Tide Pod challenge creating brand crisis?

Do you ever just remember something that was popular or trending and just think wow the human race is just insane, like really really stupid? I mean how are we supposed to be the most intelligent mammals when things like this become a thing. Well this is exactly what I thought when I heard about the ‘tide pod’ challenge

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Basically, it became trendy to eat tide pods- yes as in the ones you put in the washing machine to do your laundry. Which by the way, contain ethanol, citric acid and other dangerous chemicals that are poisonous. The whole thing started when tide pods became known as a ‘forbidden snack’ online due to their colourful appearance making them appear like sweets. Soon after videos emerged of teenagers (yeah not toddlers) eating the laundry detergent. While it was later confirmed most people where only pretending to take a bite, a lot of people actually did. American association of poison control reported 86 cases of teenagers intentionally ingesting laundry detergent in 2017. I’d also like to highlight the point about this being teenagers involved, I mean I would of understand if my 3-year-old godson was fooled by this. The main problem was both social media and the headlines in the mass media. Social media is dangerous in that everyone seems to want to be famous on it these days so will do whatever to keep up. It also made the few serious incidents of actual ingestion look like a worldwide epidemic. Image result for tide pods challenge gronk video"

I also think the mass media look for any reason to blame the younger generation for all the worlds problems. They also in some ways fear the popularity of social media and so want to undermine its positivity. For example, headlines started along the lines of ‘teenagers eating laundry detergent pods and posting the videos online’ to ‘teenagers risking their lives for internet challenge.’

For Tide pods this was a serious PR disaster. Many headlines suggested that it was even time to ban tide pods for good. Whether people where really eating them or just pretending to it brought forward a real danger about the design of the pods. They have been known previously to confuse the elderly people with dementia and of course young kids with their bright colouring. Therefore, this viral trend had others thinking in this way and demanding something be done. The owners of tide pods could not in their right minds predict that teenagers would take up eating their products as a hobby. Due to this they were probably not well prepared for this particular PR crisis, however, their parent company Proctor and Gamble handled the situation quite well considering. They got American footballer Rob Gronkowski nicknamed ‘Gronk’ involved in the recovery. They uploaded a tweet of them asking Gronk should people ever eat tide pods to which he replies ‘no’ several times. He then goes on to say use tide pods for washing not eating. Teenagers today are obsessed with celebrities, so It was smart of Proctor and Gamble to use one promoting safe use of their products

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They didn’t really go crazy with their crisis management over social media. There was that video and one other tweet ‘Only things that should be on today’s menu: nachos, wings and plenty of team spirit. Save your tide pods for the stains later.’ This was probably the best thing to do as most parents will agree telling teenagers not to do something seems to make them want to do it a whole lot more. The product itself was already safe as it was properly locked so focusing on the social media craze was all they could really do. They also tried to get the videos removed to stop them from reappearing or becoming another PR crisis in the future. YouTube did eventually start to delete the videos however the jokes and memes will live on forever really

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That being said in a world where there are now apparently over 100 genders is it really that much of a reach that people would eat laundry detergent to gain internet fame. The real problem here is that teenagers need to learn the difference between famous and infamous.

Katie Doyle is a final year Bsc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found at: Instagram-@katiedoyle54 LinkedIn-https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-doyle-9a0551195/ Twitter-https://twitter.com/ktdoyle6

A ‘Whale’ Big Problem for SeaWorld.

Do you ever find yourself about 20 videos deep from what you were originally watching on YouTube and have no clue how you ended up clicking on a video about how Doc Martins are made in a factory? Because same.

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Well, that’s exactly how I came across the trailer for a documentary called Blackfish. So of course I went online and seen that the documentary was available to watch on Netflix and that is how I found myself knee deep looking for information on the topic and the PR crisis that they were facing.

Now if you haven’t seen the documentary i’ll give you a quick rundown on what it’s about. Blackfish is a highly controversial documentary about the SeaWorld company that came about after one of their trainers Dawn Brancheau was sadly killed by Tilikum an orca whale in the Orlando park. However, this same whale had previously been involved in the death of two other individuals. The documentary covers the history of killer whales who were taken into captivity up until Dawns death.

Ever since the documentary aired SeaWorld have not only been under intense scrutiny by organisations such as PETA but also a rake of other people. In fact, Joan Jett who is famous for her song ‘I love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ demanded that the song be removed from the ‘Shamu Rocks’ show which displays these killer whales.

This was only the beginning of the roller coaster for SeaWorld. Sometimes the only way to learn a lesson is to be thrown in at the deep end and swim. Not Sea-World though. Oh no. They just sunk.

SeaWorld probably did the worst thing when it came to the backlash of this documentary. The only thing they did in this situation was release a statement essentially saying that the documentary was misleading and exploits a tragedy. They attacked the documentary company rather than fix incorrect information. Now if this isn’t the beginning of a PR disaster then what is?

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As another attempt at fixing this PR crisis SeaWorld also released an ad which could be found both on the televison and online. The main purpose of the advertisement was to try an express how much of an effort SeaWorld put in to caring for their marine life, particulary the killer whales. Once again the company quickly came under fire from animal activist groups claiming that it was a direct attack on previous campaigns made against Sea World.

For 2 years (yes, they really ignored this for 2 years) SeaWorld pushed this all to the side and didn’t break breath about the situation. Sometime later they finally decided to try and be pro-active and came up with the campaign #AskSeaWorld. Brilliant idea, eh? Wrong. All this done was give ammunition to everyone who had their backs up about the company being mute for 2 years and were finally able to give their honest opinion on what they thought of SeaWorld.

Would it have been better if SeaWorld ignored the whole situation? Is it true when they say all PR is good PR? I honestly don’t think so. 

Here are a few pointers I would give to any compny that may find themselves in a bit of a PR mess:

1. Honesty really is the best policy – Had SeaWorld been open and honest about what was happening with the documentary and the company they mightn’t have got themselves in the mess they did. Nobody likes a company who is so secretive. Whether or not they thought it was better to stay quiet, 2 years is quite a while and in the long run they just did more harm than good.

2. Devise a plan – Some companies go a lifetime without having any PR issues. However, the best idea would be to have a process in place on how best to manage an issue. Don’t do the automatic reaction that SeaWorld did of jumping down someones throat and insisting that they are being misleading. What good is that going to do you?

3. Admit if you made a mistake – Some may not agree with me on this one. However, I think it’s better for a company to admit when they’ve made a mistake and are willing to learn from it. It almost makes the company look more humble.

After all this, there is one thing I hope SeaWorld actually did right and that is that whoever was in charge of their PR and marketing got the boot.

If you haven’t had the chance to watch Blackfish I strongly recommed you do. As someone who always wanted to go to SeaWorld (thankfully I never got) it gave me a real eye opener about what is actually going on in there.

You can still watch it on Netflix now. Pinch a pals password if you haven’t got an account. It’s okay though, I won’t judge. I still sponge off my sister for it but it’s allowed because we’re students, right? 

Courtney O’Neill is a final year BSc in Communication Management and Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @Courtneyon21 and Linkedin: @courtneyoneill

Pizza express? A great place for an alibi.

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Last week in the news was a certain member of the British Royal family, ohh yes, you’ve guessed it. It was Prince Andrew and he has had an absolute PR nightmare this week because of his relationship with convicted Human trafficker and sexual abuser Jeffrey Epstein. Once I heard he was voluntarily doing this interview I couldn’t actually get my head around it, Epstein has been dead for months and there was no noise at all from the Windsor’s no communication on the issue at all. What on earth made the Royal family who I would assume have a strict communication policy actually allow this to happen? I’m very sure an inquest into this will be held and someone will be held responsible.

The interview itself was one of the most uncomfortable and awkward things I’ve ever watched. Prince Andrew himself did not seem at all comfortable with the discussion as a whole. Surprisingly most of Prince Andrews Public relations advisers wanted him too to do the interview, however only one advisor Jason Stein was against the idea. Stein had previously been special advisor or “Spin doctor” to Amber Rudd and left the role by mutual consent because he knew how much of a backlash the Prince would face from the interview and he was correct.

The interview took place on BBC Newsnight and was approved by the Queen, every answer Prince Andrew gave seemed like even he doubted them. The reason for the interview was a picture of Prince Andrew with one of Epstein’s sexual slaves Virginia Roberts-Giuffre, she was a young woman who had been trafficked by Epstein and remained a slave. She stated that she danced with a sweaty prince Andrew and that they had sexual relations something he strongly denies. The answer Prince Andrew gave was the strangest response I’ve ever heard to a sexual allegation “I didn’t sweat at the time because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War when I was shot at and I simply… it was almost impossible for me to sweat.” He did not actually deny the allegation of sexual abuse but said he didn’t sweat instead, he did not have to worry because he had half the nation sweating for him.

He also stated that he had an alibi for the date that Virginia Roberts-Giuffre stated that they had sexual relations “I was with the children and I’d taken [daughter Princess] Beatrice to a Pizza Express in Woking for a party at, I suppose, sort of 4pm or 5pm in the afternoon.”.When asked by the BBC why he would remember a meal at Pizza Express 18 years later, he said: “Because going to Pizza Express in Woking is an unusual thing for me to do, a very unusual thing for me to do.” I think remembering taking your daughter for a party 18 years ago is most unusual thing, how could anyone physically remember this event, but I suppose Pizza express is as good as place for an alibi as any.

Once he had denied all of this there’s still the question of the picture of himself and Virginia Roberts-Giuffre together smiling while he has his arm around her waist, and it looks like a perfectly normal photo until you release the context. Of course, this was the response by Prince Andrew “Nobody can prove whether or not that photograph has been doctored but I don’t recollect that photograph ever being taken” from this I don’t think he can prove it’s a doctored photograph and not remembering something does not mean it didn’t happen. Who ever is advising on the wording of his script definitely did not read over it again. When asked about his hand around the young woman’s waist he stated “I am not one to, as it were, hug, and public displays of affection are not something that I do… I don’t believe that photograph was taken in the way that has been suggested. “He also added: “That’s me but whether that’s my hand or whether that’s the position I… but I don’t… I have simply no recollection of the photograph ever being taken”. At this point he seemed nervous by the questions and he actually stammered as you can see in the quotes, he wasn’t even convinced by the story himself. If you’re going to lie at least be confident about it, the entire episode reminds me of the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky case and unlike Bill who just simply point blank lied. Andrew has confused himself and his story during the interview and has not cleared a thing up in my opinion.

He did not even express regret or apologies to the victims of his billionaire friend Epstein instead he said, “The people that I met and the opportunities that I was given to learn either by him or because of him were actually very useful.” If this interviews purpose was to create a more positive public image of Prince Andrew and to repair the damage that his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein caused, it has done the complete opposite of this desired effect and quiet simply been a PR meltdown that the Prince may never recover from.

 

Jordan Arthur is a final year BSc in Communication Management & Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found at: LinkedIn – linkedin.com/in/jordan-arthur-864694173 and Facebook – facebook.com/jordanarthur.71 

PRETTY LITTLE THING’S PRETTY BIG PR DISASTER

I am sure if you are a fashion follower of any sort, you will have seen that Pretty Little Thing products have been exposed….

The fast fashion clothing company Pretty Little Thing rarely ever has many scandals from what I have seen. They seem to just be constantly building on their reigning empire, gaining more celebrity collaboration, more customers and ultimately more money… until recently, when their empire hit a bump in the road, when they were subjected to a case of FAKE NEWS.

A Facebook post was published by a PLT customer who had a look through the company terms and conditions on their US website to find this…

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This post went viral, now having approximately 25k shares on Facebook and thousands and thousands of Twitter threads discussing the issue. 


When I first seen this my instant reaction was shock…I couldn’t understand why a massive company like Pretty Little Thing would have chemicals in their products that were known cancer, reproductive harm and birth defects, and why it was just point blank in the terms and conditions without anyone knowing of this before. 

Disgust spread across the Internet, with many people putting up their own social media posts expressing their concerns and spreading the word to ‘Boycott Pretty Little Thing’. 

However, others were quick to fight back and defend Pretty Little Thing. Those who looked further into the statement within the terms and conditions discovered the truth. 

The truth 

The truth is that this warning was required due to a new law in the California, called Proposition 65, which requires all companies in California must provide warnings of ‘significant exposure’ to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm. However, it is highly unlikely that PLT clothing could contain sufficient amounts of these chemicals to cause harm at all. 

In fact, it is not the only clothing company that has used this warning, ASOS and Fashion Nova also have this warning within their company terms and conditions. 

FAKE NEWS 

Due to the first post going viral, many other customers and non-customers of Pretty Little Thing now had a negative outlook on the company, so much so that they posted about it on their social media and so on so forth, until thousands of people now thought that their PLT purchases were going to cause them harm, and so were suggesting that people do not purchase from the company any more. 

This lead to many articles posted containing FAKE NEWS. 

Fake news can have irreversible effects to organisations, it can change consumers image of a company, it can make them lose custom and can reduce their stock price. 

Public opinion is vital for companies in general, but especially online brands, like PLT, who build their reputation up online and gain a following of customers who have a high impression of the brand. 

Fake news can destroy this reputation, and if the brand is not strong enough, can also bring down the company. 

Luckily enough, I don’t think this has had much of a significant effect to the Pretty Little Thing brand as they have continued to issue statements claiming that their products do not contain sufficient amounts of lead to cause the stated effects, however this may have planted a seed of criticism into the heads of consumers who may then go and shop at a competitor brand that does not have such warnings in their T&Cs. 

For me, as a shopping addict…I can safely say that I will be purchasing from Pretty Little Thing again without any hesitation. 

 

Siobhan McKerr is a final year BSc in Communication Management & Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on: Twitter – @Siobhan_mckerr, LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/siobhan-mckerr and Instagram: @Siobhan_mckerr.

#PRStudentScribbles: Crisis Communications

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Welcome! 

I am a full time MSc Student in Public Relations and Communications at Ulster University since the end of September. I am a law graduate from Trinity College Dublin (1997) and practised as a solicitor for the last 18 years.

Why do I listen to Podcasts? 

As I am a newcomer to the study of Public Relations and Communications, it is important that I identify reliable educational information online  and take notes old style!

One exciting development from a mature student point of view is the rise of Podcast Shows as a rich source of information. As someone who enjoys auditory learning, Podcasts are perfect as I can vary the speed, volume and pause the show regularly to scribble down key points! Podcasts help me to connect the dots between the theory, research and practice of PR and Communications. 

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#ThisWeekinPR 

In #ThisWeekinPR published by the PR Academy on 4 October,  I noted the recommendation of The Digital Download hosted by Paul Sutton with Kate Hartley: How to handle misinformation in a crisis [podcast] (1 October).

Crisis and reputation 

In Episode 2, Season 5, crisis expert Kate Hartley and Paul Sutton, Digital Communications Consultant and founder of The Digital Download Podcast and Conference discussed the rise of misinformation and how to handle all things ‘fake’ in a crisis situation. The podcast is of particular interest as Kate Hartley looks at psychology  rather than conventional crisis management. 

Fake news and propaganda have existed for decades, if not centuries. But with social media algorithms reinforcing confirmation bias and with the advent of deep fake technology, misinformation has reached unprecedented levels. As a result, trust has plummeted and corporate crises are becoming ever-more common.

In this episode of the Digital Download Podcast, I talk to Kate Hartley from crisis simulation platform Polpeo. Kate has recently written a book called Communicate in a Crisis that takes a detailed look at why people behave the way they do on social media, how misinformation spreads as a result and how companies can best handle this.  -Paul Sutton 

The Podcast 

My Podcast Scribbles  

  • Outrage has become currency for some people on social media. Accordingly, fake news can be circulated in crisis situations. 
  • Crisis planning is now essential for every organisation. 
  • Brands should react to information online by being the source of truth in a crisis.  
  • Be the individual, company, brand that people come to when something goes wrong.
  • Be the trusted voice of authority so that people believe you. 
  • Look at psychology rather than conventional crisis management. You cannot respond effectively in a crisis if you don’t understand how people are behaving in that crisis. You have to understand how they are behaving and how that is changing because some of the old crisis responses just don’t work any more. 
  • You cannot wait for the next news cycle to come out. Think about people’s need for immediate information as people can spread fake news about your brand in the crisis and deliberately share misinformation.  
  • Some industry bodies are trying to move away from the term “fake news” to the term “misinformation.” 
  • Some people accidentally spread misinformation because they believe it to be true. Other people deliberately spread misinformation as they have some sort of malicious intent.
  • The pressure that consumers are putting on brands means they have to be more honest and transparent than they ever have been before. 
  • Be the source of truth.  Be the source of truth. Be the source of truth! NO2

     

    Recommended Books

    • Communicate in a Crisis by Kate Hartley
    • Crisis Communications Management (PRCA Practice Guides) by Adrian Wheeler
    • Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins by Mark W. Schaefer.

    Nóirín O’Neill is an MSc Student in Communication & Public Relations at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter @Noirin0Neill and on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/n%C3%B3ir%C3%ADn-o-neill-426b91110/

     

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Damore You Know, The Less You Think

Damore You Know, The Less You Think

I don’t believe this to be a sexist rambling, nor the defence of a sexist rambling. This was rather intended to be an exploration of modern societal and political forces on free speech, decision making and potentially clever PR. I’d love to hear any thoughts on this one.

On 7th August 2017, James Damore was fired by Google for a “sexist memo” that he posted on an internal message board that depicted women as being “inferior”. I remember reading the headline. For me, it was another mundane day in a remedial office job where I thought – wow; prime-time idiocy. As if letting go of the dream job and become public enemy number one on the same day wasn’t bad enough – how could this sexist pig really believe such a thing? Disgraceful, I know.

But maybe I didn’t know. James Damore being sacked was percieved as a good move by an appalled public who couldn’t fathom what possessed him to post such a sexist memo. This was seen as a feat for equality and politically correct behaviour and thought. But at the core of the scandal-turned-viral, were Google really as moral, as progressive, as forward-thinking as it may seem?

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What Happened (as we know it):

This whole mess began with one simple meeting. Google, like they often do, held a diversity meeting which, amongst others, James Damore was invited to attend. Damore, in an interview with academic marmite Jordan Peterson (You either hate him or you love him), recalls that Google didn’t record this meeting – the only instance of this that he can rememeber during his time with the Lords of the ‘Net. Damore believed that Google’s methods of inclusive hiring which they were discussing that fateful day were arbitrary and possibly crossing the line into illegal, which would explain the lack of documentation.

They’ll listen to us all through our phones but won’t listen back to their own ideas? Proof that nobody likes the sound of their own voice on record!

Damore states that he felt uneasy at the mention of the secretive positive discrimination tactics of hiring. Once the meeting had wrapped up, Damore along with all other partcicpants were encouraged to give their feedback on an internal message board – a central convention in Google who strive for improvement wherever possible. Damore compiled a ten page memo explaining why he felt the proposed hiring methods may not be a good idea and posted it on the aforementioned message board. Big mistake, Jim.

What he Said (Well, not exactly. But the jist of it):

Damore’s core belief in his memo was that there is a biological difference between men and women that may impact a corporate reality. His musings were a review of existing modern personality and individual differences literature that found that, in its simplest form, men are more likely to be attracted to object related professions and women to people related professions (heavily linked to studies surrounding testosterone levels – don’t @ me). He even mentioned that he is an advocate of diversity and inclusion. However, he didn’t help himself in suggesting that these Biological differences “may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership”. This may be a review of exisiting literature, but he surely could have sugarcoated the bleak academic truth in this point. Manners cost nothing James (in fact, a lack of them may have cost you your job).

My Name is Sue (How Do You Do?):

Damore responded to his dismissal by choosing to sue Google, which further enraged an American public that viewed him as the biggest inidvdiual threat to feminism in the U.S. since the man who actually runs the country. Damore accused Google of intolerance of white male conservatives; three majority categories that we can assume recieve little sympathy from the “politically correct”.

Damore told the New York Times that he has “a legal right to express (his) concerns about the terms and conditions of (his) working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what the document does.” It must be highlighted that Google’s decision to fire Damore is perefectly legal. Even within Damore’s right to free speech, an employee can be lawfully fired for being seen to violate an organisational code of conduct, which Google believed they saw. While some forms of employee speech are protected by US Labour laws, the Constitutional right of free speech is not extrapolated to the workplace.

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Triggering Time:

I’m exploring this at the risk of coming across as sexist or non-progressive here which, as a young, caucasian, heterosexual, Catholic male in Northern Ireland, is quite politically and socially charged. As I play the role of the drawn-out, eye-rolling “Devils Advocate”, many of Damore’s arguments were grounded in scientific research up to this point. While this may change in future, many believe that we as a society must place our fundamental trust in the processes of science. The “feedback” from Damore suggested that Google’s attempts to neglect suitable candidates for an engineering role in favour of a less suitable candidate who fits into a particular race, religion, or particularly gender may ultimately impact upon job performance. The media picked up that Damore views women as “inferior” to men when really, from what I can decipher, he was merely highlighting that, statistically speaking, there are less women who interested in the field of engineering than there are men.

Personally, having worked in the recruitment division of a large technology firm, I have seen the process of hiring females with a less desirable skillset than their male counterparts purely based on their gender. The extent of Google’s actions compared to my own experience can’t quite be compared, as Google’s actions remain fairly secretive. While I fully advocate initiatives such as “women in tech” applied by my former employer and their industry competition, the gender-decisive hiring process was an aspect that I struggled to support fully. In this respect, I do agree with Damore. In writing this, I have been concerned with coming across as sexist in a hyper-sensitive era. But ultimately, I believe that people should be afforded an opportunity in a professional context based on their ability to perform the job role and all that it encompasses. From the technical elements of a role to the level of interpersonal skills required. These selections should not be made based solely on your gender and frankly, if you disagree, I don’t see how you aren’t supporting equal rights (@ me this time if you want).

Tin Foil Hat Time:

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist – is it possible that Google, amidst an initial attempt to play fair, were afraid of possible repercussions of their positive discrimination methods and were able to shift the focus to Damore’s comments through a tactically calculated bet on how biased journalism might pander to the overly-politically-correct online consumers of today who often fail to scrutinize the validity of anything they read despite copious accounts of fake news? As I catch my breath, my mind casts to Benoit’s theory of image repair. The 14-option response kit of crisis management (devised in 1997) remains popular in today’s corporate world. Google seem to have employed the tactic of transcendence; aspiring to reframe their actions by placing it in the context of Damore’s; a more publicly detestable set of thoughts and actions.

Social Justice Warrior’s would have picked the carcass of James Damore clean in a vulture-esque fashion, if they weren’t all stage 5 vegans.

Failure to question the legitimacy of sources or the potential partisan of individual journalism is a monstrous issue in the modern digital age. Nicholas Carr in his book “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” discusses that, while the modern consumer has a better skillset for scanning, we pay the price with a diminishing capacity for concentration, reflection and contemplation. This alteration in mental capacity and skillset is particularly relevant in a modern age where Fake News has become practically unextractable from online media. Hence, it’s plausible that a mixture of shallow-level reading and the unattainable expectations of modern political correctness shaped Damore as an international sexist villain.

Interestingly (yet nothing more than coincidentally), Carr’s book came as a result of a widely celebrated article he wrote for US magazine Atlantic Monthly, entitled; “Is Google making us stupid?” Nice one Google. You just don’t quit- Do you? You big untouchable B****rd” (cries the writer, as he types in his Google Keep notes, processing every shred of information in this salty article from Google Chrome).

Benoit’s Image Repair Theory may be the academic grounding I need to support my argument that the dismissal and public shaming of James Damore was both a tactic of crisis management and a case of good publicity for Google as a diverse, progressive organisation. But as the case of Damore Vs Google indicates, sometimes science won’t prevail.

As I conclude, I know I took the scenic route on this one. There are issues on media consumption, disproportionate journalism, sexism and political correctness that I simply can’t condense in to one rambling article. If you can take one thing away from this – question your sources. Consider, contemplate and reflect. Don’t simply skim and absorb. And don’t hate on the concept political correctness. Lets just aspire that Social Justice Warriors would stop moving the damn goalposts every time anyone attempts to hit the target.

Eamon Daly is a final year BSc in Communication Management & Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found at: Twitter – @EamonDaly5 ; LinkedIn – linkedin.com/in/eamon-daly-608780137

NEVER STOP LEARNING

Lecturers always plug extra-curricular activities, don’t they?  It’s easy to nod along in agreement, making a mental note to respond to the university’s countless invitations by email but when they land there’s a deadline looming and you’re left weighing up the value of said event versus research/writing/reading.

We have the rest of our lives to learn from other PR & Comms specialists, right?

As a mature student, trust me when I say there is always something looming, that’s life. However, there won’t always be a queue of industry experts willing and ready to meet you and share their expertise.  With that in mind, I’m very glad I took @ConorMcGrath up on his invitation to attend a discussion with Alex Aiken, Head of the Government Communication Service (GCS).

I expected two things on the day of the discussion: firstly, for the event to be cancelled in lieu of the Prime Minister’s highly anticipated announcement that evening; secondly, I assumed that if it did go ahead, our guest would be sticking to a strict script, deflecting any difficult or Brexit-related questions.

I was wrong on both counts…

Alex was extremely down to earth and spoke to us candidly for over an hour; he laid out a compelling case for communications to be seen as an integral lever for transparent, responsible governance and a hugely important function within public services.  Good news for those of us that are too aesthetically challenged to make a living out of Instagram, even better news for those of us that are constantly wrestling with their conscience when it comes to considering graduate jobs outwith the voluntary sector.

Over the course of the evening we gained a fascinating insight into the GCS and crisis management – yes, that included Brexit.  We learned of the difficulties surrounding the GCS’s response to the Salisbury ‘Novichok’ attack – namely the difficulty in disseminating information to the press and public without jeopardising classified sources; we heard about previous campaigns – ‘the good, the bad, the ugly’ – and we we were privy to the contents of national address! We were given advice on GCS strategy and the modern importance of creating a story with characters and a conflict, stories that audiences can connect with, as opposed to the historical ‘who/what/where/when/why’ of the traditional press release.No alt text provided for this image

Most importantly, we were awarded the opportunity to put questions and observations to Alex; I had a list as long as my arm but settled on raising the dilemma of ‘spin’ – do communicators run the risk of fuelling tensions in society, especially in this climate, by creating a ‘story’ for their audience?  My understanding of the answer is ‘no’, providing the intentions of the author are not to mislead or misrepresent.

Alex laid out 8 key challenges for the GCS in 2018, one being to “maximise the role of government comms in challenging declining trust in institutions through honest, relevant and responsive campaigns”.  I felt that parts of the discussion were a rallying call to humbly acknowledge public mistrust and harness its existence as motivation to prove the positive impact that communications can have in our society; as someone that is leaning towards a career in some form of public service, but often cynical about the integrity of certain institutions, the call was welcomed and now that I’m writing this, I’m reminded of an exchange that has resonated since.

A small group of us headed to the Harp Bar after the discussion, and along the way, Alex praised Police Scotland’s tackling of knife crime via the campaign to treat violence as a public health issue.  Well this obviously sent me off on a tangent about whether it’s appropriate for police forces to use social media tools (yes, the laughs never stop when I’m around).  I was giving it big licks about certain public services ‘cheapening’ their reputation by endorsing PR tactics, when it was put to me that any measure with a proven ability to reduce the numbers of people being stabbed on our streets was a positive one.  Who could argue with that?

So take it from me: if anyone is reading this and thinking about skipping a relevant talk or event in lieu of a library session, then catch yourself on.  We are extremely privileged to have these opportunities and the confidence that comes from making your voice heard among the current leaders of PR & Comms, and learning from them, is more valuable than a book chapter.*

Don’t just rely on invites from your lecturer, either.  Find out for yourself what’s on offer.  For those in or near Belfast, !MAGINE! FESTIVAL has a fantastic line-up of events and discussions between 25th to 31st March 2019.

*don’t @ me for any academic decline

Fay Costello is an MSc in Communication & Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @fay_costello.