Why PR is going backwards

11 Jul

Ray Hiebert It was during the final session of the second annual International History of Public Relations Conference (#ihprc2011) when event organiser Professor Tom Watson said something explosive.

While cantering through his 'evolution of evaluation' talk, Watson said that public relations had begun as a holistic activity in the early twentieth century, but during the second half of the century had become a narrower publicity function driven by the rise of the consumer society. 

Watson did not have time to elaborate – nor did he need to given the audience he was addressing. But I'd like to offer my own interprepration in the hope that this will reach a few more people beyond those who attended.

I call this explosive because it reverses the widely-cited and therefore presumably broadly-accepted depiction of PR as having emerged from one-way publicity before developing into professional two-way communications.

Watson suggests we're in danger of going the other way. Other speakers at the conference showed that 'the more things change, the more they stay the same' and keynote speaker Ray Hiebert (starts after 13 mins) comprehensively demolished the certainties of the Grunigian world view (note that he had hired James Grunig to the University of Maryland) when he dismissed the idea of a 'general theory of public relations'.

The tension between PR-as-craft (exemplified by Ivy Lee) and PR-as-strategic-management (Edward Bernays) has been there from the early twentieth century.

Public relations examples can be found further back in history (one paper contrasted More's Utopia with Machiavelli's The Prince – which was, as I suggested, to compare a saint with the devil incarnate), though Gunther Bentele rejects as unhistorical the use of the term public relations to describe these early examples. He suggests they are rather examples of public communication.

History illuminates our understanding of the present, and international perspectives refresh our narrow world view. (The more positive perspective on PR going backwards is that we're revisiting and reinterpreting our roots.) I hope to be back for more next time round (and am already planning some archive research) – and look foward to meeting more people at the next conference. There's so much to be researched and written about:

  • Corporate and institutional histories 
  • Non-corporate uses of PR
  • Country cases (and multi-country comparisons)
  • Thematic perspectives (how about public relations and religion?)

5 Responses to “Why PR is going backwards”

  1. Stephen Waddington 11/07/2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Good post, and I agree to a point. Grunig called it correctly in his paper ‘Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation’ from 2009 in my view [http://wadds.co/rpBicq%5D. Its hard going but worth reading.
    Public relations has really been little more than propaganda relations during the second half of the twentieth century. It has been obsessed with media relations and editorial influence as a means of reaching an audience.
    As the century rolled over we’ve become excited about digital fragmentation as a mechanism for organisations to engage in a genuinely two-way symmetrical relationships with their publics.
    But its yet to happen in any serious way. Most organisations are still broadcasting via their corporate web site. And when they venture onto networks such as Facebook, Twitter or soon Google+, the behaviour is repeated, and very few actually do it symmetrically.
    But I’m optimistic because organisations that are using social media and networks truly as a social means of communication are generating tremendous returns.

  2. Heather Yaxley 11/07/2011 at 6:45 pm #

    Richard – thanks for the post, tweets and good chats at IHPRC last week. I agree with your conclusions over the way that PR has regressed rather than progressed in many aspects based on a robust understanding of history.
    My view, unlike Stephen however, is not that PR should continue aspiring to a Grunigian ideal of symmetry – the general theory that Ray Hiebert and others argued against.
    What I would like to see is a move away from the focus on communications management (which ironically Hiebert felt is a better name for PR). For me, that is the tactical approach which is most evident in a marketing-orientation. What I find shocking is that many PR practitioners who do engage exclusively in publicity have no understanding of the history, theory or strategic concepts that underpin effective marketing operations. Where is their knowledge of psychology, segmentation, cost-benefit analysis, etc?
    The early practitioners understood that PR was a strategic function – and this included engagement in generating sales, building brands or reputation.
    So overall, my takeaway lesson from last week isn’t really that PR has become more marketing oriented, but it has become more tactical and less intelligent!

  3. Simon Collister 11/07/2011 at 8:35 pm #

    Nice post – and your suggestion of a study into PR and religion would be particularly interesting given the origins of the modern concept of ‘communication’ in ecclesiastical terms!
    With an original definition meaning “sharing, community and contiguity” (see Terranova, T. (2006) Network Culture) you could almost trace modern PR/communications from pre-Enlightenment; through modernity and into a resurrected (pardon the pun) format through online/networked communities.
    There’s a PhD or two in there! 🙂

  4. Richard Bailey 11/07/2011 at 8:39 pm #

    Thanks for the comments.
    Heather’s right: this isn’t a discussion of PR vs marketing (yawn) but a discussion of PR as a tactical tool vs PR as strategy.
    Stephen will know from his own client work what the balance is (and whether there has been a change with the emergence of digital and online).
    I don’t mean to knock Professor Grunig (as Anne Gregory said, that would be adolescent), but it’s worth pointing out that academics in the US and most European countries (plus Australia and New Zealand) are exploring new approaches at just the point when some intelligent practitioners and many other countries are just discovering the Four Models of PR and exhibiting the fervour of the newly-converted.

  5. Paul Seaman 13/07/2011 at 7:32 am #

    I’m not sure that PR is going far enough back. It strikes me that there’s something limiting in Gunther Bentele’s attempt to frame PR historically as a modern practice. But I’m not surprised. The truth is that PRs struggle to understand what PR is about and to describe what they do coherently. That failure explains why most modern definitions of PR are dishonest, wide of the mark, and utopian.

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