In the past few weeks I have met nearly 200 new people, all of whom have begun to study public relations. As well as those who have signed up for the CIPR professional qualifications, I am working with 94 Bournemouth University students – advertising undergraduates taking the PR Theory & Practice unit.
The starting point of our studies is to consider opinions about public relations, its public reputation, historical figures such as Edward Bernays, impressions of the likes of Max Clifford and Alistair Campbell, and the portrayal of PR in film and television programmes (from Absolutely Fabulous to Samantha in Sex & the City, normally).
Most of these views are negative – so why are so many people interested in studying something that has a poor public reputation? Do they want to be professional liars? Are they happy to be associated with phrases such as “the latrine of parasitic misinformation”, or “an instrument of perversity and deception”?
In one word – no. That isn’t the image of PR these guys recognise in practice. When asked for their response to such associations, students feel a personal responsibility to change this image and show that it doesn’t represent them or how they wish to work.
Are more positive impressions of PR, such as embodied in the usual definitions, realistic of practice though? One exercise that I introduced at Bournemouth and with the CIPR Diploma students this year was to take statements from a variety of perspectives and ask students to map these out on two axes. Firstly in terms of the normative value (whether the statement is idealistic) and secondly, its positivist value (if it reflects real life practice).
What we find is that the negative and positive statements regarding PR are generally thought to be positivist – that is they both reflect practice. But there is clear agreement that statements reflecting PR as related to the democratic process, supporting the voiceless and powerless are viewed as the ideal – where the negatives are seen as something not to be associated with the profession.
With the CIPR Advanced Certificate students we assess various aspects of the reputation of public figures (from Britney to the Queen), places and brands. This results in a lively discussion and good insight into what makes public reputation. It also highlights the limits of PR in managing reputation – you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – well not credibly.
These first sessions have been very stimulating and it is encouraging each year to see the commitment of those who are interesting in learning more about public relations.
They aren’t naive – understanding that there are many negatives associated with the discipline. But all are committed to being better than the public reputation. That has to be good news for PR.