Curious about curation?

About the author

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

Inside the museum. Image by Pexels from Pixabay.
Inside the museum. Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

It’s an important principle in education never to take things for granted. The code words I use for this with my first year undergraduate class are ‘penguins and icebergs’ taken from a song popular on TikTok in the summer where everyone nods in agreement when they hear their teacher saying there’s ‘a baby penguin caught on an iceberg’ before asking a friend: ‘What’s a penguin? What’s an iceberg?’

The best way an educator can help students understand an assignment brief is to try completing it themselves. That way you’re sure to explain what a penguin is and what an iceberg is before exploring why it may find itself in that predicament.

The CIPR Professional PR Certificate is an intermediate level professional qualification. It’s a step up from the introductory Foundation course, but below the more strategic Professional PR Diploma.

Yet candidates are tasked with an activity that many experienced practitioners might struggle to understand and perform. They’re asked to produce a ‘content curation report’.

This follows on from a PR plan they’ve already developed and the content curation report details the ‘processes, tools and channel selection used to curate (discover, organise and annotate) written and multimedia content that supports the plan.’

It’s easy to read these words and nod, but hard to know exactly how to deliver this 1000 word assignment. What’s a penguin? What’s an iceberg?

Curation became a briefly fashionable concept a few years ago before meeting an inevitable backlash. It’s taken from the arts, where museum curators are experts who draw on their knowledge of collections to illustrate a theme or a moment in the past by careful selection and presentation of findings.

Curation was included within the context of content marketing some years ago. The idea that ‘content is king’ seemed self-evident when there was less content to index and search for and when cute cat videos were still novel, but has become less true over time. Now that there’s so much content out there, the problem isn’t creating content, it’s discovering it (or looked at from the other side, igniting your content to borrow a concept from Mark Schaefer. I also recommend Trevor Young’s book Content Marketing for PR.)

As a result, most content marketing strategies involve a mixture of three types of content:

  • Created content: This should be original to your site, including your examples of thought leadership. This is always constrained by the time needed to produce original content, and by the dangers of becoming repetitive. So you supplement created content with –
  • Commissioned content: This is when you publish original content from subject experts from outside your organisation and –
  • Curated content. When you recognise the wealth of content that already exists and help people to find it by presenting it in one place.

If we no longer believe that ‘content is king’, then a better notion might be that ‘context is king’. Content curation can be helpful if it presents a range of expertise in one place and enables people to gain an overview of various views on a topic.

‘Be interesting’ may be the golden rule in our age of short attention spans. Yet it’s hard for individuals and organisations to keep this up and be consistently relevant and interesting over a long period of time. Hence my amendment of the golden rule to ‘Be interesting. And if you can’t be interesting, be useful.’ Content curation should aim to be useful.

But that does not explain the CIPR Professional PR Certificate assignment. In this case, the ‘content curation report’ is not for publication, but rather it serves as a research tool in support of the plan.

Let’s say the plan involved Company X positioning itself as a leader in next generation artificial intelligence. A content curation report would seek to identify the issues arising from AI (legal, technical and ethical), sources of authority and influence, and key publications for AI content.

My more modest ambition with #ThisWeekinPR is to curate a selection of content each week with the aim of being useful to UK-based public relations and communication practitioners. What ‘processes, tools and channel selection’ do I use each week?

Process: I publish #ThisWeekinPR early each Friday morning. That means the seven day cycle of searching for and gathering content starts each Friday and builds through the week before the final selection is made late on Thursday and checked again first thing on Friday. My selection is made simpler by focusing primarily on UK content, though it’s not that narrow a field because public relations is a very varied discipline that can embrace publicity stunts, digital marketing, corporate and internal communication, public affairs and reputation management across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. I’m also led by the topics that are preoccupying those working in UK public relations. In 2020 there has been a noticeable increase in content about race supplementing the longer-term preoccupation with gender.

Tools: I use Google Docs to collect the links, as this is available to me on any device and there’s no danger of forgetting to save, or of having multiple conflicting versions. The links come from several sources: I use Feedly to subscribe to blogs and news sites that use RSS. I scan Feedly at least twice a day to gather interesting new content. I do have some Google Alerts set up, but rarely find anything that’s new and relevant by this means. But I find that the mobile app Nuzzel does gives me a different take on the same content sources, and I am often alerted to content by its selection. I also check #prstudent on social media to find content for #bestPRblogs during the academic year.

Channels: I rely on professional social media (mainly LinkedIn and Twitter) to see what content has been published and shared by those I follow. No one can read everything posted on social media, so I rely on several trusted  ‘super-users’ who are useful curators through their likes, comments and shares on social media. I’m aware of the risk of bias by relying on others, but curation is an exercise in informed bias: I’m biased in favour of UK public relations; I’m biased in favour of those seeking to professionalise their work (even while remaining personally sceptical about claiming full professional status for public relations). Industry news sites (such as PR Week and PRovoke Media) are also strong sources, as are increasingly popular email newsletters sent out by individuals and organisations. This enables me to check my selection against other expert eyes. I also make sure to check the CIPR and PRCA (professional body) newsrooms at least once a week.

Organise and annotate: As I gather the links, I use one quotation from each piece of content (blog post or podcast, say) to illustrate what the content is about. This is not a quick process (some podcasts run for an hour or longer), but it feels more revealing to quote from the source rather than to summarise the content in my own words (this would introduce yet more bias). I gather the links into sub-sections, aiming for around six entries per section and around 30 links per week. Too few, and I won’t be representing the range of public relations work; too many, and I won’t be doing a good enough job of curating. One rule I set myself if to only include one link per person per week (a rule I sometimes break to allow one strong blog post and one visual Twitter or LinkedIn post from the same person). 

Multimedia content. I’m aware that my biggest bias of all is in favour of the written word (these are searchable and scannable as well as potentially powerful). So I try to moderate this by including podcasts and video content (even, potentially, TikTok videos). I also collect links to posts on Twitter and LinkedIn so there’s some more visual content interspersed between the words. Then I choose one main picture each week, often gathered from Instagram, as an example of visual communication.

That’s a summary of what I do each week structured in response to the CIPR Professional PR Certificate assignment.

I wouldn’t even give myself a pass. I’ve not witten 1000 words (plus or minus 10 per cent) in direct response to the assignment brief, nor have I used the content curation report to support a PR plan. So we’re expecting a lot of candidates – as we should of those seeking a professional qualification.

But it’s been a useful exercise to document some of my processes and to explore some of the regular decisions I have to make (including asking questions about my biases and filter bubbles). Perhaps my relatively long experience as a content curator may be useful to future candidates and current practitioners.

The exercise reveals a paradox. While I might wish for a single AI tool to take the sweat out of a laborious and largely manual process, I can’t help feeling that it is the unapologetically handpicked nature of the #ThisWeekinPR selection that gives it such value as it has. Similarly, the enduring value of news sites is a tribute to the work of their reporters and editors, rather than the work of apps and algorithms.

When Samuel Johnson singlehandedly compiled his Dictionary of the English Language in the eighteenth century, he allowed a joke at his own expense having reached Lexicographer. His definition: ‘A writer of dictionaries. A harmless drudge. that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.’

No jokes about the C word, please. Leave the humble curators alone.