Public relations: on the side of the angels?

19 Aug

Four books, two themes

new booksIn place of full reviews, here are some themes from four new books I’ve been reading this summer.

The first is long-awaited. It explores the connection between public relations and leadership (as distinct from management).

Kevin Murray’s The Language of Leaders (first published in 2012, but I’m reading the 2013 second edition) is concerned with the leadership traits and communication skills of senior executives, not the PR skills of their advisers. Based on interviews with CEOs, it’s an anecdotal but intellectual book that covers key traits and explores ‘why you need to be a better communicator if you want to lead.’ The book presents twelve principles of leadership communication.

Though Richard Branson was an interviewee who eluded the author, his example as a communicative leader is an inspiring one.

Kevin Murray is a senior practitioner, though one with an impressive commitment to scholarly publications.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, both based at Leeds Metropolitan University, have written the pioneering Strategic Public Relations Leadership. From Grunig and Hunt’s landmark textbook Managing Public Relations in 1984 to Moss and DeSanto’s 2012 Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective, management was the key challenge in the academic literature.

Now it’s leadership. The book articulates the strategic contribution of public relations and explores the qualities and attributes of public relations leaders before describing their responsibilities.

It’s a rich and rewarding read, but the practitioner is spared the opaque language and obscure references of many academic texts. That’s because the book uses footnotes, many of which are detailed explanations of academic sources and concepts.

It’s an ideal textbook for a senior practitioner qualification that doesn’t yet exist (since the CIPR Diploma is still stuck in the management paradigm).

My second theme is public relations and the public good. At first glance, this is a challenging concept, since it’s much easier to see how public relations is used to protect and promote private interests.

John Brown, Pat Gaudin and Wendy Moran have written PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services for the Kogan Page PR in Practice series.

Some texts in this series are purely ‘how to’ guides written by practitioners, showing little awareness of wider debates and academic contributions to the field. This is an altogether more sophisticated read, even containing some historical context and citing scholars such as Jacquie L’Etang and Scott Anthony (see below).

‘Public relations and public services go together’ the authors write. ‘They are intrinsically linked to a belief in both the public service ethos and public interest.’

Yet is the rebranding of PR as communication in the title and throughout the text an attempt to distance responsible communicators from the discredited image of PR consultants?

Scott Anthony’s Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain was published last year, but I waited for the (much cheaper) paperback to appear this year. Its subtitle is ‘Stephen Tallents and the birth of a progressive media profession’ and this indicates the balance of the book. Rather than being a straightforward biography of Stephen Tallents, one of the founding fathers of British public relations, the book presents the emergence of public relations within the context of the history of ideas.

Anthony writes: ‘Public relations today has an image problem. Seen through the prism of popular works… public relations is a profession that has endowed sectarian interests with the ability to manipulate entire populations… By contrast, this book argues that the development of public relations in Britain was a product of the Great Depression that was animated by the same liberal ideas that inspired William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes.’

In other words, public relations originated in a desire to create a more harmonious and cohesive society. I’m sure the authors of PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services would agree.

As with the Gregory and Willis book, the text is supported by extensive footnotes, making a complex book a manageable and brief read.

Just as many seem to be ditching the name ‘public relations’ we have a Cambridge academic writing a revisionist history to make professionals feel much better about their practice.

One Response to “Public relations: on the side of the angels?”

  1. Philip Young (@mediations) 20/08/2013 at 10:00 am #

    Useful round up, Richard. Have been wanting to read Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain since it was first published – thanks for alerting me to the not quite so scary price tag. Ordered.

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