Open source learning

Children need boundaries and expect rules. Teaching is necessarily didactic (the teacher will always know more than the pupils).

With adults, the balance changes. Research students should know more than their supervisors; practitioner-students will always have a depth of knowledge on which to draw. In these situations, the teacher becomes more like a conductor than a performer.

This blog has been an experiment in ‘open source learning’, or collaborative ‘we-think‘.

The stats tell the story: a slow-burn in the weeks before the course turning into an explosion of activity as one contributor became many.

Though classrooms are enclosed spaces, we involved a number of outsiders in the teaching which enabled us to broaden our reach.

In the week since the course ended, the visits to the blog have dipped dramatically – but there were still twice as many as before the course began.

In We-Think Charles Leadbeater talks about the blurring lines ‘between expert and amateur, audience and performer, user and producer’. Our class, like our blog, was a mashup involving all of these. The aim was to co-create learning.

Decline and Fall

Hadrian's Wall (photo credit below)

Edward Gibbon’s great work – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – was published between 1776 (that date seems to ring a bell) and 1788.

His thesis is a powerful one. That the Roman Empire declined from within: its very success led to a love of luxury that softened up the Roman citizenry. Christianity had a part to play too.

Subsequent historians have tended to focus on those legacies of Rome that survived long after the end of the imperial age. You don’t have to look hard to find them: so-called Romance languages, the Roman Catholic church and senators are a few. It’s possible to see subsequent European history as a series of attempts to recreate the Roman Empire (the Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community being only the latest of them).

But here’s another way to look at this question. What’s so wrong with decline? Hadrian is celebrated as the emperor who defined the boundaries of the empire, which meant in some cases a retreat from earlier expeditions. (Hadrian’s Wall divided the occupied part of Britain from the wilder land to the north, now Scotland). Hadrian lived three centuries before the collapse of the western empire.

Europe faces many problems at the start of the twenty-first century: slow growth, ageing populations, government debts, problems of immigration and assimilation – but quality of life surveys still show European cities as desirable places to live. Migration statistics show just how desirable entry into Europe is for many from outside the continent.

Edward Gibbon would surely have condemned the Italians for their preference for La Dolce Vita over austerity. Europe seems a happier place now than a century ago when many different nations competed to build and consolidate their empires – a competition that was about trigger the first of two world wars.

We humans reach our physical peaks at a young age – and so we spend most of our lives in decline. Yet few adults would surely choose to return to their adolescent selves.

Even declining industries can enjoy a ‘long tail’. In place of excitement and growth, they can offer assets and good dividends for shareholders.

Is decline necessarily so bad?

– Richard

Photo by vincent0923 on Flickr (Creative Commons licence)

Rethinking PR with Leo Messi and Joseph Nye

“Always useful to look backwards before looking forwards.” Exploring this thought while surrounded by boisterous Argentines in an “Irish” pub in Bologna, I’m irritated.


It won’t go away.


That freaking noise again, the vuvuzela, drowning out all else and testing the limits of my enthusiasm for watching Argentina toy with South Korea. My world cup venue’s multi-national nationalists capture my last two weeks in Bologna down to a tee: In our fiercely local globalized world, how can my voice break through the constant hum?

Most professionals want to stand out but for PR professionals it’s our very raison d’être. A Swedish book blog by the name has also proven to be a an invaluable tool in that regard.

It’s why we’ve taken this course, Public Relations and Public Affairs from a European Perspective at SAIS campus in Italy. Our professional prospects depend on learning how PR strategies can guide our potential clients and future employers through the din. Moreover, how can we as budding PR professionals stand apart from our peers?

We should, I suppose, as university graduate students, be primarily motivated by an academic curiosity for all things PR related; mere instrumental career goals should pale far down our priority list. Yeah, right. At around three thousand dollars before a gelato has been licked, academic curiosity is an expensive luxury few of us can afford exclusively indulging in. This trip’s lessons better be “operational”, “usable” and “applicable”. How will I sell this learning?!

My food is late as I watch Messi weave through futile Korean tackles; a master craftsman so confident in his ability he patiently awaits his moment doubtless it will come. What a colleague he must be.

Should I feel guilty, standing in the oldest seat of learning in modern Europe, is my instrumental mentality sacrilegious – a concrete example of divergence between American and European worldviews? (And is this Irishman going native?!) No. Frankly, my mentality is ideal if not idealistic. This is, after all, exactly the mentality my future clients and employers will evaluate PR and my own PR skills with: “Isn’t PR just hot air?” To ask their question is to be halfway there: I’m already emphasizing. Sorry Madame L’Etang, that’s score one for US instrumentalism.

Argentina is now 2-0 up and starting to buzz, they know they’re on to a winner. I am starting to feel the same way about my PR prospects. I’ve spotted an opening ripe for new ideas and insights – some of which could be valuable to employers, even interesting to academics. It is the 88-12 trend.

There has been some fabulous discussion here this week but the 88-12 statistic has stood out. 88-12 presents a threat to PR’s professional and academic credibility and, by extension, to my own PR-related employment prospects. What is it? Of all the public relations organizations engage in (consciously and intentionally, or not) only twelve percent is attended to.

This statistic is as shocking as it is striking and I am positively teeming with thoughts on how to transform this threat into an opportunity for some new and broadened PR thinking. After all, if eighty-eight per cent of organizations’ PR is either neglected or uncontrollable, isn’t the conventional business and academic literature focusing, to some extent, on the equivalent of whether Ms Lincoln enjoyed the play other than the incident? Sensing my opening, I am hoping so.

I look around the bar while considering which unconventional PR paradigms may offer clues, insights and even case studies for addressing some of this 88%. The barroom is pungent with lager and sweat, laughter and camaraderie and inevitably I flash back eight years to home.

“Let’s deedle-lee-diddle the bastards”.

I’ll never forget that phrase; uttered in jest by a Belfast barman while he cranked up traditional Irish music upon three stout Orangemen entering the premises. This was my first lesson applying international relations scholar Joseph Nye’s soft power theory. The patriotism unleashed by the world cup all around me reinforced the theme.

What can soft power theory offer PR theorists and practitioners determined to affect more influence over the neglected 88%?

Nye’s sobering illustration of the collapse in many forms of power hierarchies following the rapid and gargantuan drop in the cost of information production, dissemination and consumption since the seventies, provides essential reading for all modern PR professionals.

Targeted towards international relations grand strategists, Nye’s strident critique of the limits of hard, i.e. military power, in an information age, inadvertently resolves PR debates concerning Grunig’s symmetrical model versus asymmetrical models. Nye’s logic suggests both models exists simultaneously, both models remind one another of each other’s limitations and are, therefore, both required in any responsible PR strategy or academic analysis.

“In this new world of transnational threats and the information age, it is not just whose army wins, it’s whose story wins…When our policies are formulated in ways which are consultative, which involve the views and interests of others, we are far more likely to be seen as legitimate and to attract others.”

Rather than challenging contemporary PR thinking, Nye’s perspective validates conversations concerning “license to operate” and “sustainability” already initiated by Tony Falconi’s draft PR Accords. Nye, I believe, anchors Falconi’s ambition for PR’s increased validity and value in cold and stark ROI terms: Woe behold the “Goliath” country – or company – who neglects to invest beyond reputation and towards zeitgeist synchronicity. Conversely, clever are the “Davids” who “punch above their weight” by identifying with the interests of others.

Most relevant still for PR practitioners, following the impact of the information age, is Nye’s attention to foresight. Eventually the broad current of public conversation will sweep you up no matter your size and power. Preparing to exploit and protect against this unstoppable “soft” force should – to my mind – reorient PR’s priority goal-setting towards influence and away from outcomes; being a respected, valued and credible partner in issues of public concern should be the new arch-goal. Sustainability is achieved by prioritizing the relationship itself rather than any specific profits or benefits it produces.

Some PR practitioners will inevitably dismiss this perspective as too vague and intangible. To paraphrase former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, you do not rip up your tomato roots one day after watering them simply because you have no tomatoes yet.

Unruffled by the vuvuzelas, Leo Messi would instinctively understand this. As one of twenty-two he’ll rarely have the ball but he is constantly available for it and, once in possession, he never wastes an opportunity to redirect the flow of the game.

Suddenly affecting that 88% appears much less intimidating.


Europe Has A Problem

Perhaps one of the strongest messages our esteemed professor has stressed is that there is not a single European perspective.  There is a European Union, sure, but it is no where near a One Nation movement towards a United Europe that a communications professional can approach strategically.

In fact, in many of these countries, there isn’t even one nation. For example, I’ll point to the elections this past weekend in Belgium. A Flemish separatist party became Belgium’s largest on a platform calling for reform of French and Dutch speaking factions that, if not resolved, will result in the Dutch faction splintering off.

[New Flemish Alliance Leader Bart De Weaver] has made no secret of his belief that this is only a step to full Flemish independence, but his genius was to position himself as the most radical of the mainstream leaders, pushing the status quo as far as it can possibly go without triggering an existential crisis. He dangled before Flemish voters the idea that, armed with a thumping mandate from them, he would have the power to demand a constitutional structure that finally reflected the Flemish view of reality: that Belgium is made up of two societies, in which a thrifty, centre-right, Dutch-speaking north should no longer have to subsidise a poorer, welfare addicted French-speaking, socialist south.

Internal division rearing its head seems to be a trend. In elections last week  Slovakia produced moderate gains for their center-right parties, but produced a huge backlash of nationalism. Jan Slota, the head of the country’s nationalist party warned that “Homosexuals and Hungarians will begin to rule this state.” Similarly, Geert Wilders anti-Islam Freedom party showed strong gains in a recent election that nearly ended with the controversial extremist who wants to end all Islamic immigration to the Netherlands in a prominent ministerial position.

To keep with the tone of personal experience we have flourishing on this blog, I’ll point to three examples I have seen in the three weeks I have been in Italy.  In Florence, my travel companion and I were approached in a butcher shop by a woman who began a long and protracted declaration- in Italian – of the heartbreaking sadness she has witnessed in Florence over the past two decades.

My companion – who understands Italian quite well – and myself – who does not – can conceivably pass as Italian, so we nodded our heads politely and added the occasionally sympathetic “si” and “perche?” Afterwords, my companion explained that the woman complained that the tourists and foreigners have taken her once beautiful city and overrun and destroyed it – with graffiti, excrement and general filth.

At a hotel along my journey the proprietor explained a run-in with a German customer. “From now on, no Germans. No!”

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I add a simple observation. Who are the beggars is Italian cities? I have seen no obvious Italians – only Indians, Africans and Roma (Gypsies to be un-PC). I found this startling.

Contrast this with the homeless or those asking for money in the United States. It is largely African American and Caucasian. I can not, for the life of me, ever remember an instance of a Hispanic, Asian or African asking for money in the United States.

My observation is that immigrants (both legal and illegal) have a status in the US that doesn’t appear to transfer to Italy. And their presence in Italy seems to put a strain on traditional Italians.

Now, any good sociologist will tell you that the plural of anecdote is not data. And I’ll agree. But this is a trend. And taken with the political gains (votes, however, are quantifiable) in Belgium, Slovakia and the Netherlands it adds up to a very real and very significant problem that must be taken into account when dealing with Europe from a public relations standpoint.

It would appear that there isn’t one Italy, one Belgium, one Slovakia or one Netherlands. So how could there possibly be one Europe. If there isn’t one Europe, there certainly isn’t one European Perspective.

So while I have learned a lot about Europe and its individual countries in this class, and a lot about public relations and corporate communication, I can honestly say that I haven’t learned a lot about the European perspective on anything (short of football). Except that it is more intricate and has vastly more layers than the countries themselves. And maybe that’s the lesson after all.


Bonn-EU Flag courtesy Revers via Flickr CC

Nosing around Bologna

In a city that’s a quick train ride from Milan – a destination considered by many the fashion capital of the world – it is not surprising that women are getting nose jobs. (In just two weeks here in Bologna, I have seen a handful of otherwise fashionably dressed women with large white bandages taped over their noses.)

What is surprising is the role that Bologna and one of its residents played in the development of the nose job – or rhinoplasty – over 400 years ago.

Born in Bologna in 1545, Gaspare Tagliacozzi was a talented surgeon based out of the University of Bologna who expanded on existing surgical methods to develop the ‘Italian method’ of rhinoplasty at a time when those who survived battle often had their noses cut off or damaged.

Anatomical theater in Bologna where Tagliacozzi lectured.

At the end of his career, Tagliacozzi helped standardize reconstructive surgery techniques by publishing a 700 page book that some consider the first text on plastic surgery in the history of medicine.

Examining plastic surgery through the historical lens of Tagliacozzi and 16th century Italy, it is interesting to consider the reasons women get plastic surgery in Bologna today.

In a country like Italy where feminine beauty is sublimated in the media and even exploited in the opinion of some, it seems plausible that women face a new kind of battle. A battle with beauty standards and objectification.

Ironically, this new battle, which is fought not with swords and shields but with images and symbols, articulates yet another threat to the human nose…a body party that has suffered well into antiquity.

–Aaron Ginoza

Who Pays the Price?

When I arrived in Bologna, one of my first cultural experiences was on the city’s bus system.

After getting on a local bus and quickly realizing I was headed in the wrong direction, I lugged my bags off and wondered whether anyone would scream at me about the fare I never paid.  But no one did.  In fact, as I observed the locals, they rarely paid for their rides.

In my last blog post, I referenced Tobias Jones’ Dark Heart of Italy.  In the book, Jones states that, “Italy’s moral minority always complains…that no one in Italy is ever, ever punished for anything: ‘nobody pays’…(they) complain bitterly and incessantly about the furbi – the ‘cunning ones’ – who appear to bend and break the law at will, without ever facing consequences.”

The problem with this system, as Tobias alludes, is that because no one is ever punished for their offenses, it creates a vicious cycle of abuse that is apparent across Italian culture, from Berlusconi to the city streets.

When I finally arrived close to my apartment, I asked for directions from an elderly local man, who inevitably told me, “Just take the bus, no one pays.”

After nearly two weeks of riding the busses here, I’ve honestly rarely paid for a ride.  The ‘furbi’ might praise me, but this cycle of abuse comes with a price and I’m not convinced Italy can afford to pay it.

– James S.

Taking A Piece of Bologna Home…

“What are you mastering exactly?”  These were the innocent, yet thought-provoking, words of my 16-year old cousin who responded to my email updating her on my Master’s program studies abroad in Italy.  Even if she may not yet grasp the concept of graduate education, her question made me think, what am I mastering?

Instead of trying to break down my last 2 years as a Hopkins grad student, I focused on the Bologna experience which has fast-tracked me to what I am specifically hoping to “master” upon completion of this program.  My elementary Italian (ok, just hi, bye, toilet and wine) vocabulary is now perfected, I have clocked time in over eight cities in just two weeks where I experienced a plethora of sights, cuisine, art and culture (with over 400 photographs as proof), and have come to find comfort in the soft hum of Vespas.

So, really, what have I mastered while in Bologna?  To most reading this, you would probably argue craziness due to gelato overdose.  But, besides returning to the States with a few extra pounds courtesy of the heavenly fresh bread/Nutella combo and a bag of new shoes, Bologna will allow me to return home – recharged as a graduate student and as a working professional, with a much-needed, new perspective on my education and career ahead.  The past two weeks have given me a fresh outlook on life, learning and opportunity, a renewed appreciation for intellectual, yet enjoyable conversation, a substantive understanding of the ever-changing European political and economic climate and ultimately a better understanding of cultural and international communication as a whole.

Living in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language or understand simple mannerisms, forces you to break down contributing factors of public relations to the bare bones of communication.  This simplification allows individuals from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds to communicate despite their diversity.  My time is Italy has helped in my attempt to master just that…


Forget global… think local

Trattoria del Rosso, Via Righi, Bologna

The other day a member of the group asked me where he could find the best place in Bologna to eat true Bolognese food. The city is renowned for its cuisine, so for him it made sense to try it out whilst here. Off the top of my head I suggested Ristorante Diana, on Via Indipendenza, a smart place which makes it into all the guidebooks on the city, though as I’ve never eaten there myself I nevertheless felt slightly fraudulent in recommending it.

Being a vegetarian (mostly!) I can’t comment on many of the typically Bolognese dishes, which are meat-based (everyone’s heard of the tomato and meat sauce, known throughout Italy as ragù).

But what I can comment on, having eaten my way through Italy’s boot from top to toe during the past 15 years, is that a good local restaurant always has certain definable characteristics. For one, it’s usually family owned, often for many generations. It will have a short menu that changes daily, as this will depend on the fresh ingredients available at the market that morning. Sometimes it will not have a menu at all (I’m thinking of the excellent Trattoria La Torre in Siena where the owner simply barks out the day’s choices at you – and no, it doesn’t have a website). It will pobably not have waiters dressed in bow ties, candles on the tables or a menu of multiple dishes printed in multiple languages. And will often not appear in any guidebook (here in Bologna, the great value Trattoria del Rosso fits this bill).

So, if not in a guidebook what the best way to find this perfect restaurant/trattoria? As with everything else in Italy, ask a local. Italy is all about ‘local’ – they even have a word for it (campanilismo – the attachment to one’s own church tower). In Italy it’s word of mouth, not the written word that counts – which is perhaps why PR (as we heard at Edelman the other day) is less developed here than in more globalised, less close-knit Northern European or American societies.

Just an after-dinner thought to imbibe along with your digestivo.

– Gail

The Religious Backdrop of Italian Life

Religious artwork and graffiti on the walk to Basilica della Madonna di San Luca, outside Bologna

During class, we discussed the irony of Pope Benedict XVI condemning condom use, yet on almost every street corner in Italy, there is a 24-hour condom vending machine.  States Tobias Jones, author of The Dark Heart of Italy, “Being Italian implies being Catholic…it’s a cradle-to-grave religion which is not only devotional, but also political and social and aesthetic,” (pg. 174).  It seems odd that a society noted for being so devout that it houses the Vatican defies, flagrantly, the mandates of the Papacy. 

How do Italians rectify these co-existing, yet diametrically opposed paradigms of the Catholic Church’s puritanical ideology and Italian society’s well-known hedonistic indulgences (mind the pun)?  Answer: The Italians are okay with it.  They are simply comfortable with conflicting ideologies. 

For instance, piazzas were originally meant to be religious, economic and political areas are now areas where Italians gather to drink, eat and socialize.  Additionally, you will find ancient and historically important buildings covered with Biblical references, and shockingly, graffiti.  Local churches, their interiors incredibly decorated, gilded and well looked after often smell of the previous nights’ celebration on the outside.

So, how have the Italians come to be so comfortable with these obvious discrepancies?

Perhaps the influence of Ancient Rome is still alive in many ways.  In Ancient Rome, there was a focus on art, music and literature and entertainment.  The Ancient Romans based their religion on the Greek deity system, where they actually thought of themselves as gods.  Frescoes, graffiti, brothels and sculptures found in Pompeii show a history of lascivious lifestyle, full of physical pleasure seeking.

Henry James may have said it best, “Venice is the most beautiful of tombs.”  James was referencing that Italy, now known for its vitality, has faced changing and sometimes very violent times. 

Whatever the reason, Italy is an interesting and striking country that has largely stayed the same in many respects while the populace evolves around it.

–          Kim

Getting more from less.

Given the apparent nutritional habits of the Bolognese, one wonders at their slender figures. Walking and cycling for transport, as well as consuming more fresh produce and less packaged food, may have something to do with it, but surely these alone are not enough to counteract all the pizza, pasta and gelato. I suspect a cultural factor may also be at play.

What I think I’ve noticed is the absence of the “more is better” culture prevalent in most of the U.S. For instance, compared to the American option to super-size, in a Bolognese gelateria you have the option of “piccolo,” which would be an unacceptably small portion for most Americans.

I believe this variation stems from a different relationship with food: Italians demand and consume superior products. Returning to the example of gelato, daily production with fresh and natural ingredients renders a real food with a genuinely appreciable flavor. We can compare this to mass-produced, highly-processed American ice cream, where the desire to eat is mostly motivated by the effects of sugar and fat on the brain’s reward center. The former is an aesthetic experience; the latter is simply stimulation, and hence conducive to excess.

Thus, I suspect American eating often falls into the category of reward-seeking behavior, whereas the Italians have a more purposeful, conscious, and sophisticated approach.  The interesting point here is that a cultural factor appears to be compensating for the failure of homeostatic control to regulate the consumption of a highly palatable food.

For those interested in reading further about the neurological side of food, addiction, and reward-seeking behavior, I’ve attached a literature review I wrote last year.  Common Neural Bases of Food & Drug Addiction

– Munis