PR’s image problem explored


This is an article by Stefani Lanteri.
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Last month I attended ‘Public Relations and The Visual: Exploring Identity, Space & Performance’, a conference organised by my tutors Simon Collister and Sarah Roberts-Bowman from the Network for Public Relations and Society.

Held at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London the event gathered international speakers who shared their analyses of and views on the practice of public relations from a number of fascinating perspectives.

LCC-PR and Visual Conference

Ian Burrell raising PR’s image problem

The keynotes for the day were by Executive Creative Director at Brand Union, Glenn Tutssel who set the scene with some fresh ideas on the future of PR while Assistant Editor and Media Editor for The Independent, Ian Burrell, gave a forthright warning to PR practitioners that their industry had no good public figureheads following the conviction of Max Clifford and Andy Coulson.  It was plain to see that PR needs to think long and hard about its public image.

In the morning panel session, speakers included Kate Fitch from Murdoch University, Australia who spoke about ‘Vampire PR: Transgressive Representations of PR in Popular Culture’, Dr. Lee Edwards from the University of Leeds who discussed the racial and class-based competency bias inherent in the PR industry and Liz Bridgen from De Montfort University who offered an interesting reading of the PR industry as socially-constructed ‘dirty work’.

Wolfstar’s John Priestley touched on the practical aspects of visual PR discussing the increasing popularity of visual content in campaigns. Arguing that ‘The written word shouldn’t be the default setting anymore,’ he added that press releases weren’t dead, but that evidence suggests social media algorithms are increasingly favouring paid-for content.

In the afternoon session, chaired by Dr Scott Anthony, speakers explored PR as a visual practice. This was a really eclectic program including Dr Jessalynn Strauss from Elon University in the US presenting her paper, ‘Las Vegas Embraces its Mobster Heritage: Considering the Museum as a Public Relations Tactic’, which explored the strategic and tactical role museums play in PR; and Ian Horton discussing ‘Info-Comics, Science (Fiction) and Public Engagement’.

Two presenters, Edelman Director, Gavin Spicer, and Unity co-founder, Gerry Hopkinson, offered some fascinating insights into PR as an immersive practice. Gavin brought the ‘wow’ factor to his presentation when he explained how his agency took over Lichtenstein (the country!) for the launch of video game ‘Halo 4’. This was brand immersion to the extreme. A knockout success, Gavin shared his insight: ‘You can’t just put on an experience without there being a story – take half of the concept’s key features to really showcase’.

LCC-PR and Visual Conference

Sarah Roberts-Bowman opening the conference

Gerry Hopkinson also spoke of Unity’s campaign to promote positive behaviour online, with the goal being to disempower internet trolls and encourage young people to think about their actions.

The social media-led campaign encouraged participation and interaction between teenagers who effectively were freely promoting the message amongst themselves. Not only was this a feel-good PR strategy, highlighting the power of the profession to promote positive change, but one that was exceptionally impactful. For Gerry, reflecting on the reach of the campaign, it was ‘better to have an inside campaign than out’.

Owing to its success, the day sparked the type of dialogue that fed curious minds: the kind of dialogue that occurred from not having considered an idea, opinion, or perspective before. Offline, people interpreted the stories in open debate, and online, on twitter, using the hashtag #prvisual to compare and swap notes.

As the day progressed, it was obvious that there is a certain commonality amongst PR people. I noted a sense of warmth, openness, and an underlying fondness and respect for human beings and human potential. The type of kinship that was really attractive to a PR student such as myself, mindful of my future career and eagerly trying to process it all.

When the day concluded, it was time for drinks – with everybody trying to pick each other’s brains, and rightly so: I could not have predicted a more imaginative and diverse range of discussions. Representing universities, PR agencies, and other varied fields of work; it was true that each person in their own right stole the show.

I learnt that PR is all-encompassing and all-pervading.

Perspectives and perceptions were challenged, as people related their personal endeavours and individual interests within PR.  Teachings from an acute knowledge of maps had parallels with PR, visual communication was used to chart crisis communication in PR, and linkages found between comics and public engagement. It was fascinating. In the words of Phillip Young, who attended from Lund University Sweden: ‘We need PR because it interprets the world’.

Stefani Lanteri is a Mater’s student at London College of Communication.

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