#50over50: Dr Johanna Fawkes
About the author
Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
Jo Fawkes was speaking to me from her home in Spain, halfway between Granada and the coast.
‘Sometimes you have to leave to create new space because there will always be something else to do. You need to carve some time for what matters. There is so much pressure in PR and in academic life that we can lose sight of what matters.
The pressures of PR work are mirrored in the pressures of academic work. My mistake was in thinking that academic life would be more reflective and calm – and it isn’t. My periods of reflection have coincided with periods of being outside institutions.
She’s referring to the demands of the day job that limit opportunities for reflection and deeper thinking and the ability to develop your own voice.
‘In order to have that voice, I have had to leave institutions. My academic career has depended on being a freelance researcher at various stages. It was necessary at the beginning and at the end of my career for me to leave institutions to say what I wanted to say. You measure your success by the institutions you’ve left. Finding that voice seems to be appreciated by others.’
Her well-received book on professional ethics took the distinctive approach of applying Jungian psychoanalysis to public relations, and she’s now working on a follow-up that asks if public relations should be measured by different KPIs: replacing goals of organisational profit with planetary well-being.
‘My book on ethics and this new book, they’re part of a conversation I started with myself as a practitioner about the unresolvable tensions to do with the legitimacy (and illegitimacy) of public relations. And that takes us to ethics.
‘Public relations is persuasive at heart, that’s why I think ethics is so important. If you are to use powerful tools, you need to be responsible. In the first book, I looked at how the PR profession manages its internal conflicts and its ethics.
‘In the second book, I’m stepping back to look at its impact on society more generally. I make the case against public relations – but don’t simply demonise it, because I think there’s a lot of crass commentary around ‘all PR is propaganda’.
‘One of the great things of getting older is the freedom from others’ approval. I can say this whatever the consequences.’
This internal conversation about the ethics of persuasion started when she was working in press office roles in local government and the trades union movement.
She describes her work as a press officer at Camden Council in the early 1980s as her ‘powerhouse period’.
‘That was the job of my life. I was there for five or six years and burnt myself completely to shreds. It was the Thatcher years and we were actually a campaigning organisation before the laws were changed to prevent councils campaigning. There was music, balloons, t-shirts. The community was mobilised.
‘We discovered that great chunks of the community did not speak English as a first language. Within five years, everything was being translated so that people living in the area could use the libraries and swimming pools. And we started identifying not just language but cultural differences: the needs of women and different ethnic groups. It was like community work, in the area I’d grown up and had gone to school.’
She left Camden Council for the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
‘On my first day at the TUC I walked through a throng of journalists and camera crews, the phone was ringing in the press office (everyone else was outside dealing with whatever was going on) and it was Peter Snow, who was then the lead reporter for Newsnight. I knew exactly how to handle that call even though I had literally just walked through the door because I knew how to be a press officer, and particularly in that political arena.’
She contrasts this familiarity with the craft with her first experience of university teaching.
‘My first job teaching was at the London College of Printing two or three years later. I didn’t have the first idea what to do in a classroom with 20 young people looking in my direction. I was a good press officer at a senior level and I went from that to being a very bad teacher. There was absolutely no training, I was just thrown into the classes and it meant I had to deconstruct what the skills were that allowed me to deal with Newsnight.
‘There wasn’t much teaching of PR at that time and so I just floundered around trying to deconstruct my own skills and trying to communicate them in an organised way. Some of the classes were brilliant! Some of the most creative work I ever did was done there. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of learning.
Yet every year I was in higher education, experiential teaching got knocked out and the curriculum became more formal. The scope for creativity has got tighter.
She went on to subsequent teaching and research roles at Central Lancashire, Leeds Beckett and Huddersfield universities in the UK, and Charles Sturt in Australia. Her final project was working with Professor Anne Gregory to develop a Global Capabilities Framework for public relations and communications management, in conjunction with the Global Alliance. ‘After decades adventuring in theory, it was great to give back to practice’.
Now that she has carved out time for herself, what does really matter to her?
‘Right now, I’m spending my days writing (chapters, conference papers and the book) and walking the dog, but I’m still making a contribution. And it’s a balance I’ve never had before at any point.’