PR: what is it good for?

11 Feb

W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay
It's Not Just PR: Public Relations in Society
144 pages, Blackwell Publishing, 2007

I've re-read this slim book as it's useful for a lecture I'm preparing, and I've found even more to admire second time round. Since it's probably too difficult and academic a book for most students, here's a summary in book review form.

The key question addressed by the authors (two respected professors of corporate communication from a US university) is this: does society need public relations?

To answer this, they first review the main critics of public relations. There are the negative media portrayals, the critical academic and popular texts from PR Watch authors Stauber and Rampton such as Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. (Their UK counterparts Miller and Dinan of Spinwatch, authors of A Century of Spin published last year are not mentioned in this book, but you can find my review here).

The main criticism levelled by Stauber and Rampton (and Miller and Dinan) is that PR is too powerful. Its widespread use by large corporations serves to stifle discourse and restricts democracy. Their targets are multinational businesses and the international public relations consultancies that serve their interests.

Coombs and Holladay then consider some popular pro-PR books. They argue that The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR and Full Frontal PR define public relations in its narrow role of generating media coverage. 'There is no real defense [sic] of public relations to be found in these books. But public relations is considered useful to society because it does help business.'

The authors note how the professional bodies and public relations academics do distinguish between public relations and publicity (the PRSA states that 'public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other'). Yet they cite Heath in questioning whether the academic definitions based on the concept of 'mutually beneficial relationships' are a statement of an ideal rather than reality.

For the central issue raised by this book is power. Since an organisation funds its public relations efforts, there is an implied persuasive purpose to these efforts. Would the organisation confer a stakeholder group with no power with as much significance as one with significant power to affect the achievement of organisational goals?

Coombs and Holladay propose the following definition of public relations, based on stakeholder theory: 'the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of stakeholder and organizational relationships'.

In reviewing professional ethics, they note the tension and contradictions in 'balancing the needs of society and the needs of clients'. They quote Shannon Bowen's chapter on the Ethics of Public Relations in Heath's Handbook of Public Relations: 'The power to influence society means that public relations holds enormous responsibility to be ethical'. 

Two-way symmetrical communication (ie a genuine dialogue) is preferable, but 'the important point is that organizations and stakeholders may be partners in two-way communication but rarely will they be equal in terms of power'.

Then there is the question of the power of the PR practitioner within the organisation. In theory, the boundary-spanning role suggests power and responsibility, but the practice may be rather different. 'Everything considered, the power of PR professionals within the organization is really quite limited. They may not be able to truly let their conscience be their guide.'

Outside the organisation, the authors see public relations as playing a role in the 'marketplace of ideas' through issues management and social marketing. 'The web of relationships is used to build awareness of and concern for an issue or a problem. Relationships between stakeholders are the raw material from which larger societal changes are constructed.'

Though the argument that public relations is too powerful is challenged ('public relations is not as all powerful as its critics would have us believe') they argue that 'public relations plays a valuable role in society… It helps to maintain the relationships necessary for the effective functioning of society.'

This may seem an unsurprising conclusion to a European reader, but it's worth noting that this book comes from two US academics, and was written before the credit crunch and recession became apparent. I suspect it will find greater favour today as organisations come to realise the limitations of promotional culture and pay more heed to the need for social legitimacy.

5 Responses to “PR: what is it good for?”

  1. Philip 11/02/2009 at 10:46 pm #

    An excellent review of a very useful book, Richard, but I have to disagree strongly with one part. I think you are doing Coombs and Holladay a great disservice by suggesting this is a difficult book. Yes, some of the arguments are sophisticated but it is also very readbale and makes a host of valuable points in a simple and direct manner.
    For me difficult books are ones where the author seems to revel in using long and obscure words, taking pleasure in making their readers sweat. Tim and Sherry certainly don’t do that.
    I will accept that it repays re-reading – that’s a compliment, but don’t let people be put off by thinking that is a hard or obscure text.

  2. Dan 12/02/2009 at 1:59 pm #

    Thank you for the great overview – I may have to check out that book. On a side note, I’d be curious to get your take on PR agencies that charge per-article-placed (places like Publicity Guaranteed). Thanks!

  3. Richard Bailey 12/02/2009 at 2:51 pm #

    @ Philip: thanks for putting me right! I shouldn’t talk down something because it’s hard or assume that hard concepts are beyond most students…
    @ Dan: To be blunt, payment-by-results lends itself to unethical practice, so I’m opposed to it in principle (though I can understand why it might hold some appeal in a recession). Here’s why: some of the most valuable PR advice we will ever give will help to keep companies out of the media. How will you be rewarded for this advice on a pay-for-placement basis? As Coombs and Holladay argue, there should be more to PR than media publicity, but agreeing to payment by results you’re accepting that’s all you do.

  4. David Phillips 13/02/2009 at 7:18 pm #

    The theme ‘but rarely will they be equal in terms of power’ strikes a chord with what Bruno Amaral is doing.
    In automated discourse analysis of blog posts(and thereby less subjective than traditional discourse analysis) the findings run counter to Scott (and Moloney) in that the dominant coalition in blogs are open to interaction from the commons which levels out the power relationship.
    The early findings would indicate that these interactive relationships are offering greater power to publics and cause authors to re-think.
    Another straw in the wind is the ability to petition the Prime Minister on the No 10 web site where there is a capability for influence that is evident not just to the PM but the people watching the votes. The petition critical of bankers is a case in point. Bankers had a lot to learn about their reputation from this activity. Other examples abound.
    I am not sure where this is leading but certainly it is a shift in the exercise of power with related implications for the practice of PR and what it is good for.

  5. road bikes 27/02/2009 at 6:09 am #

    PRs are good for business enhancements as well.

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