Macnamara on media and the future of PR

13 Apr

Cross posted from Behind the Spin.

The 21st Century Media (R)EVOLUTION: Emergent Communication Practices
by Jim Macnamara
410 pages, Peter Lang, 2010

MacnamaraThis scholarly book is an important – but complex – contribution to the literature on PR and social media. So let’s start by unpicking the book’s title.

Macnamara tries to steer a course between the utopians heralding a major media revolution and the dystopians who see declining standards all around them. Hence the ambivalence over whether new media should be considered revolutionary or evolutionary. Then there’s the concept of emergence: as he explains it, ’some media and systems of communication are mutating, becoming self-organizing, and evolving into wholly new forms… Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory’.

The cited example of emergent media is simple enough: the unanticipated rise of text messaging on mobile phones. Then the author complicates it by saying the trend emerged  ’because of a ground-up bifurcation led by teenagers’. The author is a professor of public communication – and his desire to profess to his academic peers is evidently more powerful than his desire to communicate to the general reader. This book belongs on the media studies shelf in university libraries and will be read with most enthusiasm by research academics.



8 Cs of emergent media

He begins with an analysis of types of media, and a discussion on the appropriateness of such a time-bound term as ‘new media’. The author finds ’social media’ ambiguous and problematic, but he’s happy with ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’.

He finds that public communication practices are characterised by: ‘connectivity, communication, community, creativity and co-creativity, collaboration exploiting… collective intelligence and conversation.’

What follows is a sophisticated but indigestible review of the sociology of media consumption and identity before a succession of chapters addressing the future. There’s a chapter on the future of mediated politics (containing a discussion of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere); a chapter on the future of journalism (including analysis of the influence of PR on journalism and of the rise of citizen journalism); one on the future of advertising (including paid search) and another on future media business models.

The future of public relations

In chapter nine, 300 pages in, we reach the chapter on the future of public relations.

While advertising is mostly monologue and is increasingly unable to reach into many emergent media environments, public relations has unparalleled opportunities to help organizations align with the public interest, build relationships, establish goodwill for brands, and ensure sustainability to facilitating conversations and dialogue between organizations and their publics. But there is an urgent need for public relations to rethink its methods and practices and commit to openness, authenticity, and conversations which lead to true dialogue and relationships, rather than distributing packaged imagery.

‘It is time to open the floodgates of information and let it flow both ways and find its level’, he writes. ‘Ethical effective organizations have little to fear and much to gain’.

Macnamara envisages a new paradigm of public relations ‘in which centralized control paradigm ‘gatekeeper’ units are dismantled and replaced by professional communicators acting as advisers, trainers and facilitators of communication’.

In the conclusion, Macnamara offers 10 maxims of modern media. These are good. To pick just two, ‘there is no mass audience and, in reality, there never was’; and ‘networks are people – not technology’.

In such a precise academic book as this, the presence of glaring mistakes is surprising. We’re told that Shel Holtz wrote Twitterville (it was Shel Israel); and that Max Aitkin became Lord Beaverbrook (he was Max Aitken); we’re told, admiringly, that changes can be made to Wikipedia in ‘days if not hours’; the film of the novel becomes meaningless when called ‘Thank You For Not Smoking’.

Yet in admiring Macnamara and applauding his wide reading (this book has 44 pages of references), a question comes to mind. What can explain the strength of public relations and public communication scholarship in Australia (and also New Zealand)?  I’ll leave the final word to the author: ‘Australia is an ideal test-bed for research in this field having among the world’s highest per capita usage of computers and broadband internet connection combined with a small population spread over vast distances, which makes electronic communication highly relevant and even essential.’

4 Responses to “Macnamara on media and the future of PR”

  1. Greg Smith 17/04/2010 at 4:46 am #

    Seems like a lot of waffle to me. I reckon he’s just out to impress his peers. Who reads these tomes, anyway (aprt form reviewers like you, Richard)?

  2. Richard Bailey 17/04/2010 at 8:45 am #

    But I was hoping that someone like Greg Smith PhD might be able to mount a defence of the academic process (I call myself an educator, not an academic).
    Educators focus on the process of learning and training; academics seek approval from their peers. This is more than a question of self-esteem: it’s an essential requirement to get books and articles published and to establish the status and funding of PR and communication departments within universities.
    Macnamara’s book is important and impressive (and I hope to have shown that in my review) – but I fear it’s not accessible beyond a small circle of scholars.

  3. Jim Macnamara 26/04/2010 at 11:07 pm #

    Thanks for the review and comments Richard. Mistakes are embarrassing, but 3-4 missed in 400 pages is forgivable I hope. Two points of clarification I would make though are (1) nowhere did the title or intro say this is a book for PR practitioners – it is a book about media and should be taken as such – but thanks for the review; (2) it was written as a research monograph – i.e. a scholarly research-based book intentionally for educators and students at undergrad and postgrad levels – not a professional handbook. To criticise it for being scholarly seems somewhat misdirected and your comments are ungracious Greg.

  4. Richard Bailey 27/04/2010 at 9:53 am #

    Thanks for the comment, Jim.
    I’m impressed by your scholarship and didn’t mean to be personally ungracious.
    But there is a wider problem that arises from discussions of the social web.
    Should we welcome academic publishing that exists within a silo and relies on the diminishing returns of sales to university libraries for its business model? Is the only peer review process that matters within this silo?
    Or should we be encouraging the best of scholarly thinking to cross over into the mainstream? There are many highly intelligent PR practitioners, though they’re not necessarily academics. This is surely a wide and interesting ‘market’ for academics to be reaching out to.

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