Get Charter

I’ve taken the plunge. After six years as a comms professional, I’ve gone and got Chartered. I’ve joined the CIPR.

It wasn’t an easy decision. To start with, it’s expensive. The investment has to at least feel like it’s going to be worth it – and I wasn’t previously convinced that it would be.

For some PR people, having the letters MCIPR (Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations) after their name is a big deal.

For me, that kind of ‘look at me’ vanity is a turn off. If you catch me tagging the initials on the end of my email signature, I permit you to cuff me about the ear.

The fact the credibility that comes with the badge is bought always struck me as a little shallow and even fake.

So what changed my mind?

In essence, I suppose, it has been a kind of coming of age as a comms professional, with that second word taking on a weightier meaning, loaded with responsibility. I have felt increasingly strongly that what have been called public relations practitioners truly are ‘professionals’, the same as accountants, legal advisors and engineers.

As a comms person, especially one within an organisation, you are often confronted by someone, often senior to you, who thinks they can ‘do’ comms. Or worse, thinks anyone can do comms. That it’s ‘just PR’.

Of course, we know it’s not just PR. Communications is much more than that. It’s both art and science. To do it well, add value and get real results you need wordcraft, empathy, strategic thinking and a well-attuned gut. These skills and even the instinct are learned over time and through experience, hard work and dedicated development.

This is why the idea of credibility is important. I know that doesn’t come from five letters after your name purchased by annual subscription.

For me, it’s more about signing up to a code of conduct for what it means to be a professional in your field of expertise.

It’s about learning from others and sharing ideas and best practice. It’s about earning the right to be trusted as someone whose advice and contributions will make that vital difference that only a professional can.

I don’t yet know what I am going to get out of being ‘Chartered’. What I do know is that it will only ever be relative to what I put into it.

Digital learning

As part of my ongoing journey of discovery as an always-learning commsbod, I’ve started a MOOC. If you don’t know what a MOOC is (and I don’t expect you should), it’s not a gangland cuss but a course. A Massive Open Online Course, no less.

It’s massive because it’s taken by thousands of people across the world.

It’s open because it’s free and anyone can join it, regardless of their qualifications, experience or means. You just need to be able to get online.

The MOOC I’m doing is Digital Marketing from the University of Southampton.

It’s is my third MOOC, all via the rather ace Future Learn platform. I’d encourage you to dive in. The courses are many and varied. You can take something close to your line of professional or personal interest or something wildly left of your particular field.

The first two MOOCs (on branding and psychology) I didn’t really get started with, so don’t really count. This one, though, I’m sticking with. I’ve completed the first week and am into the second.

You do need to give them a little time – though not much. Three hours a week is suggested, though you could do more, could do less. I’m probably at the ‘less’ end of that scale but for a dip-in, dip-out learning experience, it’s pretty interesting, thought-provoking and even inspiring.

My early impressions of the MOOC experience are mixed. These courses could only exist in the digital world and in some ways are a microcosm of it, with a global reach and short attention spans but potentially big appetites. The learning ‘content’ is largely video-based. If you want to delve further, you can post comments and engage in discussions. The interactive, social element is key and makes up a proportion of the ‘work’ required, as well as the watching and (fairly light) reading.

This is also where it can fall short and feel a tad shallow. The discussions I’ve evesdropped on and occasionally commented in lack a sense of meaningful conversation. Unless I’ve missed something by not being in the right place at the right time, they feel like a sequence of standalone statements, only occasionally connecting.

This can partly be explained by the sheer size of the ‘class’, spread across every continent of the globe. (When you sign up they plot your location on this map). Thousands of people trying to talk at once makes an intimate and involved exchange of ideas difficult. And what most of the comments seem to offer, at least early on, is clichés and platitudes. To be honest, I need to persevere with it.

But, at the end of the day, a MOOC is essentially a taster. I’ve not investigated their origin much but the cynic in me assumes they are partly a big marketing exercise in themselves – and academic institutions seem to be investing a lot in them, judging by the quality of the presentation and the time lent to them by the course tutors. Of course, they are seeking to attract students, worldwide, to their fully fledged courses. But they also feel generous, like the best of the web. Giving something for free that is genuine, fulfilling and real.

One of the other avenues I’ve been exploring in my journey is in pursuit of the definition of content marketing. I am sure just it has already been observed elsewhere that MOOCs are just another, albeit clever and sophisticated, bit of content marketing – drawing you in for the hidden, but nevertheless lurking, sale.

But is that such a bad thing? I certainly feel I’m getting something out of it. Maybe in my next post I’ll talk a bit about what I’ve learned.

I’ve you want to earwig on the conversation around the Digital Marketing MOOC, look up #FLdigital.

The Why: Part 1

I am accustomed to being behind the curve. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to blog – to urge myself to catch up and try out some thoughts in the process.

It’s one big learning curve. Ouch!

This week I discovered someone I am behind the curve on. It’s a guy who talks about circles.

The Golden Circle, no less.

I was in a meeting – not at work but for a voluntary role I have, helping organise a local event. I was talking to the manager of a local pub/restaurant, broadly on the topic of marketing.

“Have you heard of Simon Sinek?” he asked me.

“No,” I said.

“He’s this guy who says successful organisations like Apple start with why they do something, not what they do. He’s on TED Talks. Check him out.”

OK, I thought. I’ll look him up. So I did.

Sinek’s 2009 TED talk ‘How great leaders inspire action’ has had 18.8 million views. It’s the third most popular TED talk ever. Sinek’s book Start with the Why is also pretty high up on management ‘thought leadership’ reading lists.

I’m behind the curve on Simon Sinek. I’m also behind the curve on TED. I’ve meant to get ‘into it’ for ages. My wife is a teacher and has banged on about Sir Ken Robinson‘s education talks for years.

I’ve got some catching up to do. Starting with Simon Sinek.

Now I’ve read Sinek’s Wikipedia entry and his TED biog and I’m still not entirely clear on what he does.

He’s been ‘in business’. He’s a trained ethnographer. He lectures on post-grad strategic communications at Columbia University.  He’s got a clipped hybrid accent (a nomadic upbringing) and exudes a magnetic hyper-confidence bordering on Tom Cruise in Magnolia, only without the rabid misogyny.

He might be what you call a motivational speaker.

But what he says is pretty relevant for marketing and communications professionals. It’s about communications, essentially.

To Sinek’s idea, then: the Goldern Circle.

Like me, you’re probably weary and cynical of golden shapes and objects. Threads, for example. And you may also be quick to note that his circle is actually three concentric circles, likes the Royal Air Force/mod bullseye emblem. It looks like this:

Most companies – most people – Sinek argues, work outside-in. They start with the ‘What’. The product they produce; the service they provide.

But as Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

He gives some examples: Apple, Dr Martin Luther King, the Wright brothers.

These are the people and organisations that start with the Why. Central to their success is that they communicate – are driven by – a purpose, a reason, a belief. Others relate to and are inspired by that purpose; that ‘why’. Success then follows.

And all this, so says Sinek, is grounded in human biology. I won’t get into the How. Watch it yourself – it’s only 18 minutes long.

For Apple, their Why is thinking differently and challenging the status quo in everything they do.

For MLK, he told people ‘I believe’. People who believed what he believed were inspired to act. As Sinek says, “He gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”

The relevance to communications is pretty straightforward. It sounds to me like your corporate vision, mission statement and narrative from which your key messages and campaigns stem. Isn’t this your ‘Why’?

Then again, if I look to my own experience, those messages are very often shaped around ‘what’ we do and ‘where’ we want to be. Wouldn’t it be better to start with why? The ‘reason you get out of bed in the morning’?

This got me to thinking about local government. When we do our corporate plan, do we start with the Why? And if not, why not?

What is our Why?

This is a question I plan to return to – when I’ve figured out the answers.

Lately I’ve been thinking

I never intended to do PR for a living. All I ever wanted was to be a writer. As a journalist throughout my 20s I felt like Robert Peston does that PRs were the enemy. Purveyors of bullshit.

I was an idealistic magazine staffer with delusions of being the next Lester Bangs, beset hour upon hour by insincerely matey calls and superlative-spattered press releases from PR agencies trying to ‘sell in’ their products and secure a favourable review.

To switch to PR was, as the cliche goes, to go over to the dark side. And the darkness has its allure. Many like me have made that Damascean road-trip in reverse.

How many PR people have I known turn back towards the former ‘light’ and a media job? Not one. Of course, the reality is that the number of media jobs is dwindling and freelancing pays less than it ever did.

But, to the point. When we get there, what do we find? That we, the fallen, are the real truth-tellers and they, the hacks, are the enemy.

Of course, I don’t really think this and the whole thing is completely subjective.

Most media and PR professionals are just that, professionals, with integrity and principles performing a valid and important – sometimes vital – service. Both, equally, can be evil – often, as with most evil, without knowing it. But neither are intrinsically bad.

Society needs a free and diverse media to expose wrong and hold power to account. Now, more than ever. Organisations need communications specialists. Now more than, ever.

Media people don’t need comms people, though they rely on us more than they care to admit. Comms people need the media – more than we care to admit (think about it).

Who is the media? These days, anyone. Someone with a phone, a blog, a Twitter account.

Should we be the media? No. We’re too biased.

But we can and should do media. As much as possible. We should try to connect direct, doing so openly, honestly and ethically. I hope there will always be someone there to hold us to account. When there isn’t, then we’re dead. Then we’re Nineteen Eighty Four.

When I ventured into comms six years ago it was by, if not accident, then circumstance more than design. My fiancee and I had decided to relocate from London back to shire. I looked round for media jobs and found only meagrely paid subbing gigs. I didn’t have a news background or NCTJ certificate, so the local rags were unlikely to hire me as their next star reporter.

But then there was the public sector. There were hiring communications people and I knew I could communicate fairly well. I’d spent my career conveying ideas and information to people in the clearest and most engaging way I could.

In truth, I was tired of working for commercial organisations, dealing with consumer products. I was attracted to the public, charity and voluntary sectors as places I could use my transferable skills as a communicator to connect with real people about real issues that affect them every day, and in some way try to help them and – you know – make a difference. Man.

And that’s where I still stand. I remain an idealist and hope I always will be. As communications people, we can do good. But we are not God. We don’t have all the answers. We sometimes get it wrong. What we can do is use our skills, our nouse, our finely tuned (but sometimes faulty) antennae, our craft and curiosity to guide, steer, advise, tease, challenge, argue and cajole those who employ us into making genuine, honest and meaningful connections with the people they are there to serve.

Despite six years of austerity, cuts, reviews, restructures and that all-enveloping ‘change’, somehow I feel more excited and less afraid than ever about the job I’m paid to do.

Things like going to Commscamp and listening people that do what I do, but better, on Twitter and on blogs have helped me see that.

We’ve been stuck in a bit of a rut, obsessed with traditional media-PR binary relationships, heads down, churning it out and not peering above the parapet.

But now I feel we’re catching up, moving forwards and changing as the new reality forces us to change. It’s hard to keep up and we don’t think we have the time to do ALL THIS OTHER STUFF the job now entails but we’re trying and we will get there. We might need to stop doing some of the old stuff first.

Things will never be the same again.

As Ferris Bueller said, ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’ And he didn’t have Twitter.

So let’s keep looking around.