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2017: Through the Looking Glass

8 Feb

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

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“I daresay you haven’t had much practice… why, sometimes, I’ve
believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass,

There really is no polite way to say this: the world is awash with bullshit. We can dress this up in all the ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ packaging we want, but it’s much more useful not to mince our words. After all, one of the golden rules of psychology is that ‘to name it is to tame it’. Working in the world of research and policy, we confront this problem every day. We see it in ‘voodoo polls’ that take on the appearance of science without any of the substance. And we see it in ‘experts’ who clearly have no idea about how little they really know.

Facts may be stubborn things but assertions are clearly more of a push-over. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr put it, “certitude is not the test of certainty”. The key is not to dismiss all research and evidence but to be clear about when you can trust it.

Back in the mid nineties Carl Sagan compiled a ‘Baloney Detection Kit’ that remains a great resource for anyone dealing with claims made from evidence. It also outlines a number of the common rhetorical tricks that get rolled out to shift your attention away from the quality of the research. There is a version of that article on Research First’s website (here:, and we have a shorter, easier to use, checklist version you can use too (here:

But fact-checking is only part of the way to hold back the tide of bullshit. As well as being able to check the quality of the evidence used to support an argument, we need to be able to interrogate the quality of thinking that sits behind it. This is the notion of ‘critical thinking’, which is the art of thinking about thinking. What critical thinking often shows us is that the weakest part of an argument is not the facts it ends up with but the assumptions it starts with. There is nothing hard about critical thinking, but it is a skill that needs instruction and practice. Given how often we see the need for this in the organisations we work with, we now offer a range of seminars in how to improve your critical thinking (see a list here:

It may be unfashionable to say this but I can’t help thinking that the best way to beat back the wave of bullshit washing over the world is by encouraging more students to study the liberal arts and the humanities. These subjects let us see where our current ideas fit within a historical and philosophical context, while training graduates how to balance open-mindedness and scepticism. In this regard, these disciplines aren’t about anything in particular so much as a way to think about everything. And make no mistake, it is very much a ‘discipline’. These subjects teach how to ask difficult questions and mistrust easy answers. They also show how every solution creates new problems. As Seneca said, nobody was ever wise by chance.

If it’s true that many of living in the West have ‘lost faith in our own future’ (or, in 2017, think they are about to) then it’s time to rethink that future. To do that, what we need are people who can call that future to a higher standard. Which means, now more than ever, we need more Arts graduates.


Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

Image credit: iStock

#PRConf15 guest blog four: PR and ethics

27 May

Written by Bruce Fraser FPRINZ, PRINZ President

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 21:  during the annual Public Relations Institute of New Zealand Conference on May 21, 2015 in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

Dr Elspeth Tilley, Associate Professor at Massey University (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images)

The London Underground, and other railway systems around the world, warn passengers to ‘mind the gap’, that space between the platform and the train.

Gaps of course can be awfully enticing and provide the subject for much discussion. ‘Mind the Gap’ is the theme for this year’s Public Relations Institute conference held in Wellington (May 21-22). Two key roles for the PR practitioner are to help clients identify the gaps and then to fill them with high quality communications research, planning, implementation and measurement.

Dr Elspeth Tilley, Associate Professor at Massey University, addressed the issue of ethical gaps for PR people and her ethics framework is worth considering for other ethical decision-making. Her ethics pyramid (based on Macnamara’s inputs, outputs, outcomes pyramid of 2002) was developed over many years of action research and takes people through four stages:

  • Research stakeholder ethics expectations – it’s not just about our ethical views but those of others likely to be involved and affected
  • Planning, agreed and shared objectives around virtues, rules and desirable outcomes.
  • Communicating using ethical tactics
  • Evaluate by reviewing the ethics outcomes.

The Ethics PyramidElspeth’s litmus test (or at least one of them) is to ask yourself, ‘what would mum think of me doing this?’ You can read more about her ethics pyramid here.

Integrity empowers community projects

10 Jun

By Rob Addison, MPRINZ

I once worked with a senior highway project manager who would often say, “Integrity gives you power”.

What he meant by this was that when you’re working on a community project, you have to make decisions along the way that will impact stakeholders.

But if you’ve made every decision with the best intentions, you should feel able to address any questions your stakeholders throw at you with integrity – even if it’s not what they want to hear.

You can only satisfy some of the people some of the time …

The reality is that sometimes businesses and governments have to make unpopular decisions.

Good engineers and planners will do everything they can to come up with solutions that satisfy as many stakeholders as possible.

But it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. When that’s the case, public relations professionals must ensure that we have engaged our stakeholders early, honestly and with integrity.

But why should we engage them if they’re only going to oppose us?

As we know, what’s good for your reputation is good for business.

And when the media reports that your community project is going ahead, they will seek out those who are opposed to it.

So if your client or manager ever wonders why they should work closely with opponents, you can ask them this:

What’s going to be better for your reputation – the media reporting that the first your stakeholders heard about the project was when they picked up the phone?

Or that even if you couldn’t deliver what all of your stakeholders wanted, you at least worked closely with them along the way?

I know what that wise highway project manager would say.

What are you going to do Now?

27 Aug

Ever thought your smartphone would know you better than you know yourself? Well it looks like that day’s coming sooner than you think.

We all know the online world is never dull and it’s been a packed year so far. Facebook went public and many who bought high are feeling low. Privacy is top of mind with Google and Facebook getting massive slaps on the wrist from the US Federal Trade Commission. Google got a $22.5m fine for Safari tracking and Facebook agreed to 20 years worth of privacy audits. In a world where each of us is the product on sale, privacy will always be a concern.  Twitter has been upsetting developers no end and there’s been the launch of a raft of new channels – so quite a lot to keep up with.

Ultimately though, it’s the subject of privacy that will, I think, form the basis of our future conundrum concerning the latest predictive technologies. The video below – if you haven’t caught it yet – highlights Google Now. Essentially, ‘Now’ helps you along your day, knowing as it does, so much about you. Predictive technologies that anticipate our movements or make suggestions for us – all very Minority Report – are the way the wind is blowing at the moment.

Interestingly, your smartphone might already be ahead of you, knowing what you’re going to do before you do it. Recently published research from the UK’s University of Birmingham, captures a way to predict where you’ll be in the next 24 hours from the data trail on your phone  – even if you spontaneously break from routine and head on holiday – moving us gently from a ‘Minority Report’ predictive experience straight into the Matrix.

It also presents all of us with a new challenge concerning the data we use. For practitioners, the ability to anticipate issues and trends has always been part of the job. Research, audits and environmental scans have long informed strategy but critical listening, semantic analysis and long-term online engagement have speeded up and improved the process no end. Using available data we can predict, with some certainty, the rising issues, giving us the opportunity to deal with them before they actually become an issue – and certainly long before they bloom into a fully-fledged crisis. And there’s the challenge – how well do we take care of the data generated and its sources? What policies do we have in place to make sure that privacy is respected and maintained?

A useful, measurable digital strategy supports and informs an organisation’s overarching communication strategy. Data analysis and visualisation should be at the forefront of our pre-planning stage, not so we can try to predict the future (fascinating as that might be), but rather so that we can form an accurate understanding of ourselves and  our communities. Issues and concerns that could affect our stakeholders can be dealt with, developing the critical relationships we need to sustain in order to maintain our licence to operate.

We’re moving first into a reputation economy, then on to a relationship economy. Prediction, speed and engagement will all be important in this new space, but most important of all will be the ability to understand, interpret and act on the information that’s put before us.


Social media and ethics – implications for PR practitioners

20 Jan

While there are umpteen opportunities, there are also an increasing number of challenges that PR and communications management practitioners face in the online world (especially social media). Among other issues, ethical dilemmas are now becoming something practitioners have to deal with on a daily basis.

Dr. Margalit Toledano and Levarna Fay Wolland’s research paper (Ethics 2.0: A social media implication for professional communicators) identifies the current major ethical topics on the profession’s agenda and considers their implications for practitioners.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Toledano. (Click here, for the full interview).

What are some of the ethical challenges that PR practitioners face in the social media communications environment?

Using evidence from focus groups and interviews with NZ practitioners, my research identified ethical concerns around transparency, ease of deception, control of media agenda, employee communication rights, and tensions between a practitioner’s personal and organisational voice…

Do you think that the line between private and professional use of social media has an impact on ethical PR practice?

Practitioners who participated in my research were uncertain about what they could and could not say in private online publications. They also expressed resentment about the fact that executives expected communication consultants to engage in online conversations on their behalf…

What is the value, if any, of professional training in keeping up with challenges of the social media ethics?

I personally believe that the future of public relations depends on practitioners taking responsibility for the ethical behaviour of organisations. Instead of covering up failures and irresponsible behaviour, they could initiate employee training programmes in social media and in ethical communication – online and offline…


PRINZ Professional Development Course – Social Media Boot Camp
All you need to know about social media in just one day. By the end of the session, delegates will understand the basics, how to operate the tools, how to manage them within their daily workload and how to plan an effective, measurable strategy that builds and sustains good digital relationships with your communities.

3 February, 9:30am to 4:30pm, Auckland. Register Now!

Art or Science? Raise the question and break the shackles

21 Mar

Where do we find value in public relations? In its artistry – the crafted word, the creative inspiration, the intricate network of relationships, personal interaction and influence?  Or in its science – the analysis, careful research and detailed observation that provides insight into an organisation and its stakeholders? As practitioners, we are called to account to demonstrate the worth and value of what we do, yet sometimes explaining the nature of our work can seem tantalisingly out of reach.

There is without doubt an art to creating imaginative and compelling communication that can warn of danger, generate deeper understanding or stimulate economic activity. Equally, painstaking research, considered analysis, combined with sciences such as anthropology and psychology inform the development of strategic plans.

Part of the challenge may be identifying whether your organisation needs the ground-breaking artistry of a Dali, that helps everyone see the world in a different way or the philosophical thinking of an Einstein, creating a cornucopia of solutions that not only lead people to see the world differently, they change the world in the process.

At this year’s PRINZ Conference in Rotorua, this question of ‘PR – Art or Science’ is under the microscope. Delegates will be able to explore the perspectives and experiences of others from inside and outside the world of public relations and communication management and leave with perhaps a new methodology for demonstrating the value of public relations within their organisation – and get a serious creative boost.

Sorting out some old journals I remembered this particular Einstein essay in which he says:

“The most beautiful experience we have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that sits at the cradle of true art and true science”.

There’s no doubt that some find public relations more than a little mysterious, and one reasonable view might be that our profession actually stands somewhere in between art and science but, if we are to progress, we need to examine where we are now and where we head next.  Again, from Einstein:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing”.

So in Rotorua, both sides of the question will be explored through case studies, examples, and a stunning view from Sir Paul Callaghan, eminent scientist and New Zealander of the Year. There will be practice insights from international experts Toni Muzi Falconi and Jesse Desjardins, social media insights from, among others, YouTube’s Annie Baxter and political insights from Jacinda Arden and Simon Bridges.

It’s tempting in these difficult times to forget or sideline the importance of learning, especially when making the time to stop, learn, reflect and share seems impossible. One challenge before us is that public relations and communication management demands a wide range of skills and a breadth of understanding when it comes to the big questions and demonstrating the value of what we do. Tackling this will, no doubt, require an adjustment of vision and – balancing the scales by drawing on one of Dali’s pithy observations:

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision”.

It’s easy in the day-to-day of things to become shackled to a particular method of operation or point of view. The 2011 PRINZ Conference will provide a forum for members and non-members alike to think, learn, recharge, renew their approach to practice and determine a vision of ‘where next’. Value indeed – for delegates, their organisations and the profession itself.

Has Google rung in a new notion of ‘corporate governance’?

1 Feb

A major demonstration of new-style corporate intervention occurred today when Google teamed with Twitter and newly acquired start up SayNow to circumvent the Egyptian government’s lockdown of the country’s internet system.

Catch up on the Google blog in full here, but the brief version is that the three companies created a voice-to-web communication system that allowed people to tweet without needing web access – three phone numbers and a voice call did the trick instead. Many people around the world were justifiably horrified when Egypt pulled the plug on web access in a bid to quell protests – and more than a few people raised eyebrows of concern when the companies concerned said that their contracts stated they had to pull the plug ‘on demand’.

In some countries, internet access has been enshrined as a human right – notably Finland and Estonia – while in others, such as Egypt, it is evidently not. From today, the moot point is that whatever individual governments decide, it is now possible their decisions can be overruled by the technical cooperation of net giants – should said giants choose to do so. The key question and, I would suggest, a matter for scrutiny among all communicators is who, in a commercial organisation, chooses to make that call? And what happens if they choose not too? What if commercial interests are so intertwined with a government or political figure that citizens in some future protest remain off line?  What if one group of net giants supports the incumbents and another group supports the protestors? The Google-Twitter-SayNow action has set both a precedent and a new communications protocol. We should keep a close eye on what happens next.

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