Simple, but not stupid

Orlagh Shanks and Richard Bailey
When Richard met Orlagh

I read a lot of blog posts. For a year, I’ve been picking a weekly selection to appear on Fridays as #ThisWeekinPR. For five years, I’ve been encouraging public relations students to blog by identifying interesting posts under #bestPRblogs and naming an annual winner.

There’s a gap, of course. Public relations practitioners are in effect professional writers. We craft news releases, edit newsletters, write speeches and are sometimes called on to proofread and edit others’ words.

So, if we can assume a mastery of words, then my selection for #ThisWeekinPR is based on a subjective judgement of how insightful, original and useful each post is. I also try to adjust for the bias that it’s mostly consultants who blog (rather than in-house practitioners). The reason is obvious: they have a commercial need to be visible and thought leadership is a favoured public relations approach.

So, I read a lot of posts by male consultants (many are brilliant), but I’m aware that this group is not representative of the industry as a whole. Most practitioners are female; most roles are in-house working for organisations (and working in-house on internal comms is more common than most students realise). The consultants are the tip of the iceberg. There’s an element of #blogspreading going on.

With student bloggers, I work to a different set of criteria. Here, a confident mastery of the written word is rare (I know, but a generation that’s grown up with smartphones and social media is understandably testing the boundaries of spelling, grammar and punctuation; and educators are warned against being too strict for fear of discriminating against those with diagnosed conditions such as dyslexia).

So I’m predisposed to pick competence above other traits. Beyond this, what does excellence look like?

There’s a chance to explore this tomorrow in a public Twitter chat at 12 noon. In #AskOrlagh, I’m asking current public relations students to put their questions to 2018 #bestPRblogs winner on a range of topics from personal branding to placements to how she finds blogging inspiration.

Orlagh writes exceptionally well. That’s my subjective view of course, but it’s based on knowing the standard of the competition better than most. It’s also despite her rarely writing about topics that interest me, and writing more words on any given topic than I’ve trained myself to expect. She’s that good!

It was only when I pressed her to write about her own approach to writing that I realised how much craft goes into it. It may look natural, but it’s effortful.

Why then should others bother? Certainly, Orlagh Shanks owns her own personal brand and there’s no vacancy. But we’re all individuals and there are rewards out there for us to find our own voices and become better known within our expanding networks. It’s called public relations!

While I’ve been drafting this post, I’ve been contacted by one public relations graduate working at a high profile agency asking me if I can recommend any talented and passionate individuals for their vacancies. While I’ve been working on this, I’ve seen that a multi-award winning team from last week’s PR Week Awards has been advertising job vacancies.

Students and graduates often feel that the odds are against them when it comes to applying for placements and graduate roles. So why do so many employers tell me how hard they find it to recruit? There’s a gap that needs to be bridged, and blogging is one way of doing this.

I’ve told this story often, but it came as such a surprise to me that I’ll risk sharing it again. As long ago as 2010 a public relations graduate I’d taught was recruited to the London team of the world’s largest independent public relations consultancy. No surprise there. What I learnt next came as a revelation. The then European head of that consultancy told me: ‘we’d been tracking him/her for some time.’

The next step on from this is graduates not even having to fill out online forms or submit their CVs because employers approached them first. This has happened to at least one of those previously shortlisted for #bestPRblogs. I don’t say that blogging deserves the credit alone, but personal branding and artful networking could be the answer.

So how can students and junior practitioners begin to stand out from the crowd? How to be smart without being a show-off? How to document your learning journey without revealing too much of your ignorance (and risking looking stupid)?

I’m often alerted to blog posts (I invite and welcome this). I’m sometimes invited to offer feedback. This can be a chore and it risks overstepping boundaries (I’m not their tutor; I’m not grading them; I can cause offence if I’m too blunt about their failings as a writer or thinker).

But a recent exchange was insightful. It showed a student recognising that a topic has to be interesting (so controversy might help); but how to know if their take on it was insightful or banal? That takes experience and confidence.

This is a more productive avenue than a discussion of how to write. It’s about what to write, and why write, and when to write on a given topic. If the bar is set so high that we can only post on a topic when we have something breathtakingly brilliant to share, then most of us would rarely publish.

Those working in media relations will understand the paradox. We’re expected to keep a flow of positive news stories while knowing that the sort of news event that dominates a day’s headlines is something we’ll handle few times in our careers (and when it happens, the circumstances are more likely to be negative than positive.)

No, the secret sauce is to worry less about the brilliance and originality of our idea and focus more on the needs of our audience or community. What problems do they need help with? What concerns do they share? It’s the answerthepublic approach to reverse engineering content.

If I’m preparing an undergraduate class on professional ethics, I’d judge they wouldn’t need the full, introspective Jungian approach (though Johanna Fawkes is, in my opinion, the most brilliant and best among us). I’d encourage them to ask questions about any personal red lines when it comes to who they’d be willing to work for. If not tobacco or gambling, then why alcoholic drinks, snack food companies or confectionery manufacturers? What about the pharmaceutical industry and its legal obligation to test drugs on animals before humans?

There are levels of learning and layers of insight. The danger of the academic approach is that scholars end up merely talking to each other, and only seeking the approval of their peers, thus neglecting a wider public.

If public relations teaches us anything, it’s to first identify and then get to understand our public/s (their likes, needs, interests). And then to develop our standing with them by offering them some of what they want, with some of what we need them to hear.

Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s a useful reminder. If our task is to communicate and our chosen means is the written word, then our focus should be on communication, not complexity.

The #AskOrlagh Twitter chat for public relations students is on Tuesday 23 October at 12 noon.

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About the author

Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.


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