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What PR can learn from j-school

Data literacyA lot of public relations people are feeling smug because their ranks are growing while reporters are being laid off right and left.  At last count, there were five PR people for every journalist in the U.S. And we all know at least one reporter who has made the jump to public relations, however uneasily.

But don't count the working media out just yet. A recent study describes how many journalism schools are preparing budding reporters to flourish in our new digital world. Spoiler alert: they aren't training them to write stronger ledes or to sell space on the side. They're teaching them something called "data journalism."

The report defines data journalism this way: "using data for the journalistic purpose of finding and telling stories in the public interest. This may take many forms: to analyze data and convey that analysis in written form, to verify data found in reports, to visualize data, or to build news apps that help readers to explore data themselves. The ability to use, understand, and critique data amounts to a crucial literacy that may be applied in nearly every area of journalistic practice."

In words that will sound familiar to most public relations people, one student journalist told the study's authors “A lot of students are scared of ‘that math thing'." Nevertheless, according to the study, the majority of accredited journalism schools already offer at least one course in data journalism. And many plan to increase their offerings.

“What we’re really seeing now is that this is a durable change in the structure of information," wrote Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, "and therefore a need to durably change a journalist’s knowledge in order to carry out their core democratic function. Not to build a business model, not to reach more people, not to have more followers, but to actually discover the truth—you need to learn this.”

I think the same can be said of public relations. The Page Society's most recent white paper highlights how data analytics will transform the Chief Communications Officer's role in the years ahead. Yet the Page white paper also indicated that data analytics was one of the areas of expertise least claimed by 200 senior practitioners who participated in a Page-sponsored online discussion forum.

Many people go into public relations because they're more comfortable with words than with numbers. But those who want to be more than wordsmiths need to get over their fear of "that math thing." 

Data literacy is a crucial skill in understanding the needs, values, and aspirations of our customers and stakeholders. It's also increasingly critical in building enduring relationships with them. And if reporters are going to subject your client's business to in-depth data analysis, you'd better be prepared to match them spreadsheet for spreadsheet.  

In its 2015 report, the Commission on Public Relations Education identified "data analytics and insights" as "knowledge needed by an entry-level public relations practitioner." Anyone know how public relations educational programs would stack up against journalism programs on this score?







What's PR?

What is pr?I'm either on a roll or in a rut. Yesterday's posting tried to explain who is practicing public relations. Today's tries to describe what they do, without the benefit of Census Data.  

Not that the good folks over at the Census Bureau didn't take a whack at defining public relations for the purposes of their survey.  They did, and here it is: "Engage in promoting or creating an intended public image for individuals, groups, or organizations. May write or select material for release to various communications media."

Add that to the estimated 500 formal definitions various practitioners and academics have devised. There’s no canonical definition of public relations. It’s 117,499 people doing essentially the same thing and explaining what they’re doing in 117,499 different ways.

Underlying all these definitions are two major theories.

The first is the horn-blowing, publicity-centered version of public relations portrayed in popular media -- the world of flacks and spin doctors. Academics call that “asymmetrical symbolic interpretation.” Its goal is to inform and persuade. Or, as the Census Bureau put it, to "create an intended public image."

That certainly describes the first 100 years of PR’s history, which was largely concerned with informing and persuading people of something.

But “persuasion” has always made some academics uncomfortable. So they’ve developed a theory that is more genteel and socially redeeming.  They call it "two-way, symmetrical or dialogic communications." Its goal is to mediate interests.

The idea is that PR can help an organization enter into a dialog with its publics to build common agreement on issues of mutual concern. It’s a notion rooted in a sociological concept called systems theory. But it shows up in academic journals much more than in practice, where it seems concentrated in highly regulated industries or non-profits.  

In the real world, public relations is practiced along a continuum, from sharing information to mediating interests. Practitioners move between the two ends of this continuum at different gaits. But they share a common goal, rooted in another sociological theory – social construction.

The idea of social construction is that people’s understanding of the reality around them is heavily influenced by their environment. What we call the "meaning" of words and symbols is shaped by the context in which they are encountered. And that meaning becomes the currency with which information is shared, minds are persuaded, and interests are mediated.

In a very real sense, public relations is all about creating meaning.

Joye Gordon, a PR professor at Kansas State University, latched onto this back in 1997 and suggested PR is "active participation in the social construction of meaning." Think about it: isn't that what PR is all about?  We’re working with people’s current feelings and understanding to construct a new meaning. Ideally, a meaning favorable to our client or brand.

Meaning isn't imposed on others; it's created in a collaborative process. It's not pulled out of the air like a slogan; it's constructed from our client's actual capabilities and the public's real needs, aspirations, and values. 

Meaning grows out of a brand's purpose, which is essentially the job it promises to do for customers. That job can be functional, emotional, or aspirational. But it has to be real and something customers value.

As marketing professor Philip Kotler put it, purpose has to serve both customer and society. "Marlboro was the most popular brand of cigarettes," he points out. "It delivered taste and high satisfaction. But it also could deliver a heart attack, liver damage and 'bads' to others in the smoke vicinity."  Not exactly beneficent. 

So that's what public relations people do: they participate in the social construction of meaning around a client or brand's beneficent purpose.


Who is PR?

Keep-calm-i-m-a-pr-specialistPublic Relations is one of those "knowledge businesses" where the company's assets go down on the elevator every night. So it's surprising how relatively little we have known about those assets on an industry-wide basis.

But now the MIT Media Lab's "Data USA" app has made Census Bureau data accessible enough that even a liberal arts major can begin to get a better handle on just who is practicing public relations.

It's also possible to analyze occupations from actuary to welder and to explore such questions as "the characteristics of powerful occupations." (Spoiler alert: PR specialist is not among them.) 

The data on Public Relations Specialists is mostly drawn from the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey. Here are some highlights:

  • There are 117,499 public relations specialists in the U.S., most of whom (20%) work for agencies. The second industry with the largest proportion of PR people is education. About 8% of us work in colleges and universities.
  • On average, PR specialists are 39.9 years old. Men are an average 5 years older than their female counterparts. There are more women in PR than men, accounting for 63% of positions.
  • On average, women appear to age out at about 30 years old; men, at 55. On the other hand, according to the Census Bureau, 21 female PR practitioners have an average age of 95; 20 male practitioners have an average age of 88. At the other end of the scale, 60 men in PR have an average age of 16; 20 women, an average age of 17. 
  • PR specialists make $77,147 a year, a little less than locomotive engineers and a little more than market researchers. Interestingly, wages are more evenly distributed in the public relations industry than in the overall workforce.
  • Wages for PR specialists are highest in Delaware, Virginia, and Connecticut, undoubtedly reflecting where people live rather than where they work. The region with the highest concentration of PR specialists is Washington, D.C.
  • The highest paying industries for PR specialists are motion pictures ($185,000), electronic stores ($184,000), banking ($149,000), and telecom ($143,000). The lowest paying is retail ($27,000).
  • 83% of PR specialists are white, compared to 75% of the overall workforce. Only 8.5% are black, compared to 11% of the overall workforce. And only 3.5% are Asian, compared to 5.6% of the overall workforce. On the other hand, the PR industry does well by people of American Indian heritage -- they account for 0.8% of PR specialists compared to 0.5% of the overall workforce. (Note: "white" appears to include Hispanic, for whom there is no separate category.)
  • The three most common college majors PR specialists pursue are communications (39%), social science (11.8%), and business (11.7%). On the other hand, a relatively high proportion of PR people majored in cultural and gender studies. 
  • According to an analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the two most valuable skills PR specialists are expected to have are social perceptiveness and speaking. Close behind are critical judgment, reading comprehension, time management, decision making, and active listening. Curiously, writing skills are only the 8th most desired skill, about as important as persuasion and negotiation.

My take-away? Public Relations is a young business, skewing female but with fewer people of color than it should have.

If the future belongs to those with skills in human behavior and data analysis, as a recent Arthur W. Page Society paper suggests, we have a long way to go. Only 11.8% of PR Specialists majored in social science; 4.6%, in psychology; and 1.6% in computer science. 


CEOs and Politics

SwitzerlandWhen it comes to politics, most corporate CEOs are Switzerland, with no enemies and friends on all sides.

But now two academics have taken to the pages of the New York Times to suggest CEOs might want to step up their game. They suggest that, as brands seek to "personalize" their relationships with consumers, "adopting a political orientation might be part of closing the deal."

As they put it, "In an era of political polarization, corporate neutrality may be outdated. Perhaps it is better in 2016 to be intensely loved by a few than inoffensive to many."

They even see evidence CEOs can contribute to political change when they take a public stance "on controversial issues like race relations and gender equality that are unrelated to their core businesses." And they think this new outspokenness can increase sales at the same time.

Aaron K. Chatterji of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke and Michael W. Toffel of Harvard Business School admit their position is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

For example, after the chief executives of Intel,, and Unilever opposed a “religious liberty” bill allowing faith-based businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia promised to veto it. 

That was consistent with an earlier field experiment they conducted when Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed opposition to a similar bill in Indiana. 

In that experiment, when voters were exposed to a statement of Cook's position, support for the bill declined among all but opponents of gay marriage. Interestingly, purchase intent for Apple products increased among gay marriage supporters.

While it's important for CEOs to demonstrate they care about issues important to their customers, I don't think they should drag their companies into controversies "unrelated to their business," as the good professors put it. 

From a practical, dollars and cents point of view, why would a company want to alienate any customers and stakeholders? From an ethical perspective, spending shareowner money on something many might oppose, without a compelling business reason, is questionable.

Having said that, I would argue that gay marriage -- part of respecting the human dignity of gay people -- is important to any company's core business, as are race relations and gender equality.

No company can afford to ignore or marginalize employees, customers, or other stakeholders simply because of who they are. Not only would that be a serious violation of their rights, it would waste their talent.

The same logic applies to a number of other hot-button "cultural issues," depending on the company. Starbuck's, for example, has a legitimate reason for barring guns from its stores even in states with open carry laws. 

Every company needs to make that judgment for itself. And while it may sound complicated, there is one fool-proof test. Before taking a position on an issue, ask yourself this: if the poop hits the fan on this, are you willing to go to the mat on this issue, to do whatever it takes to win?

If you can't say "yes" to that question, save yourself some grief and stay out of the fight.




From Barnum to Trump

Barnum & Trump.001Public Relations people like to think they not only outlived P. T. Barnum, they outgrew him and his outrageous publicity-seeking techniques.

Not quite.

Those techniques live on in the more juvenile corners of the practice. And in one presidential campaign.

Strictly speaking neither P. T. Barnum nor Donald J. Trump can be categorized as PR people. But so many techniques of the craft have been so central to their success, they serve as appropriate and rich case studies.

Barnum and Trump share more than the same hairline, less comb-over. They're both teetotalers, though Barnum came to sobriety after a period of dissolution and, while Trump doesn't drink wine or vodka, he peddles them. 

Barnum entered politics late in life, serving as a state legislator and as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. Trump was in his late 60s when he decided he wanted to be president.

They both amassed great fortunes. Barnum was one of the first millionaires in the U.S. Trump claims to be worth $10 billion. They both also made good use of the bankruptcy statutes.  

Both have been best selling authors. Trump wrote The Art of the Deal, telegraphing his approach to domestic and international issues. Barnum wrote the more straightforwardly titled The Art of Money Getting

And they can both credit much of their success to their genius at generating publicity. In fact, just 4 days before he died, Barnum wrote a friend, “All I have, I owe to the press.”  Trump could say the same, although he would probably add “those disgusting, dishonest human beings.”

Disgusting or dishonest, Trump knows how to deal with the media. His strategy is fairly simple and Barnumesque in its own way. "One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better," he wrote in The Art of the Deal. "If you are a little different, or a little outrageous, the press is going to write about you."

And write they do. Sometimes, just turning on their TV cameras and watching him in front of adoring crowds.  Over the course of his campaign, Trump earned nearly $2 billion worth of media attention — twice Hillary Clinton’s $746 million, more than all the other GOP candidates combined, and 190 times more than he spent directly. 

Now, you would think volunteering for all that attention, Trump has been playing with fire. But he learned how to handle the media in his real estate days, as he explained in his best seller. "When a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground," he wrote. "If someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building."

In the trade that's called "bridging" or evading a question by answering the question you wish had been asked. Like Barnum, who posted signs reading “this way to the egress” to keep people moving through his sideshows, Trump is a master of misdirection. 

He has also been more prolific than any other candidate in “shared media,” accumulating about 7 million Twitter followers and tapping out more than 32,000 Tweets and re-Tweets. That’s more significant than it seems. At the beginning of the 20th century, people like Walter Lippmann believed newspapers played a key role in telling people what to pay attention to and how to think about it. In the 21st century, social media has usurped that role.  

Like Barnum, Trump knows what ordinary people want. "I play to people’s fantasies," he wrote. "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion." In the trade, that's called "spinning," making the good look better and the bad look good.

Barnum.001Barnum called it “Humbug” -- "putting on glittering appearances by which to suddenly arrest public attention and attract the public eye and ear." In fact, he called himself the "Prince of Humbugs.” He would have seen kindred royalty in Donald Trump. 

Few of the attractions Barnum promoted came close to the outrageous buildup he gave them, but people were so entertained, they didn’t feel deceived. The lie was part of the entertainment. He sewed the body of a fish to the torso of a monkey and presented it as “a scientific curiosity” called the Fee-Jee Mermaid.

More troubling, Barnum’s “Humbug” exploited the prejudices, racism, and belief in eugenics common in his day. He promoted the deformed, disabled, and different -- like “General” Tom Thumb, Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and conjoined twins Cheng and Eng. He promoted a mentally disabled black man as “Pinhead,” the missing link between man and ape. And even though he was an abolitionist, he bought a slave and presented her as Washington’s 161-year-old nanny.

In a way, Trump is following the same playbook, exploiting people’s fears and anger. He appeals to people who feel disenfranchised by globalization, stagnant wages, and demographic change. They like his brashness and directness. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. And it’s expressed in simple, angry terms that can fit in a Tweet with plenty of room for exclamation points.  

It’s a proven formula. Anger and fear are easy to evoke because they come from people’s unconscious. And once aroused, those feelings are immune to rational argument.  People who are scared and angry don’t want someone to tell them they shouldn’t be. They want someone to listen, play back what they’re saying, and give them an easy, quick solution.  

As unlikely as it may seem, blue collar billionaire Donald Trump has become that person.  He doesn’t talk like a politician, but says what the guy on the next bar stool is thinking but afraid to say. He’s “authentic.” 

Politifact reports nearly half (47%) of what Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire.”  In 4.6 hours of Trump speeches and press conferences during one week in mid-March, Politico found more than 5 dozen untrue statements, or one every five minutes.

Despite this, polls say 60% of Republicans think Trump is honest and trustworthy. How can that be?

His supporters aren’t listening to the semantic meaning of what Trump is saying; they’re listening to its emotional and symbolic meaning -- what his words mean to them, beyond their dictionary definitions.

For example, in his Florida victory speech, Trump said that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing." In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program and submitted to independent monitoring.

But Trump’s supporters knew what he meant is "we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money." That’s more opinion than statement of fact. Who's going to quibble about the details?

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years, or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No.  And they don't think he does either.  He’s just underlining the threat of so-called “illegal immigrants” and promising to be ruthless in addressing it. 

Like Barnum, Trump is an entertainer, playing a role. He has less in common with politics than with professional wrestling. 

And like performers in World Wrestling Entertainment, Barnum and Trump have operated in a largely fact-free zone. Sometimes, their free-wheeling way with the truth is relatively innocent puffery delivered with a wink, as when Barnum claimed something was “the greatest" or "the rarest.” Or when Trump declared he has "one of the world's best memories." 

But Barnum also perpetuated the basest prejudices toward people who were disabled, mentally challenged, or of a different race. Barnum’s so-called “freaks” may have been complicit in his exploitation of them, but it’s hard to justify the social cost.

Trump.001Trump’s major ethical failing is similar. He demonstrates a lack of respect for voters by pandering to their resentments, validating and reinforcing them rather than seriously addressing their underlying causes. 

He campaigns in heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy other than promises he “could get a better deal.” 

He disregards the consequences of his divisive rhetoric, accepting no responsibility for violence at his rallies but offering to cover the legal fees of anyone arrested for roughing up protesters. Or at least did until it looked like the bills would keep piling up.

The way Barnum and Trump have practiced public relations may have filled their bank accounts, it may even get one of them a nomination or, God forbid, the presidency, but it is  literally de-meaning because it robs whole groups of people of meaning, reducing them to a cliché, a punchline, or a menace.

That’s the real danger in the three-ring circus surrounding Trump. At best, it’s trivial and superficial humbug designed to get attention.  At its worse, it cynically exploits voters’ resentments towards whole classes of people. It is de-meaning, which is the darkest use of public relations.