Does PR have a future?

Judy Gombita and I have been discussing various issues relating to public relations and publicity via email.  Most recently this has been stimulated by the debate between and .

Bill promotes Grunig’s two-way symmetric model of communications, which although he acknowledges is not the dominant practice model, could become so through social media.  He supports PR in the role of the mediator or facilitator of this two-way dialogue.

Amanda takes issue with PR’s credentials to be judge as well as advocate; echoing Jacqui L’Etang’s criticism of the two-way symmetric model as simply a way for PR practitioners to feel good about themselves, whilst actually practising one-sided persuasion – that is engaging in publicity.

One point about social media is that it enables others – with or without PR assistance – to have their voice heard.  Holtzhausen critiques PR for its role in maintaining the status quo; being largely in the employ of those holding power in society – suh as the big corporates and politicians. 

Social media may help shift power to others – but is Amanda right that PR will continue to protect the interests of those paying the bill?  Indeed, aren’t the majority of PR consultancies engaging in social media aiming to simply maintain their position as partisan influencers?  How many have really got the message about openness and transparency?

This leads to whether PR should be involved in social media?  Richard Edelman’s view that PR is “telling a story well” is classic rhetoric – which is the legacy of PR’s involvement in all types of corporate communication.  The control exerted by PR (and marketing) on spokespeople, key messages, and published materials has affected the ability of many CEOs and others within organisations to converse in a genuine manner.

Given that PR has helped create distrust in organisations, can we seriously enable the real people in our organisations participate with our real publics through social media?  Do they need PR to do that? 

Should PR not just accept that it is part of the bling put out by organisations – it is just one sided publicity, spin, propaganda?

One of the questions on the recent paper for the Diploma critical reasoning test (CRT) involved whether PR academics were over reliant on Grunig’s management theories and excellence study. 

The idea of two-way symmetric communications sees PR as a senior mangement function; part of the dominant coalition.  It presents PR as “boundary spanner” meaing it engaged in listening and reflecting external viewpoints to management.  But this has come to mean acting as a barrier between the organisation and the external environment – or between management and internal publics.  More senior press agentry in effect.  Portrayed like Max Clifford as magicians controlling the media puppets.

A second question in the CRT compared Vercic’s view that “Public Relations is the Champion of Democracy” with Stauber & Rampton’s observation that “Today’s PR industry is related to democracy in the same way that prostitution is related to sex”.

considered this area some five years ago in her paper .  In that time, it is hard to see that the profession has really grasped her suggestion:

“to recognise and acknowledge that we have a problem – despite its growth public relations has if anything a decreasing reputation”.

One good thing is that such debates about PR and its reputation are taking place in open cyberspace – not just in the academic journals.  However, I’m not sure how many practitioners ever reflect on their behaviour in this way. 

I do feel that PR has a future – I’m just not sure what it is. The problem with those of us who believe it should be a force for open communications and clearer engagement between organisations and their publics (and vice versa), seem outnumbered by the spinners and bling-merchants. 

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

7 thoughts on “Does PR have a future?”

  1. That’s a thoughtful essay, Heather, and one that sums up the issue well. Glad I had a role in triggering it!

    While the symmetrical model may not dominate PR practice, I don’t hear a lot of debate over its validity among those who’ve actually used it. I’ve seen the outcomes symmetrical communication can achieve, both from my own professional experience, from the case-studies readings, and from the research.

    Why don’t more PR types use the symmetrical model? In part, I think it’s our profession’s willingness to be subsumed by marketing, a discipline I’ve always considered our evil twin. Marketers push strategies and they push messages. But consumers are now pushing back.

    I’d challenge Amanda and others to watch the comments of Scott Donaton, publisher of Ad Age, who spoke at the Edelman New Media Academic Summit. The videos should be posted by now:
    http://www.edelman.com/summit07/

    Donaton says marketers are moving from a model of intrusive communication to one of communication by invitation. Consumers are tuning out the advocacy messages, and many are turning to conversations and to permission-based offers only.

    That opens the door to symmetrical communication, though I’m not at all sure advertisers will ever cross over.

    What I’m suggesting in my classrooms and in my discussions with professionals is that listening and engaging key publics has never been easier, never more inviting. We need to be experimenting with ways to facilitate this communication. At Kent State we’re doing just that.

    Will PR have a role in this interactive two-way world? A larger one than ever, I believe. We’ll be the facilitators of the discussion, the boundary spanners you mention in your post. We’ll need to adapt to the new role, acting more as ombudsmen than shills. That suits me just fine.

    The pseudononyous Amanda Chapel seems to think that a move to social media will destroy the public relations business. I take the opposite view. Ignoring social media will destroy our profession, and possibly some of our clients in the process.

    Social media is a tool we can use to build trust and enhance credibility. Ignore it at your peril — or if you want to create controversy with your blog.

    I’m sure we’ll be hearing back from Amanda. She always gets the last word.

  2. Good stuff all round (even from the so-called Amanda Chapel).

    I still think the best contribution to this debate is Kevin Moloney’s Rethinking Public Relations: PR Propaganda and Democracy (the second edition published last year). Note the lack of punctuation between PR and propaganda.

    But is seems some people don’t like choice (particulary, I note, university lecturers still attempting idealistically to envisage a perfect world inhabited by perfect citizens). Moloney can accept that public relations has a role to play in a pluralistic society but in one memorable section he avers (from memory) that while democracy is essential for public relations, public relations is not essential for democracy to flourish.

    I suspect we’re still fumbling after the purpose of public relations in the twenty first century, as Anne Gregory puts it. Many of us are grasping at worlds like ‘legitimacy’ and ‘sustainability’ – interestingly, very much the focus of the pro-business Tomorrow’s Company report from the mid 1990s.

  3. I totally agree that Kevin’s work in this area is excellent and enjoyed a chat with him recently at Bournemouth. There is a lot to be said for organisations engaging in discussion and debate with their publics – but it does seem idealistic to believe this is necessarily Grunig’s “excellent” two-way symmetric communications.

    I believe Kevin also states that all communications seek to persuade, even those between friends and family.

    To pick up on the changing DNA analogy, I think that PR like most people has all sorts of characteristics in its genetic make-up. Some enable the practice to act responsibily, seeking to gain trust and persuade organisations to be ethical and sustainable; to act in the public interest. Other aspects of the PR personality take advantage where they can, acting selfishly to pursue one-sided interests.

    The purpose of PR is a good thought – I’m increasingly of the belief that a lot of PR activities are actually marketing (the evil twin), seeking only to promote and so maybe they should be more clearly labelled as such. Let’s be even more open about the tactics used, to avoid accusations of “invisible persuaders”. There is undoubtedly more familiarity with what “marketing/media PR” is about today – and the questions raised by bloggers over traditional PR-journalist techniques can only lead to more transparency.

    Linking to the Donaton viewpoint, traditional marketing communications is under threat from being less effective and subject to more legislative control. In moving to “communication by invitation”, the public are going to look to people they can trust. Unfortunately many in PR and marketing see this as an excuse to take advantage in using less ethical tactics – such as so called “word of mouth” marketing, paid advocacy, flogs, and astroturfing, etc.

    Organisations really do need to learn to engage rather than push and manipulate stakeholders, including existing or potential customers. They need to provide more verifiable, objective information not marketing puff or PR spin.

    Will PR be the discipline to leave the hucksters to the fate of marketing and act as a more objective and critical strategic counsel challenging practices in organisations? I’d like to believe so.

    The difficulty comes with the cynicism that anything organisations do to work with others is for vested interest, particularly if advised by paid PR counsellors. That’s why Stauber and others can be so critical of any attempts made to seek a “win-win” zone between organisations and their publics from two-way symmetric communications.

    I would suggest strategic PR counsel needs to get out of the way of direct communications between those within organisations and their publics, so authentic voices can be heard (unless such practitioners can be recognised as genuine themselves). But that may put them back in the “invisible persuader” mould.

    So even as “boundary-spanners”, we have to earn trust – as Bill says, it is so easy now to listen and view others as more equal participants. I hope Amanda is right and that social media destroys the old “bling” ways of PR, whilst at the same time enabling us to embrace the way that social media offers new opportunities.

    It may not be possible to change our DNA – but we can certainly hope to pass on our good genes to the next generation and create a better breed of PR practitioners.

  4. Wow. What a delightful, intelligent, and stimulating discussion.

    The conflict between between the roles of advocate and facilitator isn’t one we’ll soon resolve, if we ever resolve it. But I’d be perfectly happy to leave the advocacy to the evil twins in marketing in search of a model that really can promote understanding.

    As for our DNA, it’s high time we changed it, as difficult as that may be. Otherwise, we’ll only earn more of Stauber’s “Toxic Sludge” criticisms. And earn them, we have.

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