Friday, April 02, 2010

Colin Farrington bid farewell

I understand that the Director General of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, Colin Farrington left his post at the end of March.

I had little experience of direct dealings with Colin. On the occasions that we met, he was always a polite urbane and considerate.

Our relationship was quite fun. I am a good deal older but have this funny internet obsession. The younger Colin was by no means an enthusiastic observer of ubiquitous interactive communication.

His preferences were of the order of the CIPR President’s Grand Prix Awards marking the end of the CIPR PRide Awards and self selecting Chartered Practitioner status badge, which is awarded to CIPR members who can demonstrate an outstanding level of professional practice and knowledge (beyond, say, PR professors).

Colin was the man in charge when the IPR gained its Royal Charter. He saw to it that the research showed an industry worth £6.5 bn. The online opportunity at the time (2005) would have doubled this value had the Institute grasped the opportunity. It was more than aware of the opportunity from the work of the IPR/PRCA Commission in 1999.

He is  a member of The Guild of Public Relations Practitioners which aims to ‘foster its profession, trade or craft’. This purpose is achieved through charitable works, education, fellowship, and trade and commerce.
The Guild of Public Relations Practitioners therefore works to promote the PR industry.

He is a gentle person compared to the rough-house of the Brown babe Angela Smith telling the CIPR to stuff its Public Affairs Council; local press jumping on shallow thinking in the provinces; getting rolled over by a bunch of incompetent jurnos who can't cope with spam not to mention  the shaggy  Neanderthals at the NLA ambling out of the ice age tundra.

Who ever may take up the mantle of guiding practice in the future will no doubt be pleased with Colin's achievement in the evolution of the Global Alliance.

There are some quite big issues that the Institute has to face. It needs very different leadership now.

The big issue about the nature of Public Relations needs attention (The Charter says it is: "the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics"). We live in different times. The very nature of an organisation is different. The nexus of contracts is replaced by a nexus of relationships. Not everyone subscribes to a view of social groups being defined by the excellence model, if indeed, we should define groups at all in a post modern era when 'user defined groups' are so fluid. The new models of public relations theory are designed for a new century and are based on research. This research is pivotal. It gives practitioners powerful tools (download) to understand how organisations can perform better with enhanced PR practice.

There is the question of PR education. Lots of folk are coming from any old trade into PR without having to re-train. People like Ben Smith of PRMoment  - great critic of the industry skimming over the realities at a journo level (and all in 140 characters). It is going to be tough turning down all those ex-ministers lining up to do 'PR' after the election and we have to remember the difference between facility houses and PR. Some are very good but they are but facility houses to the profession.

The Institute think's its cool to be both regulator and provider of PR courses (but that's how we make money init). The PR degree courses are a mess. All too many are not much more than a course in spamming 'press releases' and having a 'creative idea' to fly a barrage balloon over the Houses of Parliament.  Some are excellent and need heavy promotion from the professions' promotion of professionalism but some are dreadful and don't even include compulsory ubiquitous interactive communication studies (UIC).

Practitioners in-house and in agencies are finding internet mediated civilisation a tough call. Social Media has now been with us 30 years and it is just a view of tactics in communication. PR is about much more. It is staggering that some people in the communications industries, and notably the PR industry are inadequately qualified to manage its rate of change and even junior novices are at a premium. The whole idea that there should be a 'digital' module in a PR course is not just quaint, it is a cruel joke to play on innocent practitioners. UIC changes society. It is not 'just another communication channel'.

What role is the institute playing in PR research? In communication Tim Berners-Lee, Google, Microsoft and large parts of language research is deeply into the study or science of meaning in language using semantics. Is the institute able to grasp and run with what is now already part of PR research and advance the opportunities now we understand the nature of relationships. The PR industry did not find XPRL  very interesting (as communications facilitator, now important for RSS, on one hand and semantic web on the other) and so it is unlikely that another game changing development will go much further without hard nosed foresight and drive from Institute professionals.

The present review by the Institute has to be pretty thorough and needs to look forward. It also has to be much tougher on itself and its members. Being professional now does mean that an average PR manager should hold a reasonable degree. In the UK that means a Masters. More PR people on the boards of more companies means there is a need for research based training for aspiring managers.

So Colin, you have had your victories and now is a time for a very different harder, much more professional Institute.