Friday, 11 June 2010

A war college for PR? My response

James over at Campaign War Room has put up an interesting post of the idea of a war college for the PR industry.

Here's an extract, although I'd advise you read the whole piece:
While the communications industry is professionalising, there is still a tendency to assume that competence comes from a mix of natural ability and general experience. There's something to this. But you could just as easily make the same claims about what makes someone competent in the military, and yet these are comprehensively rejected by the military who take higher learning very seriously. The military, certainly in the US, is obsessed about establishing so-called "learning cultures", organisations which encourage people to become comfortable adapting to change.

If such a communications course was created, what would be on the curriculum? If it was designed to help senior practitioners, it would need to focus on how to help them think,rather than simply teaching things. In practice, it would therefore presumably focus above all on four things. Firstly, an in-depth look at the theory of strategy and effective decision-making. Secondly, it would look at the art of persuasion and how you actually shift opinion, not least by teaching people about opinion research. Thirdly, it would get people looking at case studies of past communications campaigns and thinking about the likely nature of modern communications crises. Finally, it would teach practitioners to think about how they would approach difficult problems on their own through a set of Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) and war games.
The state the industry is currently in is similar to that which various European armies found themselves in during the 19th and early 20th centuries. An obsessive belief that the upper class were natural leaders led to a relative dearth in critical assessment of what was good and bad about the way those armies fought.

Armies which kept this up suffered terrible losses when there was a sudden jarring change in the way war was being fought. World War One being a good example. All the lessons were there, but no one put the pieces togeather and realised what the next major war might look like.

PR is in a similar state, with a relative lack of understanding amongst practitioners about why some things work and others dont. Best practice is embraced largely on the basis of what appears successful, often without an understanding of why success was achieved. Witness the attempts of the Conservatives in the last election taking on too much of the model Obama used to get elected. The tools worked in the US, but they failed here, for reasons which were relatively obvious. Its a different country, we're not a nation comfortable with public activism, and our anti political feeling wasnt something the Conservatives could tap into.

To me, the idea of establishing a real learning culture in PR is hugely attractive. Its part of the reason I started this blog, to put my ideas up in the public domain and try to get people to engage with me and tell me where I was wrong. Its led to some great discussions with various people and I want to keep that up.

So what would I add to the course? Psychology, and a real understanding of how people work.

We're all wonks, we exist in an industry which doesnt have much contact with the real world, and as such we're not best placed to get how people actually go about their lives.

I had to sit through a discussion the other day about how to promote a high street computer gaming company. As a gamer, and a purchaser of games, I grew increasingly frustrated as the conversation turned increasingly towards the sort of navel gazing strangeness which plagues the PR industry. Talk was of creating a viral campaign, of finding bloggers who would 'promote' the brand, about how to make stores 'interactive'. I sat quietly and tried not to shout.

I'm well placed to discuss what gamers might like, and what will turn them off. But that doesnt mean I'm going to be as good on an environmental campaign, for example. I'm not an environmentalist, and I'm not emotionally engaged in the debate in the same way I (sadly) am with the future of digital content distribution (also known as 'selling games/music/books).

The problem is that I can understand how one group of people works instinctively, because I'm one of them, I can't understand others because I'm not in their club.

I need to learn how to take my instinctive knowledge and understanding, and have it turned into a toolkit, which gives me some idea of how I might get my head around an unfamiliar set of concepts and figure out the best ways to direct my efforts.

We need to move away from the idea that 'people' are some sort of robot, where we can feed information in through a particular channel and they'll react accordingly. In reality a lot of what we do is vanishingly remote in importance to real people, which is why some campaigns, well funded and thought out, fall flat on their face.

At the same time, tiny companies with no PR support go global, their brands explode overnight, they go from obscure entities to household names. Word of mouth is their weapon, and often, they dont even know it until suddenly the orders are pouring in.

So what would I want from a PR War College? Psychology and an understanding of what makes people tick.

This couldnt be a wishy washy, or based on obscure texts, but rather an evidence based attack on the idea that people are strange and incomprehensible numbers, which shift on a whim. People change their opinions for good, comprehensible reasons and pretending otherwise is to fly in the face of everything experience has taught us.

There are some great books on this, and the quality continues to improve. A lot of these books arent written by PR professionals, in fact the vast majority arent. There's probably something too that.

Ultimately, I want to know why some ideas buzz, and some fall flat. I have my ideas, you have yours, what we need to do is sit down and have a real discussion about what it might be.
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