Thursday, May 24, 2007


Firmly embedded in our popular culture are the phrases ‘Big Mac’, ‘golden arches’ and ‘do you want fries with that?’ And when we think of McDonald’s, the first concept that comes to mind these days is not a Scottish clan that was given a rough time by the Campbells in 1692.

Not content with their dominion in the minds of all seeking instant gastronomic gratification, the corporation has recently set its sights on the Oxford English Dictionary for listing the term ‘McJob’, defined as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector".

According to today’s Guardian, a public petition is being launched on behalf of the company's 67,000 British employees and other fast-food service personnel, to remove this ‘insulting’ definition.

If they get their way, one wonders if they’ll turn their attention to the rewriting of history or demand that copies of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (where the term originated) be removed from our library shelves.

The story has been picked up by Strive Notes with some commentary on whether this campaign is cleverly targeting the OED in an effort to change public perception, although the Guardian reports a poll, commissioned as part of the campaign, in which over two thirds agree with McDonald’s that the term is outdated. (Is it me or does anyone else detect the slight whiff of astroturf here?)

The problem with viewing this as a legitimate PR exercise is one of ethics. Dictionary definitions change to reflect changes in language and culture. Putting one’s corporate weight behind a lobby campaign to try and force that change to happen is arguably indefensible if PR is to maintain any integrity as a profession. Many people use the admittedly rhetorical term ‘McJob’ to mean precisely what the OED states. The dictionary isn’t forcing people to use this term and will no doubt drop the word – or at least mark it as archaic – if the term is no longer used.

McDonald’s lost a lot of credibility during the McLibel case in the UK, despite actually winning the case. The episode enhanced their reputation as a touchy, litigious organisation that doesn’t respond well to criticism or to the use of the Mc- prefix in any way that could conceivably act against their corporate interests.

Running PR campaigns like legal campaigns could well result in short-term victorious headlines, but I would offer this simple observation for anyone in corporate PR - you don’t change how people really feel about you by censoring dictionaries.

McDonald’s    OED    corporate PR     ethics     McLibel     astroturfing

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The curse of the exploding tomato

I first heard Panorama reporter John Sweeney’s outburst as a clip on BBC's Five Live. It launched a phone-in discussion on whether it is right for a reporter to ‘lose it’.

Out of context it sounds like Sweeney lost a few things during his exposé on Scientology - apart from his temper: objectivity, the ability to appraise something dispassionately, and the ability to ensure that a topic of valid journalistic interest does not become a story about personalities. The sign of a good journalist, one might argue, is one that does not become ‘the story’.

It is clear that Mr Sweeney’s red face of anger resulted in a number of other BBC faces equally red with embarrassment. Whatever you might think of the cult of Scientiology (or should I say ‘faith’? – after all I don’t want this blog being stalked by sinister young Americans in dark suits and dark glasses), they definitely scored something of a PR hit in their battle with the Beeb. In terms of impression management, our noble corporation found itself very much on the defensive.

The use of tactics and counter-tactics in how a story is aired on one television show is all good knock-about stuff but it would be worrying if these surface-level shenanigans diverted public attention away from the genuine concerns that people have with the ‘Church’ of Scientology and its methods of ensuring that its members are not ‘corrupted’ by alternative belief systems, such as – well just about any other religion, philosophy or world view.

Sweeney regrets his performance. As a dedicated seeker of truth, he slipped up and he readily admits it. We haven’t yet heard anyone taking responsibility on behalf of the BBC itself for allowing its flagship of journalistic integrity, Panorama degenerate to sensation-seeking, tabloid television.

During my student days, some friends and I were discussing the prospect of a National Front rally that was planned for our city. Should we demonstrate against them? Shout at them? Get into a battle? In the end, we took the view that the best tactic was to laugh at them and show them that it is impossible to take them seriously. By the same token, I suspect that programmes like Have I Got News For You or Radio 4’s The News Quiz could inflict a lot more damage on the reputation of crazy cults (sorry – ‘faiths’) than any hard-hitting documentary by an angry journalist determined to expose them.

Here are some resources: the Observer’s account of the incident and discussion on investigative journalism in the age of video networking; and the BBC website’s own coverage of the story with links to clips of news reports, an interview with Panorama’s editor, Sandy Smith, and John Sweeney’s exploding tomato impression.

John Sweeney    Panorama    Scientology     BBC     investigative journalism

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Professional guidance for PR protégés

There’s a definite air of euphoria in the corridors of Media and Comms at UCE this week. We’ve had a lot of good news recently – a successful course validation, a member of staff gaining an impressive postgrad qualification, a substantial research grant and a very respectable 7th place in the Guardian university league table for Media Courses (3rd place if assessed on a like-for-like basis).

This was helped by a healthy 9 out of 10 score for job prospects (check here for the Guardian’s methodology) – always welcome news that indicates greater employer recognition of a Media Studies degree as a worthwhile qualification.

Since taking on responsibility as Acting Degree Leader for the PR pathway of UCE’s Media and Communication degree, I have certainly been able to rely on strong employer support for our programme and our students. As one of the conditions of CIPR approval for the degree, we have a panel of employers chaired by Julia Willoughby of Willoughby PR and meeting regularly to offer advice, news of possible student projects, placement news, visiting speakers and general guidance. Their attitude is fantastic – any support they offer is based on the idea that this is a long-term investment for PR as a profession. If they can help and support our students – and the way we teach them – today, the profession will soon benefit from the skills, knowledge and professional commitment of newly qualified members. And, let’s face it, a lot of success in PR is based on the ability to network, make contacts, getting tuned into the grapevine and being known – so it’s in the interest of PR students and PR professionals to have the channels of two-way communication well and truly open.

With this in mind, I have been working on a mentoring scheme. The idea is to match individual 2nd year students with mentors from within the profession - individual PR people who, in some cases, may be recent graduates themselves. The benefit for the student is to have someone from outside the university but inside the profession who can provide support and guidance to their study and skills development, intelligence on placement, project or job opportunities and a chance for students to build up a network of professional contacts.

At first sight, the scheme has lots to offer to students – but what are the benefits to employers? I thought I might have to struggle to convince PR professionals to get involved but I’m delighted to discover that I was wrong.

It’s true that employers like to get involved in students’ personal development and, as I said, see this as a good way of investing in the future of the profession. But there’s so much more to be gained from working with students. Enthusiastic students with fresh ideas can be very inspirational, especially in an industry that relies on creative thinking and an abundance of fresh ideas.

Working as a mentor can also contribute much to the CPD (Continuing Professional Development) of recent recruits into PR and play a big part in their annual appraisal process. Even as a grizzled old academic I can verify that a great way to learn something new is to work out how to teach it to someone else!

I plan to report on the progress of the mentoring scheme in this blog. In the long run, I hope this works as a further factor in promoting the employability of our students. And boosting the credibility of Media Studies.

mentoring    Media Studies    UCE     PR education     Guardian     Willoughby_PR