Content, collaboration, community

Lessons from three years of PR Place Insights

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

PR Place Insights has been live for three years this month. As an exercise in content marketing for PR, produced by collaboratively by a remote team and seeking to build a community of interest around public relations education, there may be lessons from before and beyond the pandemic for others working in this field. 

In truth, there was no hard launch on one given date. PR Place began as a merging of the PR Academy blog and the PR student magazine Behind the Spin. Several long-ago articles still feature highly in Google searches, showing the value of ‘long tail’ content. But the site has been run by a new team for the past three years.  

PR Academy director Ann Pilkington explains the vision for PR Place: ‘At first, we created PR Place as a separate site from our training and qualifications business PR Academy. It was designed to be a shop window but also have a broader remit as an industry-focused site. Then, when we redesigned our website, we decided to bring PR Place back in-house and operate in a more integrated fashion.’ 

Here are some things we’ve got right with PR Place Insights, and some we’re still working on. We’ll look at these lessons against three headings. 

Content

First, a technical point. We’ve used two content management systems: initially Umbraco and now WordPress. 

Mel Cains of Focus Mode, who adds digital marketing savvy to the team, says: ‘Umbraco was favoured by the original development team, but offered fewer options from a user perspective. Since moving to a WordPress site (created by the fab team at BrightMinded), we’ve been able to integrate back-end business functions with front-end content and gain much greater insight into how content contributes to business performance.’ 

User stats show that perennial content performs well on the site. In other words, content that helps answer questions and solves problems.  

Some top performing content on the site includes: 

We’ve also initiated a number of series. ‘So you want to work in…’ addresses job seekers and those in the early stages of a career. #50over50 celebrates longevity and experience and has allowed us to put a spotlight on some people who may not be widely known. 

Our top topics are careers (Dr Heather Yaxley contributes a high quality careers column based on her PhD research), education and professionalism. 

The three themes (careers, education, professionalism) overlap: we’re all learners, careers are messy, and we strive to be professional while also acknowledging the fluidity of the discipline and the need to bring in diverse talent. 

A profession also acknowledges the contribution made by researchers and academics as well as the leadership provided by membership bodies and practitioners. They are like a three legged stool: remove any one and it becomes unstable.

There are signs of progress in public relations, but it’s moving at glacial speed. This month is AMEC’s measurement month. No single area illustrates better than measurement and evaluation the value of the collaboration between academics and practitioners. Yet no field also shows the need for constant education around the now well-understood process (from planning to evaluation) and the core concepts of outputs – outcomes – impact. 

We’re trying to build bridges between practitioners and academics through our Mind the PR Gap conferences (the 2020 conference was held online in July) and by publishing reviews of new books by academics and practitioners. It’s a challenge to hit the sweet spot that meets the needs of beginners and experienced practitioners – and to acknowledge the contribution of academics alongside practitioners. But it is possible: an outstanding example is Tony Langham’s Reputation Management published last year in the PRCA Practice Guides series. 

Collaboration 

This year, everyone has become a remote worker. All are using Zoom and many have taken to Teams. Educators are delivering their classes remotely. 

For many, this has involved a rapid ‘pivot’. So it’s worth noting PR Academy’s track record of operating as a virtual team and delivering online and ‘blended’ learning over many years. 

The PR Place Insights team has been virtual for three years. Editorial meetings take place on Zoom; messages and files are shared on Teams; content planning now takes place in Airtable, shared via Teams. (Previous content planning tools have included Trello). 

But you need people to operate technology and deliver results. Teams needs a team. I confess that I can be disorganised and forgetful. For someone who wrote about technology for a living in a previous life, and for someone who is comfortable lecturing on the digital landscape, I can be surprisingly inept when it comes to using technology. So the all-round technical competence and can-do attitude of Mel Cains has been vital to this team. 

We’ve just been trained in Airtable – this visually pleasing tool that combines the functionality of a calendar, a spreadsheet and a database – by Nadja StanglauerIt was a masterclass in technical competence from someone able to operate in more than one language. 

So you have a virtual team; you’re making use of some excellent tools. But there’s more to running a railway than timetabling. ‘Mind the gap’ we were constantly reminded when we used to travel on the London Underground. In every team there are gaps – and the need for a minder. The concept of virtual PA is not new and may not feel worth discussing in a year when every PA is operating remotely. But our team has Lyndsey Shelley expertly minding the gaps. 

Community 

So much for the PR Place / PR Academy team. Beyond this, there’s a wider community of students, practitioner and educators. Our community is anyone who is interested in public relations education and professional qualifications; and anyone interested in careers in public relations and communication. 

Pre-pandemic, the number of people working in UK public relations roles was estimated at up to 90,000. Fewer than half are members of CIPR or PRCA. And given that some have multiple memberships (perhaps of the IoiC and IABC too), then only a subset of this number are actively engaged in the professional project.

But we recognise the fluidity of the field and the various overlapping identities within it (some internal communicators reject any association with public relations; some who start in digital marketing think they’re operating in a new industry rather than one dating back to 1948 or earlier). It’s a varied – and interesting field.

We’ve attempted to reflect and celebrate this variety with our weekly selection of #ThisWeekinPR content each Friday. Most weeks there’s something reflecting what’s going on in digital marketing, influencer relations, creative campaigns – but also in internal communication and public affairs. 

A decade ago, when Twitter was still young, there was a regular push to uncover new people to follow (remember ‘follow Friday’ #ff?) One use for our curated list of content (which we share on Twitter and other social channels) is a way of recommending people to follow by showcasing content creators.

I’ve written about the process of curation here. Don’t like my picks? Then you’re welcome to recommend better content or to introduce me to new voices. As soon as Friday comes around, we’re gathering links for the following week. 

Embedded within the weekly selection are a few PR student bloggers and content creators. This is the continuation of a process that started with Behind the Spin.

This year, 2020, is a good time to restate its purpose. It’s great that you have a degree – but it hardly sets you apart from the many that will be competing for graduate jobs. Better still to have a First Class degree, but so do almost one in three graduates.

So even the highest achieving students will need something to set themselves apart in a tightening jobs market. It might be work experience; it might be your ability to build a professional network. One way to ‘show don’t tell’ is to display your curiosity and communication skills through your chosen social media channel/s, and to demonstrably build your network as a result. 

People who have emerged strongly from #prstudent #bestPRblogs have also started strongly in public relations roles, sometimes picking up national awards soon after. You’ve probably heard of some of them: Livi Crawford, Marcel KlebbaJessica PardoeOrlagh Shanks, Claire Simpson and Arianne Smart for starters (some names have changed since they were student bloggers).

We’re keen for a community of PR student bloggers and content creators to join our community of public relations and communication practitioners. It’s never been easier to follow people and keep up with their careers. I do it out of interest; employers do so too out of self-interest – they’re actively scouting new talent.

These examples are sufficient proof to motivate me to continue banging the drum for PR students. But if you ask me for proof that #ThisWeekinPR delivers value, I fail the AMEC test. I can cite the flurry of engagement on social media each Friday morning; I can watch the PR Place Twitter follower count slowly ticking up. But those, I know, are mere output measures. I can point to the unsolicited notes of thanks for industry insiders (one came unexpectedly last week), or even to the endorsement-through-imitation of industry leaders Stephen Waddington and Stuart Bruce who have developed their own weekly newsletter summaries, a richer analysis than my barebones collection of links. But that’s still no proof of value. 

Our approach to content is to deliver a mix of our own created content (I’ve noted some highlights above); and commissioned content from those outside the team – we’re especially keen to showcase the work of PR Academy’s candidates for professional qualifications; and curated content from the rich and varied world of public relations and communication.

The mix feels right (as well as following best practice), and enables the widest range of voices to be heard. In a year when many people have spoken up around Black Lives Matter, that focus on other voices and perspectives feels especially important. 

If our purpose is to establish a community of interest around our themes of education, careers and professionalism in public relations, then how do community members make and build their connections? It’s through conversations leading to relationships. ‘Markets are conversations’, remember. It’s also public relations 101.