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Some thoughts on PR theory and practice

12 Jun

Public Relations, Society & Culture In preparation for a peer group discussion this week, here are my thoughts on PR theory and practice drawn from some notable recent contributions to public relations literature.

As so often when discussing theories of public relations, we start with Professor James Grunig.

I assess many student essays at undergraduate, postgraduate and professional levels, and there's a sense from so many of these that Grunig's symmetry/excellence paradigm is the only 'correct' theory of public relations. All others are somehow flawed subversions of the truth, and practice that falls short of the ideal is somehow aberrant. (Grunig has, of course, argued in favour of a 'general theory' of public relations.)

Grunig and Hunt's 'two-way symmetric' model was articulated in a famous textbook published as long ago as 1984, and James Grunig (a Professor Emeritus who still actively defends and promotes his thinking) continues to win hearts and minds.

Two impressive new practitioner texts published this year, Katie Delahaye Paine's Measure What Matters and Philip Sheldrake's The Business of Influence both draw heavily and predominantly on his work.

Like the other milestone textbook of the era, Cutlip et al's Effective Public Relations, Grunig and Hunt's Managing Public Relations drew on systems theory. Systems theory once seemed as solid as Newtonian physics – until some new theories came along (Relativity, String Theory) to change the way we think about the world.

Scientists and mathematicians are now more interested in chaos theory than systems theory. As Jim Macnamara writes in The 21st Century Media (R)evolution, 'Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory.'

Consultant Martin Thomas has written a new book called Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go, in which he analyses 'the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'. 

'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'

Modernist paradigms such as symmetry/excellence look less compelling a decade into a twentieth-first century in which chaos theory has replaced systems theory.

Then there is the explicit focus of some emerging public relations scholars. In their introduction to Public Relations, Society and Culture, Lee Edwards and Caroline Hodges deliniate the battle lines. 'Historically, public relations research has been driven by organisational interests, treating the profession as an organisational function first and foremost. The view is exemplified in the work of James Grunig and his colleagues in the United States of America … This singular focus on public relations in organisations has tended to exclude the social world in which those organisations operate.' (pp 1-2) 

There's nothing new here. The contrast between an organisational perspective and a societal perspective has been made for at least 15 years by Jacquie L'Etang and fellow critical scholars and postmodernists. Yet if it has taken over 25 years for the theories of Grunig et al to gain currency within public relations, it's perhaps no surprise that newer theories have yet to gain wider recognition.

I expect to continue reading essays revolving around 'symmetry/excellence' for years to come, but those teaching public relations have a responsibility to challenge the dominant paradigm and to illuminate alternative thinking.

Why history matters

12 Jul

An open letter to Tom Watson

The First International History of Public Relations Conference you organised in Bournemouth last week was an important event for public relations education. The conference was large enough to have critical mass and small enough to be focused and friendly.

I detected a consensus around the need to revise the standard approach to the history of PR (from Barnum to Bernays via Ivy Lee). We clearly need more than a solely US perspective on the development of the practice, though this isn't to make an anti-American point. Your conference was notably well-attended by US academics and their contributions were vital to its success.

I found the German perspective particularly valuable (we were fortunate to have three opportunities to listen to Gunter Bentele). In a short space of time (about 150 years), Germany has experienced industrialisation, unification, fascism, communism and liberal democracy. Debates around the role of public relations and propaganda in society have particular resonance here.

But why is history important and why should it be studied and taught? Ultimately we are all history and all generations struggle with the contradictions and confusions of their times. We are no wiser in 2010 than were intellectuals living in the European Enlightenment – or those living in classical antiquity. History teaches perspective – and humility.

Claims of novelty are usually exaggerated (and not just in news releases). While the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility may have been first used in the 1950s, it's not a new concept. Similarly, public relations-like behaviour long predates the emergence of a public relations industry.

Public relations practice depends on context. History teaches a broader understanding of the forces at play (Kaja Tampere categorised these as 'economic, social, cultural and political'). When we teach students, it's context and analysis we should be teaching rather than a canon of facts. That way, we can avoid the impression that 'history's just one fucking thing after another', to quote from Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

Vince Hazleton rightly said there are two processes in historical research: information gathering and making sense of the information gathered. There were papers that presented new information based on archival and other primary research methods. And there were revisionist approaches to many well-known figures (Edward Bernays, John Hill). There is so much more potential here: I was amazed for example that no one mentioned Machiavelli in any of the papers.

Too often I heard people explain that they read history books but were not historians. This is not a useful distinction. Any academic who has written a literature review (and that's any academic) has researched and written history.

So where should we teach the history of public relations? It clearly belongs in our introduction to public relations theory and practice. It also opens up possibilities for dissertation research and could be taught at a higher level, perhaps as an elective.

Yet public relations can also be taught within the broader field of the history of ideas – and I recommend your colleague Kevin Moloney's Rethinking Public Relations: PR Propaganda and Democracy as the key text that maps out this intellectual terrain.

There are still few books in this field (here's my selection) but your conference and the resulting papers will add to this corpus and will surely spur more activity.

Thank you for this.

My review of 2010

8 Jan

Let me look back on the present year (since it's too uncertain looking forward). Here's what I see:

Work: I have a better balance of university teaching, professional qualifications, training and consultancy. (I've already precipitated this change by reducing my university commitments). The freelance life isn't for everyone, but it suits me. There was more time for reading and writing too.

Politics: We needed an election, though a five month election campaign was unprecedented. Unfortunately, my vote counts for little as for the first time in my life I live in a safe seat (Skipton and Ripon). Living in Bristol North West and both Oxford constituencies made elections so much more interesting.

Sport: The World Cup galvanised the nation. To add to the excitement, I was teaching American graduate students in Italy when England played USA.

Profession: I had time to resolve some unfinished business. Time to help establish a specialist group for those in public relations academic and training roles (as distinct from the remit of the Education and Skills sectoral group).

The International History of Public Relations Conference was a highlight of the academic calendar.

Man on the moon

20 Jul

It was forty years ago today – and I remember watching the moon landing on TV (there was little else on in those black and white days).

Here are the PR aspects of the story:
  • Putting man on the moon in that decade was a commitment made by John F Kennedy in 1961 (his inaugural year as president).
  • The space race was the acceptable face of the cold war arms race, mirrored in the UK with Harold Wilson's talk of the 'white heat of technology'. The cold war itself is now history; many of my students were born after the collapse of the 'iron curtain' in 1989.
  • The very first word uttered by a man on the moon was 'Houston' as the astronauts sought to make contact with mission control (two decades later I was involved in a large-scale technology launch in the Houston Astrodome). But the most memorable words spoken are based on an error. The speech writer had clearly intended 'one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind' but Neil Armstrong delivered 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' 
  • Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has a great name, reflected later in Buzz Lightyear. Surprisingly, there aren't scores of thirty-something PR practitioners today called Buzz. Buzz Bailey has a ring to it, don't you think?

Private realm, public sphere

19 Jul

Once, there was no privacy. Large families lived in small dwellings; those in large houses were surrounded by large households. Where the individual could break away from the group, there were the exhortations of the church to consider: an omniscient God was watching you. (As a reminder of this medieval world, I’m told there’s still no word to describe privacy in Italian.)

Now, as Naomi Klein has argued in No Logo, the public realm is being privatised: invaded by sponsorship and advertising clutter. Our default assumption is private, not public. (Commuters on public transport are individual iPod bubbles or are blithely conducting private conversations in public.)

Others argue that in our ‘surveillance society’ there’s an unacceptable invasion of privacy, but I interpret this debate differently. We are so agitated about this issue because it runs counter to our assumption that privacy and individualism will triumph.

This issue matters to students and job seekers when they find that what they assumed to be private (for example, their Facebook conversations, interests and photos) are considered in the public domain by university authorities or employers. It might matter to anyone taking photographs in public spaces; depending on how the photo is used, whose privacy is being invaded? Were any children in the frame?

If we are privatising the public realm and witnessing the deconstruction of the mass media into masses of media, then what is left for public relations to do? I’ll leave this for the scholars to debate, but I suspect that the phrase public relations will decline in usage through this century. Nor will it be replaced by private relations: that phrase will surely still mean something else.

Like father, like daughter?

10 Nov

Our industry is barely a century old, and it’s still not quite a full profession. So it’s not surprising that there are so few British PR dynasties.

I’ve worked with Kevin Traverse-Healy FCIPR whose father Tim is a distinguished practitioner and academic. I remember Chris Corfield (when at A Plus Group) telling me his father had been in PR. Crispin Manners also followed in his father Norman’s footsteps (see the note to editors at the end of this news release).

Have I missed any obvious dynastic examples? Perhaps here’s one for the future…

One of our second year students is the daughter of CIPR president Tony Bradley’s business partner (in Bradley O’Mahoney). She possibly has greater opportunities than her father (since the public relations business is now so much larger), but she will probably face more competition at every stage of her career.

Betjeman: his life in PR

17 Aug

Betjeman As a minor contribution to the John Betjeman centenary celebrations I’d like to fill in a missing paragraph or two from the documented history of public relations. John Betjeman is not mentioned in Jacquie L’Etang’s study of Public Relations in Britain, yet there’s a case to be made for the poet and architectural writer to be considered one of the pioneering figures of public relations in twentieth century Britain.

Surely not… JB undoubtedly poured scorn on public relations just as he wished bombs would rain down on Slough. In his poem Executive (published in 1974) he satirises a spivvy public relations officer (PRO), associating him with many undesirable aspects of modernity. (Disclosure: this blog’s author spent five years working in PR consultancy in unfit-for-humans Slough).

You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man, and partly P.R.O.
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.

So on what basis can I claim John Betjeman as a pioneering public relations practitioner?

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