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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

‘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.

FYI: For Your Independence?

28 Apr


Katie Mathison, FPRINZ, PRINZ Central Committee member

The move by the New Zealand Herald to “help relaunch … and help run” the FYI website is an interesting one, but why have they done it?

If you had to guess why a news outlet has bothered getting into a website where people can file OIA (Official Information Act) requests and get responses published, you’d probably say that they’re positioning themselves as the media champion of the OIA. And in the process getting one over on their competitors and drawing in more readers and advertisers. was founded and managed by Rowan Crawford (@wombleton), self-described Open Government javascript gunslinger, who seems to have had less interest in the OIA itself than in the software solution.  He’s moving on to other things and the Herald has moved in, presumably handing over cash on the way.

The Herald, like all journalists, sees the OIA as a way to get news fodder. But the Herald clearly also sees the OIA as a news item in itself. Witness the Herald’s own commentary on the ‘relaunch’, in which they reference the Ombudsman’s current review, and requoting PM John Key’s “Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that’s in our best interest to do that”.

So what changes? Apparently nothing. Where is the competitive advantage? Apparently nowhere, unless the Herald decides to delay posting OIA responses on FYI, so that they get first dibs on making comment before their competitors see it. And therein lies the rub. We have an independent, free-spirited public website that carries the .org (not-for-profit) suffix coming under the control of a profit-making news company with a .co suffix. Is this what the New Zealand public wants from FYI? Basically users will now submit their OIA requests to the Herald, which is weird whichever way you think about it.

But maybe there’s not enough people who will care: in the six plus years FYI has been up and running only 1256 requesters have used it, averaging about one request a day. It will be interesting to see how the Herald manages to convert that to profit.

In the interests of full disclosure, I work for a central government agency that is one of the 12 selected for the Ombudsman’s review.

#prconf12: What does the Communication for Social Change (CSC) toolbox have to offer PR?

16 Apr

Social media has been at the core of many political uprisings that we have witnessed in the recent past. These democratic revolutions have proved that technology can enable ‘positive participation’ that eventually reshapes our communities. So, where do we as PR and communications practitioners fit in?

Associate Professor Pradip Thomas, co-director of the Centre for Communication and Social Change at the University of Queensland talks about how PR can leverage technology for encouraging ‘positive social change’.

In what ways do you think that communities are re-shaping? 

Communities have never been static. On the contrary, they have always been characterized by ‘change’. However today, in the context of the accentuation of globalization and the proximity of technologies and cultures, communities are being re-shaped that much faster. Dispositions and habits, attitudes and behaviours are being re-shaped like never before. It is interesting however that in spite of such changes communities do hold on to their core values and it is intriguing that in many parts of the world the heterogeneity of globalisation has been accompanied by the strengthening of tradition.

Do you think that technology acts an ‘enabler’ in this social change? 

Yes technology has from time immemorial played a key role in social change. Just think of the enormous influence of ‘industrial’ technologies on societies and lives over the last three centuries. And in the more recent past, the digital revolution that has taken the world by storm and that is re-creating the world in its image. Recent events related to the Arab Spring, point to the enabling role of social networking technologies in helping people to network for a democratic future.

 How can PR leverage technology for encouraging positive participation? 

While technologies are not value neutral, most technologies can be intentionally used to strengthen positive values and participation. PR agencies do use the media – sometime effectively, although in our world today, the issue is whether PR strategies intentionally embrace two-ways flows of communication. Since people the world over have become active producers and consumers, they value genuine ‘interactivity’ and participation and I guess this is what they expect from leveraging of technologies via PR strategies.

Do you have any recent examples where PR has successfully used social media for ‘communication for social change’? 

There are many examples from around the world with the Pink Ribbon campaign being one of the most profound. There is also the use of social networking by anti-AIDS activists in South Africa. At the end of the day, PR campaigns are  successful to the extent that they factor in the ability of consumer’s to translate messages into positive change practices and behaviours. There is little point in advocating people from low income groups to eat 2 fruits and 5 veges everyday when it is cheaper for them to eat fast food. Positive messages need to be accompanied by enabling environments.

What are you looking forward to at Conference 2012? 

Networking, listening to other speakers and enlarging my own understanding of why PR is critical to social change today. 

About Prof. Pradip Thomas

Associate Professor Pradip Thomas is the UNITEC headline speaker, presenting at the 2012 PRINZ conference to be held in Auckland on 10-11 May. He is the co-director of the Centre for Communication and Social Change at the University of Queensland. He is a  leading academic in the area of communication and social change, communication rights and the political economy of communications.

About #prconf12

This year’s PRINZ Conference offers a line-up of local and international speakers who will present case studies, research and insights to help you address a changing world as communities reshape. Follow updates on Twitter via #prconf12.

Issues and crisis management – online lessons

13 Apr

By Guest Blogger Rob Crabtree (PRINZ Fellow and Trainer)

We all know that an issue we are dealing with can quickly turn into a crisis we were not expecting and for which we most probably are not prepared. Our reputation suffers accordingly. A colleague in Chicago, Nick Kalm, recently shared his views on an issue that developed into a very embarrassing situation for an individual – highly relevant given recent email messaging around the corridors of power in New Zealand.

This is what he wrote and the lessons that should be learned from it:

Don’t pick fights with those who…have internet access

There’s a story rocketing around the PR agency world about a PR firm that finds itself in a very ugly and avoidable fight with a prominent blogger. It’s a great and timeless cautionary tale.

There’s an old saying about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.  Of course, this is meant to suggest caution about doing battle with a member of the media.

But with most newspapers, radio and TV news in decline, along with the rapid ascent of bloggers, I think the saying should be updated to the headline of this post.

In this case, the PR firm sent a pitch to a blogger who didn’t care to receive it.  Blogger said so (in typical blogger way) and got a snarky reply from the pitcher at the PR firm.  Blogger (who, by the way, had over 160,000 followers — compare that to the readership of your average daily newspaper!) sent back another typical blogger reply (a bit flip and edgy).

This was followed by a foolish “reply all” from the PR firm (that included said blogger).  Well, after this bonehead maneuver (which nearly anyone could have done), the blogger apparently gave the PR firm VP a chance to take his comment back, but, no, instead, he decided to double down on snark.

And, gee, what do you think the blogger decided to do about this whole exchange?  Publish it!   Sigh….

Setting aside how this reflects on the whole PR agency world, it was just plain dumb to think that this firm could do (inept) battle with a blogger and come out a winner.

So, what are the lessons here?

Lesson #1 — Treat respectable bloggers (especially those with six-figures worth of followers!) with at least as much respect as you’d treat a reporter from The New York Times.

Lesson #2 — Assume that anything and everything that you put in writing to/about a blogger will find its way to said blogger (and everyone who follows him/her…and so on….and so on).

Lesson #3 — Once the damage, is done, the only thing left to do is give an unqualified apology to the blogger (and the world), and give your staff some remedial training.


Learn more about how you can avoid an issue from becoming a crisis and managing a crisis situation (if it occurs) at Rob’s professional development courses on 24 April in Auckland.

Issues Management

Crisis Management

Rob Crabtree has over 25 years of experience to share.A public relations practitioner for 27 years, he is one of our most experienced consultants and trainers. Rob has worked in corporate management roles, as well as running his own consultancy. He was a radio and television broadcaster for 17 years. Rob is a Past President and Life Member of PRINZ.

Blowing open the News (by huff and by puff)

1 Mar

The global news arena has been pretty murky in recent months, made so most notably by the News International investigations centred in the UK which had ramifications for newsrooms around the world.  Interesting then to see the wind of change blowing yesterday – again, from the UK – signalling the latest shift in ‘the way things are done’.

First from BBC World Service, a live broadcast (available as recording now) of their daily morning editorial meeting which I believe, could be useful listening for some.

In years gone by, journalists frequently migrated to public relations roles bringing with them an insider’s view as to the workings of the newsroom, editorial bun-fights and the speed of operation necessary when dealing with rapidly unfolding events.

Today’s practitioners tend to make public relations and communication management  their ‘first choice’, studying at university before directly entering the profession. Generally, this means no experience inside the newsroom, so for them, and for others, like me, who migrated to public relations after a career in journalism many years ago, the BBC’s audio is a useful heads-up as to what can occur.

The other one to watch (rather than listen to) is the Guardian’s new ‘open journalism’ advert centred around the story of the Three Little Pigs and designed to promote the publication’s take on the route to sustainable journalism of the future or #opennews.

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, has said the future impact of journalism will be measured – or constrained – by how transparent and open it is, something with which I completely agree.

For practitioners, an important detail to note comes right at the end of the ad – underneath the Guardian banner are the four little words: web|print|tablet|mobile – and therein lies the rub. As practitioners we need to be equally adept at telling stories, broadcasting news and presenting the whole picture across many formats. And – with no huff and puff – being just as transparent and open.

In professional development sessions at PRiNZ we’ve been helping delegates tackle the migration from text to multi-channel formats for some time, exploring how we can create understanding through news stories that move away from text to other forms of engagement.  Certainly then, some good food for thought as we watch publications like the Guardian embrace 21st century news presentation.

On a lighter note, I was chuffed to see the Three Little Pigs pressed into action as the base for their story – this porcine portrayal has featured in a practical exercise for the Writing Skills course for a while – nothing like changing the way we view something we know well  in order to improve understanding of an issue – and maybe save some bacon in the process.

Thinking the Unthinkable

13 Jan

As in 2010, with the devastation caused by the Haitian earthquake, 2011 has begun on a disastrous note with the Queensland floods drowning cities and towns, bringing death, destruction and disbelief in their wake.

Quite rightly, coverage has been – and continues to be – extensive as the waters rise hour by hour. The consequences of this latest natural disaster will be felt throughout this coming year and beyond, along with the ongoing – but less publicised – floods in the Philippines, caused by heavy rains that began on New Year’s Eve. More than a million people have been affected there, with 40 confirmed deaths and many others unaccounted for or missing.

In 2010, New Zealand had more than its fair share of disasters, with the Christchurch earthquake followed by the tragedy at Pike River and again, the consequences of both those events will be felt for many months ahead.

As communicators, our role in a crisis is clear. What tends to be forgotten is the sustained effort required after a disaster has ‘peaked’ and is replaced in the mainstream media by the next event, happening or mishap. The global attention span is short. We are reminded of past events at anniversary intervals, such as this week’s ‘year in Haiti’ reports, but the problems still exist. For the most part, once the initial ‘shock and awe’ events have peaked, so too does mainstream media interest. Thankfully for those involved, online conversations are longer lived – for example, the #eqnz Twitter hashtag continues to act as an important information focal point for those affected by the Christchurch earthquake, particularly with ongoing aftershocks, reinstatement of property issues and community concern as to when things might start to be fixed.

Most practitioners will have to handle crisis and post-crisis communications at some point in their career. Some crises will be of significant magnitude, others smaller but of no less significance to those involved. While emphasis is rightly given to pre-crisis planning, drills, test reaction times and channels, the process of ‘being prepared’ often fails to include planning the effective communication of the actions needed or being taken to address the consequences of the events that befall us.

Extreme events are occurring with unnerving and monotonous regularity – last night in Brazil floods and mudslides have left over 250 dead. The immediate tragedy for those most closely involved will – in our global society – affect all of us in the long term whether that affect is on rebuilding our homes, food price rises and shortages or simply where we choose to – or are physically able – to live.

With that in mind, I’d like to share a couple of New Year’s resolutions that I think would be useful for every public relations and communications practitioner:

  • Get Fit: audit your own skills, competencies and abilities. Do you know enough about the communications channels, possibilities and pitfalls we must deal with on a daily basis to allow you to cope in an emergency and its aftermath?
  • Practice: Think ahead, undertake risk and issues audits; plan, practice and devise long-term consequence strategies so that both stakeholders and organisations are served with care, compassion, understanding and real problem-solving actions at a time when they are going to need these things most.

And if, like me, you feel more than a little frustrated and helpless watching all these things unfold and want to do something real and practical to help, then the very least we can do is put our hands in our pockets. I’ve added donation links to organisations supporting the events I’ve mentioned and they are listed below. If you have more to add, please let me know or add it to the comment thread.

Red Cross NZ – Australia, Haiti, Christchurch

World Vision – Haiti

ChildFund NZ – Sri Lanka

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