Rethinking the impossible (2)

4 May

Rethinking Public Relations is an intellectual book. (The author envisages it being read by PR academics and researchers – still a relatively small community.) But it’s not merely an academic book. Why do I make this distinction? Because Moloney is writing in a different (and nobler) genre: he fits into that tradition of British and Irish letters which prized the essay. Most academics either follow the (social) scientific research approach or split their texts between principles and practice. Moloney puts the idea first: the rest follows on from that.

I suspect that US academics may find it insufficiently scientific; continental European academics insufficiently theoretical. But it deserves wider reading, so I hope that this review might help get the word out.

Let me crudely summarise the argument from the first edition, published in 2000. Moloney observed the rapid growth of the public relations industry in the latter decades of the twentieth century, linking this to a process he describes as ‘accelerated pluralism’. (In  liberal democracies in the Anglo-American tradition, public relations is an important part of public discourse, engaged in and deployed by groups and individuals.) Yet he acknowledges the contradictions (why a practice so widely used is so widely disparaged and misunderstood) and dissects the dilemmas surrounding transparency, disclosure and ethical practice. In summary, he views public relations as ‘weak propaganda’.

This analysis makes Moloney the greatest critic and the most significant apologist for public relations. For example, he dismisses the critics from the anti-capitalist left by reminding them that advocacy groups such as Greenpeace are themselves effective users of public relations.

There is no need to change the thrust of this argument in the second edition; but Moloney is even more explicit in his linking of public relations and propaganda, and feels confident enought to challenge what he calls the Grunigian paradigm of public relations thought. More on this later.

It’s inevitable that there are mistakes in a text that takes such a broad sweep, but they’re always unfortunate. I note that Moloney makes two spelling mistakes in naming the public relations consultancy Burson-Marsteller (on page 20 to help the editors). It’s easily done – but even one mistake in the name would cause one of his students to have their job application rejected. In the same sector, his characterisation of Freud Communications as ‘celebrity PR’ specialists is at best a partial truth – though acceptable in the context.

I’ve twice read ‘conservation’ when in the context ‘conversation’ seems more appropriate. And Moloney must have his reasons for preferring equalitarian to egalitarian, though the distinction defeats me.

Next I’ll turn to the central thesis: the linking of PR to propaganda and the challenge to Grunig’s ‘excellent’ model of two-way symmetrical public relations.

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