Communications in a political environment

28 Apr

Written by Bruce Fraser, PRINZ President

man on podium with microphone old background - vector illustration. eps 10

Communications is communications right? Well yes, the principles of great PR apply across a wide range of situations where they’re applied. Robust research, sound planning, sensible budgeting, great implementation and measurement that is clearly linked to your SMART objectives all contribute to effective campaigns and ongoing communications.

These all apply whether you’re undertaking PR for a large corporate, a not for profit organisation or small business. However, if you’re providing communications advice in a government department, it’s all that and more. You have a political overlay that provides the context and backdrop to everything you do. Budgets are often more constrained, appetite for risk is lower, flashiness is unwelcome, tactics will be more conservative and politicians to consider.

Your communications don’t need to be boring though. There are plenty of great work examples that come from government departments and the ‘PR Strategy and Planning for Government’ course will look at some of them. You’ll learn about best practice covering all the aspects of communications that are relevant for government communications practitioners. This is a mix of learning, doing and sharing in a lively, interactive session that will leave you with practical steps to take your career to the next level.

The New Zealand Transport Agency won the Government or Quasi Government Public Relations section of the annual PRINZ awards in 2013 with its campaign to education kiwis about changes to the give way rules. We saw great research, deep understanding of driver behaviour and highly effective implementation of well-planned tactics. Great PR all done within a political environment and the results were amazing with very few crashes and a speedy changeover in driving patterns.

Good communications are good communications but you’re working in a particular environment where there other considerations. Expect to cover the elements of effective communications set in a political world. Whether you’re currently working in a government department, thinking of applying for jobs there or need to understand how they work, this course will provide a robust mix of theory and practice for you.

Bruce will be presenting a PRINZ course ‘PR Strategy and Planning for Government’ on 16 June in Wellington, see here for details.

Image credit: iStock

Dunbar’s Number, Facebook, and the Friendship Paradox

15 Apr

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

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How many ‘friends’ do you have on Facebook? If you’re like most people then you’ll probably have more than 150. Perhaps many more. The problem is that the research is clear that this means that you’re unlikely to have a meaningful relationship with all of these ‘friends’.

The 150 limit is known as “Dunbar’s Number” and comes from a range of studies that shows most people can maintain about 150 social relationships at any one time. By ‘relationship’ Robin Dunbar (who the number is named after) means “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”. The interesting thing is that the research shows this number has been stable across time, and seems to be a cognitive limit rather than one of connection. In other words, social media is as limited by Dunbar’s Number as were the villages in the Domesday Book.

If anything, the immediacy and the scale of Facebook makes things worse rather than better. By all estimates, Facebook was the first website in the world to achieve one trillion page views in a single month; on a typical day over 350 million photos are uploaded to the site; half of Facebook’s users log on every day; and half of the users aged 18-34 check Facebook minutes after waking up. There is little doubt that Facebook is a phenomenon, and it’s clearly hard for many people to imagine life without it.

However, you may want to look elsewhere for your friends. An Australian study of Facebook users found that ‘neurotic and lonely’ people spent more time on Facebook than non-lonely individuals (in a clever play on words The Atlantic reported this research in an article by asking ‘Is lonely making us Facebook?’). The Australian study also found that Facebook users scored higher on narcissism and exhibitionism than non-Facebook users. Even those users who start out with a well-developed sense of self may have this undermined by the use of Facebook according to a study from the University of Michigan.

While this reads like an indictment of Facebook, in reality there is much more going on here. For instance, it is no real surprise to social scientists that the use of Facebook undermines users’ wellbeing. An important contributor to how good we feel is our assessment of how strong our social networks are relative to other people we know. Yet the chances are that many of your ‘friends’ on Facebook have more friends than you. Indeed, a recent study of Facebook found that users had an average of 190 friends while their friends averaged 635 friends. How is this possible?

This occurs because of what is known as the ‘friendship paradox’. In this paradox, the average number of friends any one person has is probably less than the average number of friends that their friends have. Like all paradoxes, it makes no sense at first but the logic is straightforward: People with more friends are more likely to be your friend in the first place and they are also more likely to show up disproportionately in any set of friends. As the New York Times notes, this paradox explains why most people ‘experience airplanes, restaurants, parks and beaches to be more crowded than the averages would suggest [because] when they’re empty, nobody’s there to notice’.

Social scientists also tend to go easy on Facebook because it appears to be much more a symptom of (or reaction to) broader social trends rather than the cause of them. The nature and strength of social ties are changing, the number of people living alone is increasing (in New Zealand nearly one in four households is a person living alone), and feelings of loneliness are on the rise across the Western world. The easiest way to see this is to chart the growth of the so-called ‘caring industries’ – the social workers, the clinical psychologists, the marriage counsellors, the family therapists, the life coaches etc. Somehow we created a social world where many people need to pay professionals to listen to their everyday problems.

This is what the critics of Facebook mean when they say we live in a world where people are better connected but lonelier than ever; and where social media broadens social ties but also trivialises many of them.

However, the research is clear that a powerful antidote to loneliness is to spend more time socialising face-to-face and less time doing so online. Which is why Robin Dunbar’s work is so useful today: It reminds us all to choose our ‘friends’ carefully and to make sure we treat them well. In the end the quality of your friendships counts for much more than the number of ‘friends’ you can count.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at www.researchfirst.co.nz.

Image credit: iStock

Myths of Success

30 Mar

Written by David Keane, The Art of Deliberate Success

A chalk board with consulting text written on it

Successful people, those who achieve extraordinary results, have a certain way of approaching their lives. The success they achieve is never down to good fortune or even the ability to work hard. Successful people achieve simply because they see the world differently from everyone else. And then they act on what they see.

Developing the ability to look at your world in a new way involves questioning some common thinking patterns and rejecting the myths that keep us from achieving our full potential. Three of the most restrictive myths are: stress is bad for us; our goal should be to achieve happiness; and that being busy is a good thing.

Myth 1: Life is Stressful

In survey after survey, stress is identified as one of the most pressing problems of our age. Indeed, for organisations, stress has major implications as it is the prime contributor to absenteeism, workplace conflict, low productivity and low morale. It is also behind the recently reported phenomenon of presenteeism, a situation where employees are physically present but their minds are not on the job. According to the Harvard Business Review, a study conducted by Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston found that presenteeism costs employers far more than absenteeism.

During my workshops, I ask participants to identify the causes of stress in their lives. All can easily generate a long list of factors, such as financial woes, relationships, childcare, ageing parents, work/life imbalance, unclear expectations at work, or too much to do with too little time and so on. I then ask the participants to examine these factors one by one, with the aim of isolating the underlying reason each factor causes them stress. In one hundred percent of cases, it is not the factor itself that is stressful but the participants’ reaction to the factor that causes them stress. This is a very important point. Once recognised, it can fundamentally change your life.

In simple terms, it means that you can choose to be stressed or not.

Now, in putting forward this argument, I am aware that some stress — which I prefer to call pressure — is actually healthy and useful. It helps us to get out of bed in the morning and raises our energy levels when there is a task to be done. The interesting question is at what point does stress turn from being healthy to unhelpful and potentially destructive?

I believe that you already know the answer to this question. If you look at situations where you were in the unhealthy zone, you will notice telltale signs. For example, some people become very quiet and introverted, some develop a short fuse and become irritable, and some develop excessive behaviours such as eating, drinking or sleeping too much or too little. I know one person who knows she is stressed when a rash appears on the inside of her left wrist!

The key point here is for you to develop an awareness of the signals that you are moving from feeling healthy pressure to unhealthy stress. When you become sensitive to stress in this way, you can take action and make decisions that dramatically reduce the problems of stress in your life.

This, then, is one of the most important steps towards becoming successful. It is becoming so self-aware that you can actually use stress to your advantage.

Myth 2: Happiness is the Goal

If your goal in life is to be happy, I can guarantee that you never will be. Now that is a pretty strong statement, but I wanted to shock you into looking at the idea of happiness again.

The trouble with happiness is that it is a feeling that gains a momentary foothold only to be replaced by other feelings. It is a bit like the sun on your face: wonderful while it lasts, but after some time the clouds come.

If we set up our lives seeking happiness, we are assured of disappointment. I have seen that people who are driven by the search for happiness are never really successful because their mental state is highly volatile and unreliable. The quality of their lives is determined by what happened yesterday (or five minutes ago), and they are constantly seeking the next high to make them happy. This self-perpetuating state of dissatisfaction explains why, for some people, spending money, eating and drinking, or even working hard can become such addictive activities.

In my experience, it is far better to see happiness not so much as a goal or something to be achieved, but rather as a result or by-product of doing something else. And the best way I know of doing that is to make ‘living a life of purpose’ your primary motivation. As the writer Richard Leider so beautifully put it: “The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose”. When you know what your purpose is, and live every day moving closer and closer to what is important, happiness is what you get. Happiness, therefore, is not something you go after. It comes to you.

Myth 3: Busy is Best

How often have you been asked if you are busy? It’s a most interesting question because behind it lurks some fundamental assumptions that colour how you might answer – irrespective of the truth. Perhaps the most significant assumption is that being busy is a good thing. And, conversely, not being busy – being idle – is undesirable. For some reason, people assume that to be busy is to be productive and, by extension, content.

Now you may think I am harping on a technicality here, but I am convinced that this one question has a profound influence on how we live and the results we get in our lives. To test this, the next time you are asked the question, ‘Are you busy?’ simply say ‘no’ or ‘not really’ and see what kind of reaction you get. You may hear, ‘Oh dear, what’s wrong?’ ‘It will come right’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Lucky for some’ – in other words, ‘I am busy and you should be too’.

If you are feeling really adventurous, you could try it with your boss and see what happens. The most likely outcome is that you are given more work to do!

The problem is that this mistaken logic is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even notice it. For example, people who are seen to be the busiest are more sought after and more highly rewarded in organisations. And, if you are a parent, there is thought to be something wrong with you unless you are constantly ferrying your kids from one sporting activity to the next. The implication here is that being busy is socially acceptable and normal, while not being busy is abnormal. This leads people to generate busyness in their lives for the sake of being busy.

It is far better to be busy with the things that really matter and to ignore the things that are not that important. In this way, you can really focus on things that are moving you closer to real success. Incidentally, my answer to the question ‘Are you busy?’ is ‘I am as busy as I choose to be!’

When you take these three myths and subject them to some healthy questioning, you may be surprised by what you discover.  I believe you’ll begin to see your professional and personal life in a new way.  And when you see with fresh eyes, you’ll act in ways that bring about extraordinary success.

Dr David Keane will lead a special half day workshop – The 10 Behaviours of Successful People – the day before the 2016 PRINZ Conference (May 12-13) in Auckland.  For early-bird pricing, book your place by 6 April 2016.

Image credit: iStock

Public relations, ethics, and social media: A cross-national study of PR practitioners

24 Mar

Written by Dr. Margalit Toledano, APR, Fellow PRSA, FPRINZ, University of Waikato

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You might remember that over a year ago I asked PRINZ members to respond to a questionnaire about ethics via a link that was posted on PRINZ Facebook page. Today I’m happy to keep my promise to share the published research findings with you. I actually conducted this research with a colleague in Israel as a comparative study on PR practitioners’ perceptions around ethics. More specifically, this study had two goals: first to identify  PR practitioners’ attitudes to ethical and unethical practices on social media and second, to compare practitioners’ attitudes to specific social media ethical issues in two different socio-cultural environments – New Zealand and Israel – two societies that are  ranked differently on international lists that compare levels of democracy in different countries. Based on the findings from online surveys conducted in both countries, the paper argues that PR ethics is linked to the culture and social environment in which practitioners function.

Would an environment that demonstrates more respect to human freedoms and transparency inspire more ethical attitudes towards PR professional challenges? The findings indicated a relatively high level of knowledge and strong support for ethical conduct among NZ practitioners compared to the Israelis. Though the sample was small and not fully representative, the consistency of the gap between practitioners in both countries is indicative of their different attitudes towards ethics: Israelis answered most questions with somewhat less ethical knowledge or care compare to the NZers.

The research also identified areas of confusion around what is considered acceptable practice in the use of social media as a professional public relations tool (i.e. issues of transparency, authentic identity, and blogger payments).

The NZ PR industry is supported by a liberal and free environment that should not be taken for granted. It is in the best interests of practitioners to protect NZ democratic values and deal with the new ethical challenges presented by social media.

Read Margalit’s full research here.

‘Placement’ not ‘distribution’

16 Mar

Written by David Reade, PRINZ member and MediaPasifika

Vector newsletter concept in flat style - news, updates and messages

The marketing and communications disciplines are said to be converging. Is the advent of media portals, interactive websites, and the social media big three of Twitter, Facebook and the blogging community turning the simple newspaper into a basket case along with many other traditional forms of print media?

It all may be true, or at least true-ish. But in fact at least as many editorial voices remain, though channelled into different forms. If the newspaper transforms into a news hub serving many outlets then media relations still has its double role: of feeding stories and story ideas to the content providers as well as tracking and analysing the consequences.

So building relationships with journalists and knowing how they like their material presented is more than ever important. Customising stories was always key to optimising coverage. Now more than ever — and the MediaPasifika database sits where the rubber hits the road.

Distribution — as opposed to placement — only works for very large entities who are so important that whatever they say carries the weight to guarantee attention and consideration. That’s the press release route — government policy announcements, warnings of imminent disasters, changes of commercial direction. For the rest, story placement is the way to go. It might be called a press release but if it’s not a story it’s got no traction. And if you want to optimise content then it’s placement not distribution.

Daily newspapers may be changing shape — adding interactive websites and blogs — but they’re still the benchmark for many submissions. Some stories are strong enough to command ink unchanged from Whangarei to Invercargill. But it’s a long thin country, split into two, and local loyalties are strong. So re-writes are often necessary to satisfy editors up and down the territory, which covers communities from Stewart Island to Hawaii.

It’s flexible and responsive enough to supply contact details of all the chief reporters of the dailies, or the editors of business magazines, nationally or by region, in not many seconds. Its News Express program-within-a-program gets a major announcement out to all the country’s news media in even less time. News Express groups, ready-made for service, include Oceania-wide coverage of ethnic groups — Maori, Polynesian, Indian and Chinese.

Equally important are consequences. Media relations has two legs. MediaPasifika partners with Mediamine who cover results of PR campaigns or one-off stories providing comprehensive reporting, aligning media evaluation metrics to business outcomes.

www.mediapasifika.com

Why Is It So Hard To Get Anything Done? – Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

9 Mar

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

Reasearch First blog pic

If you ever get to the end of the day wondering why you haven’t achieved anything that you set out to do, ‘Interruption Science’ might have the answer.

As the name suggests, Interruption Science is the study of how interruptions affect our performance. What this science reveals is that interruptions don’t just reduce our performance, they ravage it.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that it took an average of 23 minutes for workers to return to their prior level of performance following an interruption. Research from the University of Michigan shows that even very short interruptions can seriously diminish performance. In that study participants who were interrupted for just three seconds were twice as likely to make a mistake on their original task as those who were not interrupted.

Another useful insight from Interruption Science is that we all get interrupted more than we probably realise. W Edwards Deming claimed that the average American worker experienced fifty interruptions a day but things seem to have gone downhill since then. One estimate is that we are now interrupted every three minutes. But even if that is an exaggeration, you can see the real problem here: when you combine the number of times we are interrupted with the time taken to recover from interruptions, it’s no surprise that so many of us feel we are getting nothing worthwhile accomplished.

Given this, is it any wonder that we try to fit the ‘real work’ into those times when we are on our own or have the office to ourselves? Count yourself in this group if you find yourself working late (or arriving early) so you can work in peace, or if you take work home to get it finished.

The bad news is that you can’t escape the interruption performance trap by working long hours. At least not for very long. There is a large body of evidence that shows long hours of work end up hurting your productivity (and your health). Similarly, multitasking can’t square the circle because it is mostly an illusion. That is, we don’t really do two things at once so much as switch between them quickly, undermining our performance on both. Or as Dilbert might put it, ‘multitasking is the single best way to screw up both jobs’.

Instead of trying to work around interruptions, we need to find ways to contain them. The best way to do this is to structure your day around blocks of time where you can focus on key tasks and not be interrupted. I like the idea of buying some ‘do not disturb’ signs and using them to let everyone else in the office know when you need to be left alone (some of those ‘Quiet Please’ signs you see on golf courses would be better still).

Alternatively, you could try sharing this article with your boss to help them understand how fewer interruptions benefit everyone (you might add that research in the USA argues that workplace interruptions cost that economy about US$500 billion a year in lost productivity). With your boss on-board, you can create a timesheet code for ‘head-down’ time which everyone in your office can use to work without interruption.

It might also pay to try to schedule this head-down as early in your working day as you can. While the jury is still out on this, there is some evidence from behavioural science that the first two hours of the working day are when we should be at our most productive (but that ability is often squandered with frequent interruptions).

If you struggle to get your employer to understand the value creating dedicated interruption-free working time, the next best approach might be to simply say ‘no’ more often. The key here will be making everyone understand that you will be more productive and effective if you are able to discriminate between the things that do and don’t need your attention. And if you need some help learning to say no, try rolling out the Polish proverb that says ‘Not my circus. Not my monkeys’.

There are also some simple things you can do to reduce interruptions. The most obvious is to turn off the alerts on your phone, email, and social media feeds. Another great insight from Interruption Science is that we are just as likely to interrupt ourselves as we are to be interrupted by someone else. If you’ve ever stopped working on something to check your Trademe auction, or look at a Facebook update, you’ll know what I mean. Try reducing how often you do that and you might be surprised what you can get done in a day.

Research First is the research partner for PRINZ. Visit them at www.researchfirst.co.nz.

Here’s looking at you – Cardboard reshapes communication

8 Mar

Written by Catherine Arrow, FPRINZ, Unlocked PR

Catherine's Google Knoxlabs Cardboard pic

It’s just a piece of cardboard. But it is probably the smartest piece of cardboard I’ve folded up for a long time. And it is a piece of cardboard that really should get you rethinking – or at least assessing – the effectiveness of your digital strategy.

My Knoxlabs Google Cardboard headset arrived last month and I’ve been swiftly transported into a world of augmented and virtual reality. There are many other players including Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, which starts shipping at the end of March, and Samsung Gear VR to name but two. The geeky headsets might look like just another a gamer’s dream, with the sceptical dismissing it as the latest fad, particularly given virtual reality has been promising much for so long. This, however, is the year it looks set to deliver.

The headsets work with your smartphones (some being more compatible than others) so instead of me watching a video of you having a great time on your trip to Queenstown, using virtual reality I can share your experience.  Or if I want to learn more about an aspect of your trip, I might switch to augmented reality for that extra layer of rich media information. Fun – but so what?

Instead, as public relations and communication professionals, I challenge you to reframe the question and ask ‘so what can we do with this’? 

After all, why should I bother engaging with you on social media, or clicking away on your non-responsive website if in (virtual) reality I can make immediate personal contact with you, experience your world and find out all I need to know at the same time?

A long time ago, when YouTube was a newborn, blogging was the thing and Twitter was a glimmer in Jack Dorsey’s eye, delegates on PRINZ courses, clients and others would ask me why on earth would anyone want to bother with all this internet stuff. They wondered how they would convince their organisations that communication was changing and that organisations had to be ready to adapt – and it’s not unfair to say that many leadership teams still need convincing ten years on.  Well, if the 2006 communications revolution upset your digital applecart, hang on tight because the 2016 shift to virtual and augmented interaction is going to radically change your organisation’s operational direction.

Even at the lowest level of implementation, your digital strategy will need to adjust to both inform and support your organisational outcomes, taking heed of the changes and relaying how those changes will affect your processes, services and – at the heart of what we do – the relationships you need to maintain your licence to operate.

The cumbersome – but awesome – new wearables bring with them enormous scope and huge opportunity for excellence in communications and relationship development. Here’s hoping you’re leading the charge and are cut out for what is to come.

Catherine Arrow, FPRINZ, will be presenting a course on this topic ‘Advanced Digital Strategy’ in Auckland, register here.

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