We can’t ask others to do our own thinking

sent me a link to a post at Smart Mobs: Habermas blows off question about the Internet and the Public Sphere.  Although I support critical reflection on the relevance of an author’s work in respect of new areas, it feels churlish to make personal remarks against Habermas at the age of 77 for not engaging with the implications of new media in this way. 

We need to take the opportunity ourselves to develop the ideas of others and undertake new thinking and critical examination.  There are many such opportunities in the worlds of public relations – indeed, being able to add to existing knowledge is one of the advantages of being interested in a fairly new discipline.

Although it would be interesting to to gain insight from authors such as Habermas who are still active thinkers, it would be even better to go back in history and seek the views of those who challenged the world with their original ideas many decades or centuries past.

If you could travel back in time, like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, and ask any earlier thinker for their views on modern public relations – who would you choose?

For me, the problem is that most of the “founding fathers” are of their time – video of Bernays in the Century of the Self reveals him not to be someone I would much like.  However, I would be interested in meeting the Scottish documentary film maker, John Grierson, who studied mass media’s influence on public opinion in the early part of the 20th century.

His creation of film units for the Empire Marketing Board and the Post Office used the new medium to great effect.  I like to think that such pioneers would expect us to be doing the same thing with the new communications means we have available.  But, I fear they would be disappointed by the efforts of most modern communicators to produce work of the quality that was evidenced by Grierson. 

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

4 thoughts on “We can’t ask others to do our own thinking”

  1. Of course you had me at the words “film maker.”

    FYI, John Grierson was also responsible for establishing the National Film Board of Canada, which focuses on documentaries, short films and animation. We’ve taken advantage of the NFB’s downtown Toronto location, particularly screenings and occasional lectures at its John Spotten Theatre. In particular, I remember the wonderful evening that featured the two directors of Manufacturing Consent, Mark Achbar
    Peter Wintonick. The John Spotten Theatre is quite intimate, so to hear these intelligent and conversant gentleman speak, right after watching that provocative documentary about one of America’s most original contemporary thinkers (Noam Chomsky), was quite a privilege.

    In general, the NFB is a jewel in Canada’s crown of originality and critical thinking, via a visual and audio medium. So we owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Grierson for spending his time and energy on its establishment.

    If you read the brief bio about Grierson on the NFB website, you’ll see that the final sentences indicate, “Film, according to Grierson, had to be entertaining as well as informative. It was an art-form that could zero in on the real world and shake people up about events.”

    You’re right…I don’t think social media has come even close to achieving those things as yet.

    BTW, last year’s Oscar-winning short documentary was an NFB product: Torill Kove’s The Danish Poet. I first saw it at the 2006 Worldwide Shorts Festival here in Toronto and knew it was a winner. And if you haven’t caught Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes yet, make sure you do…it is one of the most sobering documentaries I’ve ever seen about how China’s manufacturing explosion is raping the landscape and poisoning many of its citizens, but Baichwal manages to show this carnage in a strangely beautiful fashion. Note that both Kove and Baichwal are female.

    Back to your earlier question, most of the earlier thought leaders/formative thinkers about public relations are male. One female PR legend (on the Canadian scene) I still have hopes of meeting is Ruth Hammond. My friend Barb Sheffield, APR, CPRS Fellow (chair of the CPRS Research Foundation) tells me that despite Ruth’s advanced age, her mind/cognitive thought processes and sense of humour remain as sharp as ever.

  2. Thanks Judy for examples of other documentaries that are following in the footsteps of Grierson (and informing us of his Canadian legacy).

    Whilst appreciating that documentary film is a discipline in its own right, it seems a shame that it seems to have lost effective links with mainstream public relations – and also that this understanding of utilising wider media than print journalism, isn’t evident in PR practice.

    Your email with the link to Kirk Hallahan’s latest thoughts (which I will post about separately) seems to pick up on similar points about the need to be channel-neutral. Although he doesn’t seem to mention documentary or film-making (even in its new media form).

  3. I don’t know if I agree with you about documentaries losing effective links with mainstream public relations; for example, I believe An Inconvenient Truth is proof positive that a documentary film can be an incredible public relations vehicle, particularly when it comes to advocacy and causes. A documentary film about climate change won an Oscar. It won Al Gore the Nobel Peace prize.

    As a long-time member of Doc Soup (which includes a 10-ticket pass to North America’s biggest documentary festival, Hot Docs), I’ve been privileged to see some of the world’s best documentaries. Often the screening includes a Q&A with the director and/or producer, where we can ask questions and learn how some of these films have actually helped to change policy or reopened a debate.

    If you check out the comments section on a 2007 post by John Wagner (I really wish he would start blogging again! I miss his voice, even when I don’t agree with his POV), you’ll see how I detailed how one documentary screened at Doc Soup reopened an examination of aesthetics versus safety, regarding San Francisco’s famous bridge: Catching flak over power flap

  4. I think documentaries can be a very effective campaigning tool – but I don’t feel that film (including video online) is sufficiently recognised or used by PR practitioners. Activists certainly seem more inclined to undertake documentaries as part of communicating their message. Organisations tend to use moving images only for promo videos – then generally under marketing rather than PR.

    The skills of film-making or even documentary analysis isn’t something that I see on the syllabus of many UK PR qualifications.

    Wasn’t the Al Gore film initially a series of presentations that didn’t get a fraction the attention that resulted from being made into a film. According to Wikipedia, the producers were behind making Gore’s slide show into a film – so it doesn’t appear to have been part of the communications strategy from the start.

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