that we need to focus on these areas ourselves and there are existing options that can be used – but also there is merit in working with others outside of PR to help us raise the bar. Much like children achieving big audacious goals like riding a bike without stabilizers – sometimes we need a push from others to realise just what we can, and should, be achieving.

  7. Heather, as you know ‘bigger ambitions for PR’ were underlying campaign themes in the recently-concluded Chartered Institute of Public Relations presidential election. The study of possible futures for public relations, the CIPR’s PR2020 report, that I drew on in my campaign emphasized that, simply, we have to become better at what we do — with all that that implies.

    1. Thank you – it will be interesting to see how this is delivered by the Institute as well as by members.

      I know Stephen Waddington believes that CPD will be a major part of this for members – perhaps including stretch ambitions as well as evidence of development could be included.

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