When studies hit home

I am afraid of flying… well I am VERY afraid of flying. I still travel but it’s a struggle. I do not fly within Iceland as I do not like to fly in small airplanes where you can feel every “bump”. I used to take anxiety pills before flying but nowadays I try to breath through the scare and do a bit of mediation. Which can be difficult if there is a lot of turbulence. Green meadows or the ocean might not be the places you want to picture yourself at as that’s precisely where you don’t want to end up in that particular moment!

When it comes to news about plane crashes and other flight related incidents, I try to avoid reading the news as it will only empower my fear. As someone said, ignorance is a bliss! Articles and studies on safety in air do not help me overcome my fear. People telling me statistics and information on safety while flying don’t help either, as if there is anyone who knows these things it’s the person that is afraid of flying, as that person has tried to know as much as possible to calm her fears.

I once had a rescue team member telling me that people at the back of a plane are most likely to survive a plane crash. From then on I always tried to get a seat at the back. Later on, I was told by a pilot that sitting at the back ensures that you will feel the most turbulence and in the case of a plane crash most people on the plane are almost certain to die. It made horrible sense. After that I have always asked to get a seat as far in front of the plane as possible as it’s the turbulence that stirs up my fears and panic.

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In the last week it has been hard to avoid news about plain crashes as Boeing’s 737 Max 8 crashed in Ethiopia. The second plane of that type to go down within 5 months of each other.

As I couldn’t avoid the headlines and the news I looked at the case with the eyes of a communication student and it was a big ,,aha” moment for me. I could connect so many theories and methods to the news. As horrible and sad as the news are, it is interesting to look at the case from that perspective.

First off, I started thinking about all the stakeholders involved, and oh my! There are so many! Boeing, airlines (that fly those planes and the ones that don’t), Boeings competitors, the families of the passengers, the UN (and other employers of passengers), regulators, the media, Boeing’s staff, airline’s staff, shareholders, the public, people that are afraid of flying and the list goes on.

When it comes to the stakeholders it was also interesting to see how their stakes changed with the blink of an eye. Just by voicing an opinion or by actions, players that might have been considered quite neutral became high power, high interest players.

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Boeing took it’s time when it came to action. However, certain airlines took the leap and decided to ground their 737 Max 8 planes while the accident was under investigation. By doing so other airlines were in a way pushed to respond in the same way. Other airlines didn’t react until their stocks started plummeting and then there were the ones that waited for regulators to step in and put bans/restrictions into action.

As we were taught about single and double-loop reputation-repairing activities at the beginning of the week as well I was all ears (as I am in communication classes, I just love them!). We were taught that the single-loop action entailed a short-term action where the immediate event is managed. In the single loop people are secured. The double-loop however is an action where a company changes it behaviour in order to avoid this type of a crisis in the future. To achieve that they find the root of the crisis and take proactive steps to make sure there isn’t more damage to reputation. We were taught that the best practice is to incorporate both single and double-loop reputation-repairing activities in a crisis.

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Watching Boeing gave me the feeling they wanted to skip the first step as they didn’t seem to see the importance of grounding their own planes while airlines took it upon themselves to do so. It was very interesting as I was learning this to be able to put it in perspective to a real-life crisis that was ongoing before and after this lecture.

Like it wasn’t enough to be able to relate the communication lectures to the Boeing crisis I could also do so in a Brand Management and Corporate Identity seminar. We were given random types of companies and told to come up with values for them. My group got allocated an “airline”. My first thought was safety.

Me and the professor debated for a little while whether that is something that was a given for an airline or not. I, being afraid of flying, told him it was incredibly important to me to know that was one of the values and that it would give me a larger sense of safety to fly with an airline that would emphasise on that as a value.

I would have loved to tackle a communication problem for Boeing, an airline or another stakeholder this week. I guess I did in my mind anyway.

It is a great feeling though when you can relate your studies to something that is going on out in the great big world (even though in this case, the event was very tragic). Boeing’s problems are just a fraction of where I, as a communication student can do so as I’ve seen through my studies and the media, communications are relevant in every aspect and I am yet to find a situation where it is not.

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Dissertation distress

I am at a point in my studies where I have to consider what my final dissertation should be about.

When I did my undergrads it was fairly simple. I had the motivation of wanting to see if all the voices around me were right. Are PR practitioners unethical? What kind of ethical framework do they work by etc. I have covered this topic before. I conducted this research by collecting secondary data and theory regarding ethics and ethics in PR. I also interviewed four PR practitioners in Iceland.

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Now I have to decide what to write about as my final dissertation in my masters.

As I mentioned in my last blog I have just started the communication part of my studies. I find it very interesting but I feel like I need more before I make up my mind on a specific topic for the dissertation.

I sat a class in Corporate Communications and Reputation Management last week where the topic was Performance, Behaviour and Reputation. It advocated the employees being brand ambassadors and touched on how to encourage them to support and strengthen the corporate reputation.

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This caught my attention. Having been someone at the bottom of the pyramid for years, being uneducated, on minimum wages, I have often wondered why the people higher up the ladder don’t value and see the potentials and wealth in their employees on the floor.

Unfortunately, the mentality in many companies back home is “if you don’t like it, find something else to do”. Everyone at the bottom is replaceable, which to me seems short-sighted and counterproductive in a company that is trying to create revenue and a good reputation. People talk and people talk about how it is to work in certain places. In a country like Iceland word travels even faster than elsewhere.

I did a course in HR in my undergrad and in that course we were told about the worth of employees and how much training can cost, the process of hiring new people etc. We were also told about the assets each employer brings with time spent within the company. The insight people gain etc.

This is something I think managers at different levels sometimes fail to see. They fail to value the knowledge the people on the floor bring by working with customers, using all the processes put in place etc. When someone works with customers all day that person gets to hear what they want, what information they need, what they are satisfied with and what they are unhappy about.

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So, in this class last week we were told about how to encourage employers to express themselves and how communications should flow both up and down. People should feel comfortable about expressing themselves, feel valued and listened to.

I am a fairly straight forward person and I use to do that. I used to express ideas, I used to talk about how processes might be made more efficient and what could be done better for employees, also with regards to customers. I would also talk about what was positive and try to make people smile and feel embraced at work. As a person on the floor I soon discovered this was not well received. I got the feeling the people higher up than me were thinking: “What the hell does she know?” or even “How dare she say that/suggest that?”. It drained all ambitions out of me and in the end, at these different places I worked at I just did my job. Nothing less, nothing more. I saw this happening to so many talented people that I came across while working in these jobs.

Sadly, if ideas from myself or other people on the floor were actually listened to, they would result in someone at managerial level getting all the praise, without us even getting a pat on the back let alone something more.

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The weird thing about all this is that it was not like there weren’t any communication processes in place. There were almost always thick HR booklets on how to do this and that and they would cover how happy one should be at work, how communications within the company should be and that people were encouraged to express themselves. All well and good. On paper.

However, in practice it didn’t seem to work. Out of all the places I have worked at I believe employees opinions and voices were truly valued at two places.

Due to all this it came to my mind whether that could be something to cover in my dissertation. As I said there are processes in place but for some reason they seem to just be there, not actually practiced. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to talk to someone at a managerial level and quiz them about the communication processes within the company, ask about satisfaction with the processes etc. and then get to talk to other employees at different levels and get their opinion and understanding of the same. Once that would be done I would see if there is a gap in the communication plan/process etc.

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However, as one of my professors pointed out, it might be difficult to get managers to agree on me conducting such a research within their company, unless, maybe, I would do a project rather than a dissertation. Still it would be very sensitive information.

So, I guess I am back at the drawing board. Giving that I am only into my fourth week of this semester and the fact I have already come across one thing that triggered interest gives me hope there will be more.

All I know is I want to do interviews rather than big questionnaires and it HAS TO BE interesting as then the writing will come easy, as it is fun, something I will enjoy writing about.

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What is the worth of a good reputation?

“If I was a CEO I would never pay my PR practitioner less than my lawyer, I would pay him even more!”

These words came from a friend of mine back in Iceland. She’s a law student, a mother and works as a team leader in a big production plant in Iceland.

As many people don’t really understand what it is a PR practitioner does they don’t understand the value they bring to a company. It can be hard to measure the financial value they actually bring, however, when a company doesn’t have someone to integrate their communication and respond professionally when a crisis hits, they can really feel the impact of not having someone trained in the profession at hand.

When I conducted my interviews with the PR practitioners in Iceland for my dissertation it blew me away how varied their job was. They were training CEO’s and spokespeople in how to speak in public, at interviews etc. and how to react when facing challenging questions. They were writing news releases, they were planning social gatherings for their costumers’ clients as even though they are not event planners as such. The whole look and execution of events has to echo the message they’re trying to send out.

An example of someone who would have benefited from some PR training is Barilla’s chairman in 2013 when he said on Italian radio: “I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them. []. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role. If [gays] don’t like it, then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand.”

Barilla’s slogan: “Where there is Barilla, there is a home” Became a target for a play on words for those offended by the comment. Posts like: “Where there is my home, there is no Barilla” and “Where there is Barilla, there is homophobia” surfaced on social media.

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One person commented this on the company’s Facebook site: “I’m Italian, I’m gay, I’m married legally to a man, I have three adopted children. I had Barilla pasta for dinner last night. Today, tomorrow and forever more I will choose another brand of pasta. Good bye Barilla! You lose!”

My brother is gay. He made sure I knew about this. Therefore, it’s safe to say it hit the company at a larger scale than “only” through its gay customers. People conscious of human rights also boycotted their products.

2 months after the comments Barilla pasta was on 25% discount in the main supermarkets in my home country, Iceland.  However, it is hard to find evidence of how hard the comments actually hit the company as its privately owned and didn’t reveal how the boycott hit their sales figures. But it’s not only sales figures one has to consider, it also has to do with the brand and the brands reputation.

Barilla did bounce back and learned from their mistakes. Only a year later they featured a gay couple in an advert, they were donating money for gay rights causes and expanding health benefits for transgender workers and their families. All very positive, however good news seem to travel slower than bad news and until I started researching the case further for this blog post I hadn’t heard about this turnaround. I only heard the negative news back in 2013.

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Another company that could have hugely benefited from having integrated communication plan is United Airlines. This is a case I covered in my dissertation as it shows how by not responding a relatively minor event can spiral into something huge.

What happened was that the musician Dave Carroll and his band flew with United Airlines. When arriving at their destination he noticed that airport staff unloading the plane threw bags between them, including the bands instruments. Once Dave got his Taylor guitar he discovered the neck was broken. For 9 months he tried contacting the airline to get some compensation, he tried many different ways of communicating with them but had no luck. After getting nowhere he wrote the song “United breaks guitars”. He uploaded the song onto YouTube and when this is written it has been watched 18 million times. He wrote two more songs about his experience and went onto radio and TV to talk about his experience. On YouTube people have written comments about the songs and their own experiences with the airline.

( You can see the video here )

If the company had responded and shown some empathy, things wouldn’t have had to go this far but with social media and power of the masses things can quickly spiral out of control.

In both cases there are other companies however that seem to be quick to realize opportunities, companies that are indirectly connected to the crisis in question.

Barilla’s competitors Bertolli Germany responded to Barilla’s crisis by publishing an advert which they had published 2 years prior, which featured a gay couple. They also posted a picture with the caption: “Pasta and love for all” on their Facebook site.

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While United Airlines didn’t seem to realize how important it was to respond to their customers’ needs Taylor guitars did, even though they weren’t prompted. They compensated him by giving him a new guitar and they uploaded videos onto YouTube about their repair services and on how to travel safely with their guitars.

This shows that having a communication/marketing team on their toes can hugely benefit a company as they will seize the moment and grab the chance of positive publicity when it presents itself. As these two examples show, it doesn’t even have to be expensive, just seen and acted upon!

So, going back to the beginning of this post, I believe my friend hit the nail on the head.

A good PR practitioner is worth their weight in gold. If they listen to the market, are responsive, creative and on point they can in many cases avoid major upheaval. At the very least respond to it in the most efficient way. They will also be able to spot potential opportunities when a crisis hits someone else.

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Being a PR student in the shadow of the professions questionable reputation

Oh, the controversy of Public Relations!

I have 10 siblings, in that group I have two siblings with a university degree. I come from a line of hardworking working-class people. From generation to generation I believe the elderly always hoped the younger ones would be able to make a better life for themselves. Not merely live from pay check to pay check, and sometimes not even that. Therefore, my grandparents and parents have tried their best to push us towards education. They want us to be able to enjoy the jobs we do as well as life.

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My brother holds a Bachelors degree and Masters degree. He’s 1 and half years younger than me and very close to me. He has always encouraged me to study. Understandably, when I made the decision to do my Bachelors he was the first one I called, for support you see.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m going back to school!”

Him: “Really? That’s great news!”

Me: “Yeah, I just enrolled this morning!”

Him: “Fantastic! I am so happy for you!!”

Me: “Thank you!”

Him: “So what is it in?”

Me: “Media and Public Relations”

….at this moment I got the feeling that if he would have stood in front of me, he would have spat in my face.

Him: “What the fxxx!! Bloody unprofessional bunch of people! Got no morals and are ready to say what ever as long as they get paid for it!!”

Me: “Hey, I’m still me and my ethics won’t change overnight….”

Him: “These people are spin doctors and twist the truth to serve their clients!!”

Me: “Well…I just wanted to share this with you. I’ll start next month…”

'Are we talking about political reality, media reality or the real reality?'

And that’s where we left it. I didn’t manage to tell him I was in it for the media side of it as I wanted to become a journalist or a news reporter. The public Relations side just came with the course. Once the news broke out within my family I continually met voices that echoed my brothers opinion and my standard answer was: “I’m in it for the media side”. Whenever Public Relations practitioners were working for corrupt politicians or companies with a bad reputation I would be poked and told that was going to me. As time passed I got to the Public Relations part of my studies and to my surprise I loved it! I liked the sound of the buzz around the occupation, the thought of meeting a lot of people, the fact the tasks can vary and so on. Therefore, it became harder to answer people when they told me I was a future spin doctor.

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In my Public Relations class we were told to tell the truth and tell it quick. That sounded pretty ethical and to me it felt like that’s how it should be done, but maybe not everyone practiced in that way.

Due to all this I decided to calm my own mind and shut up all these negative voices (hopefully) by writing my final dissertation on ethics in Public Relations. It was called “Ethics and Public Relations: where is the line?” This is the dissertations abstract:

“This dissertation covers the ethics of Icelandic professionals working in the field of public relations. It covers what kind of values they follow when facing ethical issues at work. It examines whether those values are formal or informal and whether they follow them when facing an ethical crisis. To achieve an answer to those questions in this dissertation it is based on theoretical content such as philosophy, peer-reviewed articles and other material that concluded my findings. Additionally, it is based on interviews with four professionals in the field of public relations and their attitudes towards ethics at work.

The findings indicate that public relations professionals in Iceland work by informal and personal values. It differs whether they actually follow through with those values when it comes to it as half of the participants said they would, while the other half either said the liability rests on the shoulders of their company directors or that when it comes down to it, ultimately the client pays for a certain service.”

In short, it varies. Some follow ethical guidelines, mostly their own, as there doesn’t seem to be many formal rules for the profession in Iceland. However, there is an association of Public Relations practitioners in Iceland but only two out of the four practitioners I spoke to knew of its existence. None of them knew that the association had a set of ethical rules. Two of them said they wouldn’t lie but they might not tell everything if it wasn’t necessary. They all agreed however, if you lie and practice spin you won’t survive in this profession for a long time. Especially not in a country as small as Iceland as news travels fast and as a Public Relations practitioner your reputation is everything.

When I told my family that I was going abroad for further studies in Public Relations I met with nothing but positivity and support. It’s a field that many do not understand and to be fair, Hollywood hasn’t done us any favours. My family now understands that the profession doesn’t make a person unethical and that it rests with the person itself as to how they practice.

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