Is it time to step away from the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations?

pot plantsIf you’ve ever read a public relations textbook, you’ll be familiar with the Grunig & Hunt four models of public relations. Those who’ve studied a PR qualification will have written essays on the construct, even squidging it into papers where it wasn’t necessary because it has to be included, right?

No – there’s more to the scholarship of public relations than this framework originally published in 1984. Grunig’s own work has moved on through the Model of Excellence studies, conceptualisation of generic principles and specific applications for public relations, and more recently into consideration of two ‘competing theories’ of the symbolic, interpreted paradigm and the strategic management, behavioural paradigm. This work has all been related to the ‘age of digitalisation‘ by Grunig in 2009 (including a great ‘infographic’ originated by David Phillips).

Clearly there’s more to Grunig than the four model framework of two one-way models of communication (press agentry, public information) and two two-way models (asymmetric and symmetric). A fraction of the attention it is given has been devoted to Grunig’s Situational theory of publics, which in my view is a more interesting concept echoing the work of Dewey and Blumer.

But educators, students and even seasoned PR practitioners such as Stephen Waddington (who wrote his CIPR Chartered Practitioner paper on Grunig and digital communications) hone in on the 30+ year old framework.

Indeed, as we have our biggest ever intake for the CIPR qualifications at PR Academy starting this Saturday, the framework will undoubtedly be introduced to dozens more practitioners as students.

Of course it’s had its critics – and there’s a Pavlovian response in presenting these whenever the two-way symmetrical model is mentioned. But rather than liberating PR scholarship from the four models, the critiques appear to have anchored the framework further into the text books as a dominant paradigm. In education, we teach the four models to students who have never heard of them, and then we offer up critiques. But their central position remains the hub around which students’ understanding of PR theory remains.

PARADIGM: In science and epistemology (the theory of knowledge), a paradigm /ˈpærədaɪm/ is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field. Source: Wikipedia

The Grunig & Hunt construct needs to be put in its place within a rich body of work that existed before, and has developed after, the four models were presented in 1984. That place is not as the fulcrum around which to lever open a theoretical underpinning of public relations practice. Rather than being positioned as the ‘best’ way of examining or explaining public relations, it is just one of many options within our academic and practitioner toolkit.

It shouldn’t be placed at the beginning of a student’s journey into the academia, nor be the only thing that is remembered at the end of a course to apply to the day job. It fits somewhere in the middle – but not the centre – of a substantive range of theories, models and ideas that stretch way outside the boundaries of public relations texts.

My call to step away from the models isn’t because they lack relevance, it is that other concepts offer greater, or at least, further potential for interesting and fruitful exploration of the links between PR academia and practice (a topic that is the focus of a CIPR Facebook ‘Community of Practice ‘group –

To return to my favourite rhizomatic metaphor, the four models sit like a neat row of little pot plants where we need to get our hands dirty in the wider public relations field, which offers many interconnected and varied roots, flowers, fruits and weeds worthy of our attention.

Public Relations is a tradition of practice


I’m very interested in how we think about and study public relations – and how this conceptual understanding connects to what we do in practice.

I believe in questioning the accepted wisdom, arguments, actions and assumptions that are inherent in public relations practice (and theory) using reflective and critical thinking.

Only by being mindful of what underpins our theorising and behaviours can we know what works well, what needs improving and what we should stop doing.

In academia, such an approach reflects a tradition of interrogating ideas and theories, research and opinion – even, or perhaps that should be especially, our own.

In sport, science, medicine, engineering and many fields, this idea of seeking to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘how’ informs practice.

This does not necessarily mean that we have to dive deeply into theory, although we should at least know that public relations has a substantial body of knowledge to draw upon. Many studies are intended to be highly practical, but equally valid is academic work that helps to stretch understanding – and critical examination – in different directions.

Psychiatrist, Professor Steve Peters illustrates the linkage when discussing his Chimp Paradox model, which has been credited with contributing towards the success of British cycling.

A model is not pure scientific fact or a hypothesis. It is just a simple representation to aid understanding and help us to use the science. It may also help us to make sense of how we have been in the past, how we are now, and how we can manage ourselves better in the future.

The public relations tradition of practice however, has tended to be skeptical of theory, academia and scholarship, deeming it to be irrelevant impractical, out-dated and too intellectual.

Indeed, many practitioners prefer to draw more on their own experience, and that of others, alongside narrative examples of practice, rather than analytical and objectively-researched case studies, theories or even more representational models.

Consequently, ‘laws’ of public relations practice are commonly derived from, and advocated on, personal beliefs or single examples; with little consideration of the specific or situational aspects pertinent to the social, organisational or temporal context of the particular case.

This means the tradition of practice is a story-telling one, built around the ‘truths’ of particular examples. This tends to mean relying on recollections and the fallibility, or selective interpretation, of memories. Or presentation of examples to illustrate particular ‘lessons’, much as we seen in mythology or parables.

Scratch the surface of ‘rules’ of crisis management and you’ll find these are predicated on the tale of the Tylenol tampering case from the 1980s. Over several decades, this example has been crafted into an exemplar narrative of how crisis situations should – indeed, some argue, how it must – be handled. This ignores the nuanced reality of that case, let alone differences in circumstance for other  crises that may well necessitate alternate preparation or response.

I am bemused that the PR tradition of practice commonly promotes prescriptive rules of engagement or operational norms, yet routinely rejects study of theory.

If you are arguing in favour of a ‘best practice’ approach, you should be prepared to work out hypotheses or propositions that can be assessed to confirm the validity – or otherwise – of the recommended courses of action.

That’s essentially what a theory does in going beyond describing what practice is (or should be in the view of certain people) to include ideas and theses that help to explain the practice, and make predictions for future action based on evidence and/or logical deductions or inferences.

Theory should not be viewed as absolute and fixed, but is open to challenge, development and change.

Further, theory can be developed around situational variables, offering more nuanced insight into practice. Indeed, as a qualitative researcher, I support interpretive and other research approaches that enable in-depth examination of subjective experience. However, this is still a robust process not simply anecdotal reportage.

Many other disciplines build practice on a tradition of theorising, studying an existing body of knowledge and gaining qualifications.

Public relations continues to advocate construction around learning ‘on the job’ (i.e. passing on the way things have been done previously) or attending ‘how to’ training courses.

Increasingly it seems that Twitter, Facebook, infographics or LinkedIn discussions are viewed as the best way to gain insight into the tradition of public relations practice. I’m all for social learning methods, but there’s more to improving competence than online surfing.

Likewise, guidelines can be useful, but instead of being presented as a single lodestar or exemplars, they can open up directions that may be fruitful to examine.

Public relations is not simply an occupation where we can be trained to do our jobs. Rather we are encouraged to be thoughtful and creative. A broad theoretical underpinning is a liberating platform from which to develop an evidenced-based set of informed solutions and/or conceive original options.

What is missing in public relations seems to be a culture of  reflective practice. This approach is increasingly common in many professions, particularly  education and healthcare.

From this perspective, theorising is seen as part of a dynamic process that is alive to the changing world of practice, and reflective, critical and analytical thought. It is open for debate and discussion within the community of practice as well as the scholarly literature and the spaces between the two.

This ‘middleness’ space between academia and practice is inhabited by models that are systematic representations to help us to understand the world, explore concepts and clarify complexity – although they risk being oversimplification of reality.

For example, here is a simple model to illustrate a conceptual framework of how PR is, and should be, practised:

PR practice

Of course all the elements of PR practice cannot be readily placed into one of these four categories, and it is undoubtedly a matter of debate what should go where. But that’s the point. The model offers a technique to facilitate discussion and reflection on the tradition of practice.

Viewed as a reflective tool, we can consider traditional, contemporary, emerging and potential practices and viewpoints and map these onto the model.

Critical and reflective thinking allows consensus, differences of opinion and situational considerations to be considered. Research can also be undertaken to assess the typology, and accept, adapt or reject it on the basis of evidence.

Applying such conceptual frameworks and critical thinking encourages practitioners to:

  • Shape the research they employ in investigating a situation or informing a campaign
  • Analyse possible causes or limitations in tackling problems
  • Challenge habitus (ingrained practices and dispositions)
  • Understand the context of their work, and others’ frames of reference
  • Develop an evidence based practice
  • Identify a range of approaches to address issues
  • Contribute strategically to decision-making and planning processes
  • Structure credible arguments for practical recommendations

As an example, an analysis of media discussion earlier this year around mitochondrial donation (commonly termed the ‘three-parent baby’ issue) suggests a number of ways of thinking about the topic:

scientific, medical, healthcare, procedural, ethical, religious, economic, political, legal, socio-cultural, humanitarian, historical, personal, rhetorical and so on.

Each of these individually, and through comparison and synthesis, suggest conceptual frameworks that can be evaluated and considered in researching the narrative and arguments being made by others, helping us to establish an informed position, and recommend a response. Or they may suggest a gap or new way of looking at the issue.

The concept of ‘tradition of practice’ is one that I came across within the anthropology and healthcare literature. To my knowledge, it hasn’t been applied to public relations, but I am interested in exploring it further. In these fields, a large body of theoretical knowledge has been accumulated, but it is acknowledged that learning does not take place exclusively in the classroom.

Systematic and critical examination of the way things are done, using a variety of conceptual frameworks and theoretical perspectives, can both encourage and challenge a more improvisational, intelligent practice.

The idea is to better connect how we think about, and how we practice, public relations. The goal is to pass on a tradition of practice that is enhanced by virtue of combining the strengths of reflective, critical insight, with real-world experimentation and application.

A brainiac guide to digital and social media trends


Keeping up to date on digital and social media trends is a challenge given how fast the online environment develops and changes. One minute we may feel confident in using various technologies – the next, we hear about something new, and aren’t sure how, or indeed, whether, we should be using this in our professional or personal communications.

Helping communications practitioners improve their digital communications and social media self-efficacy – essentially how confident someone feels to enact behaviours online – is one of my goals as course leader for the PR Academy Social Media and Digital Communications Certificate.

So, six months ago, I produced my thoughts on six social media and digital communications trends for 2015 – drawing on the core areas that we cover in the course.

As we take a student-focused approach through our online learning portal, and accompanying workshop day – we are able to accommodate such trends into to the six core areas that we cover. This enables students to add the latest knowledge to their existing understanding (at whatever level that may be), and apply a reflective approach in assessing and applying what they feel will improve their competencies and improve the impact and effectiveness of their organisational communications.

Ahead of the next course starting in September, I have taking a half-year look at what’s going on in the current online climate and again used the six core areas as a framework, to produce A Braniac Guide to Digital and Social Media Trends:

1. Smart Personalisation of trusted, shared news

Online behaviour and social network recommendations are increasingly personalising the reach of stories offering new opportunities, and also threats, for professional communicators in getting their news out. As one example, the redesigned Pulse news reader shares professionally-relevant “news bites” that are driven by trusted contacts, and users’ LinkedIn behaviour such as reactions in saving or removing stories. Understanding how individuals interact with such personalised news digests, highlights barriers in trying to change attitudes, opinions and behaviours, but provides great opportunities to increase communication traction within trusted networks.

2. Trendiness & 4Ts – techniques, tools, technologies, terminologies

Social shopping tools are undermining some of the biggest online brands with photo-led, friends-focused, independent mobile marketplaces offering fun alternatives to the monolithic ebay and Amazon. Backed by technology incubators, venture capital and crowd-sourced funding, relatively recent start-ups such as Depop, Wavey Garms, Polyvore, Chictopia and Vinted are growing quickly as the places to learn about new products, ideas and trends, get advice and trade with like-minded others, and enjoy user generated editorial and banter. They also enable professional communicators to reach and research subcultures of online users, and their new influencers.

3. Netnographic multi-dimensional profile research

We’ve all heard of ‘big data’ with huge volumes of quantiative data generated every second online. But netnography, ethnography on the internet, is revealing some unexpected trends by offering rich qualitative insight into online discussions. For example, researchers have identified a lively and growing group of older adults discussing sexuality issues. With pension-age transgender Caitlyn Jenner, breaking the Twitter record to reach 1m fans in 4 hours, here’s proof that being a digital natural is more about mindset than age. Applying a netnographic approach in a profiling playbook enables a more developed understanding of those we are looking to communicate with online.

4. Attributing value from strategic planning

Let’s talk about attribution, the search to identify the exact value that each element of your digital communications – or indeed any supporting offline activity – is having. You may know something is working – but finding out exactly what is the most effective, or where the biggest return for budget spend can be found is proving increasingly difficult owing to trans-media and device-swapping behaviours. Two planning aspects are essential: setting up Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and investing the time and resources in analytics (much of which can be accessed for free). Big budget brands are praising ‘people-based” technology such as Facebook’s Atlas mobile ad platform. But it’s not just about tech, as attribution needs communicators to break down silos, identify touch-points when outcomes can be credited and ensure an overall ‘lifetime value’ (LTV) metric is included in the strategic plan.

5. Content leadership depends on trust

To Pay or Not to Pay is the big content creation debate emerging so far in 2015. As marketing and advertising experts continue to power their work through WOM (word of mouth) communications, so PR practitioners are securing budgets to integrate social network advertising in their activities. But, it’s not so much about blurring PESO (paid, earned, shared and owned) media as ideas that work – both for the communicators and those who engage with them. The key word is TRUST – with the UK Competitions and Market Authority opening an investigation into manipulation of online reviews and endorsement, brands falling foul of Google’s rules over seeking to game its SEO, and Google itself under fresh investigation by the European commission for favouring its own vertical search products. Can anyone trust what they find online? It’s getting tougher – especially as ‘sponsored content’ challenges traditional editorial independence and integrity. Building and maintaining trust is essential both when generating content, and when evaluating the best channels through which to share it.

6. Risk, issues and crisis management – standing up to online moral outrage

Organisations of all shapes and sizes are being forced to face up to growing waves of moral outrage through social media and communicate with value driven, robust responses rather than knee-jerk, sacrificial strategies. The apparent brutal treatment of the eminent scientist, Sir Tim Hunt by UCL and the Royal Society following a twitter storm over his poorly considered ‘joke’ has led to calls for organisations to kick back against cyber-bullying and online shaming and stand by their principles rather than cave to the baying mob.

Most of these trends reflect that developments in digital and social media communications are building on existing practices, but require continual review and adaptation of these to stay ahead, and apply a pragmatic and informed understanding that is appropriate to the particular organisation and situation it faces.

Click here for further details of the September 2012 PR Academy Social Media and Digital Communications Certificate which is now enrolling.  The course involves an intensive, immersive study period, where learning is derived from tutor-supported activities, independent research, social learning techniques and an individually developed portfolio assignment. It combines emerging and established knowledge with a focus on developing insight into strategic, and effective, social media and digital communications, that complements and integrates with existing organisational communications plans.

In praise of the amateur in PR

Photograph: Vadim Trunov
Photograph: Vadim Trunov

I tend to refer to public relations as an occupation or practice rather than as a profession (although sometimes I use the term public relations professionals as well as practitioners). Bill Sledzik’s 2010 post Is PR really a profession? sums a lot of my thinking.

In 1969, Goode reported the “industrial society is a professionalizing one”, with sociologist Everett Hughes earlier arguing that a profession was seen as “the prestige show”, with middle class occupations seeking to achieve professional status in part for social advancement with “the collective effort of an organized occupation to improve its place and increase its power, in relation to others”.

I often hear PR practitioners along with journalists refer to themselves as professionals to signal a difference from others. In the case of media contacts, this is commonly to argue against bloggers or others they deem as untrained and amateur.

This superior attitude often seems to me to be misplaced.

I’ve illustrated this post with an image from the self-taught Russian photographer, Vadim Trunov, whose work I think is truly magical. All authors are amateurs until they get that break and become paid once published, although few make enough money to describe themselves as full-time professional writers. Likewise, musicians, actors and artists frequently hone their craft for love whilst dreaming of fame and fortune.

In public relations, it is not unusual to read criticism of those who seek to enter the occupation after studying for a specialist degree with experience and learning on the job often held up as more desirable. Not so much a profession as a group of people earning money whilst practising a craft, perhaps.

Various skills and knowledge employed within public relations certainly can be mastered by amateurs. For example, to gain publicity, change public opinion, secure support, build relationships and enhance reputations. Amateurs in public relations may be volunteering for an organisation (such as a charity or community group), championing a cause or acting on behalf of themselves or others. Their work may be of a high standard – professional even – but they are not PR professionals or likely to associate themselves with the ‘profession’.

But we should remember the etymology of the word, amateur, from the Latin amare meaning “to love”. As Wikipedia notes:

An amateur (French amateur “lover of”, from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, “lover”) is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional or unpaid manner. Amateurs often have little or no formal training in their pursuits, and many are autodidacts (self-taught).

This contrasts with profession as deriving from the vows taken on entering a religious order, or in relation to work, professing (declaring openly) to be skilled in an occupation.

The amateur could be considered as more focused on improving their competencies than the professional who declares their formal identification with public relations. Likewise, why shouldn’t we praise the blogger or enthusiastic campaigner who lives and breathes their chosen passion, puts unpaid hours of effort into pursuing their interests and doesn’t invest energy only when they are being paid?

There’s more to being a profession than seeking status, more to being a professional than being paid, and much to learn from those who are true amateurs, that is, lovers of what they do.

N’est pas?

Fiction and non-fiction of Public Relations

Samuel Johnson prize 2014

In June I wrote a snarky blog post on PR Conversations – Should sisters PR it for themselves? My argument was around awards that focused specifically on women which I don’t believe deliver a PR benefit beyond promoting the individual winners.

The prompt for that post was the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction . Today my eye was caught by the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. This is a non-gendered award and four out of the six shortlisted authors are women.

This fact alone should not be notable, and the Guardian highlights the inclusion of memoirs in the title of its report. However, its subhead mentions only the two books by male authors; whilst the Telegraph’s headline focuses on John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins, which “leads a strong field“. To be fair, the piece records that last year’s winner was female, and the chair of the panel is Claire Tomalin, with Alan Johnson MP and Ruth Scurr as judges. Overall, none of this seems to put the focus on gender which is what happened naturally with reporting of the Baileys Women’s Prize.

The six shortlisted books are (in alphabetical order of author):

John Campbell: Roy Jenkins
Marion Coutts: The Iceberg: A Memoir
Greg Grandin: The Empire of Necessity
Alison Light: Common People
Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
Caroline Moorehead: Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France

I like the fact that this prize celebrates non-fiction (e.g. biography, memoir and history) as this form of literature tells a story drawing on real life facts and information. Whist this still involves a process of interpretation and representation, normally in a form of narrative structure, its heart is research and legitimate evidence, even if that is opinion derived from interviews or other people-based sources (presented as evidence, but not necessarily as fact).

As such, it relates to the type of writing we encourage in students when undertaking academic-based assessments. It also should be relevant in Public Relations when producing materials that are intended to inform rather than solely to entertain. Our work should not rely on “unverified supposition, deduction, or imagination for the purposes of smoothing out a narrative“, although Wikipedia asserts this is the case with some non-fiction. It clearly states that if it includes ‘open falsehoods’ it would be discredited as a work of non-fiction.

As an educator, I often struggle when students produce work that makes assertions, claims and arguments that are totally unsupported by any evidence or reference to sources to justify, verify or qualify their work. This suggests a tendency towards not checking sources outside of their academic work. Indeed, I am interested to see a rise of ‘fact-checking’ often crowd-sourced to “sort truth from fiction“. As PR practitioners, we need to ensure that there is robustness and reliability in our work, particularly when it comes to presenting information on which others will be making decisions. We have to be organisational fact-checkers – and I believe should be open about our sources (e.g. including endnotes in media releases and other documents).

This is not to say that I don’t value creativity and self-expression, I do. But that falls more under the remit of fiction which is fine for some communications, but can be problematic when viewing PR as more than simply the production of stuff – content if you like – to get attention. Okay if adopting the classic Grunig & Hunt (1984) PR model of press agentry when truth is not essential, but an issue if you are building a reputation as a credible and reliable source.

Elsewhere, the Telegraph reminds us of this publicity-based approach to PR, as today is Super Thursday (when 315 hard-back books are released). This is a creative device involving promotional activity to generate as much interest as possible ahead of the Christmas book market.

The Bookseller reports this is the first year where there has been a “trade-wide acknowledgement of Super Thursday as a national book event“, culminating in Big Bookshop Parties on Saturday. I find it interesting in this article that there is acknowledgement of the media interest in the concept since it was first identified apparently in 2008. However, it is claimed it did not benefit bookshops. This suggests that PR activity was acting in isolation by simply generating coverage and interest, but not being co-ordinated with sales, marketing and distribution. However, it is also puzzling that the piece includes complaints that the focus on this short period causes issues for bookstores who are unable to cope with the demand that is generated. When connected to the sales boost noted for Super Thursday periods over the last six years, clearly the PR activity is stimulating a behaviour i.e. purchase of books. This must mean the winners are the online book retailers, perhaps not surprisingly given the ease of finding and buying through the internet, and mobile devices.

If the PR practitioners behind the Super Thursday concept are working for publishers, they are achieving an outcome if sales of their books are increasing. But if they have an objective of supporting physical retailers, perhaps they need to work more closely with other colleagues to ensure this strategic outcome is met.

In PR we not only need to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in our own work, but ensure that the end result of our work can be clearly assessed in the achievement of verifiable measures not perpetuate a fiction that media coverage alone is evidence of success.

Can you help in my search for PR career stories?


Can you help? I’m searching for 20 research participants for my PhD who meet the following criteria:

  • 10-20 years’ career experience in public relations
  • UK based (although may have international responsibilities or travel outside the UK for work)
  • Not well known to me – to avoid any possible complications arising from existing personal or professional relationships
  • Willing to undertake the research stages as detailed below

If you meet these criteria, please get in touch by email:, and I will provide further details, including a short profiling questionnaire.

Otherwise, could you please pass my request onto your own colleagues or contacts – by word of mouth, email, social media or carrier pigeon, and ask them to get in touch.

My research project is seeking to identify how public relations practitioners make sense of their career experiences, examine the approaches they use to inform career decisions and determine how they are responding to a changing career context.

I need to reach as many potential participants as possible to achieve my goal of a diverse research population. This includes working in any sector, in-house/consultancy/freelance, varied points of entry and career choices, those who have spent their careers in a single organisation, had career breaks or moved frequently. Participants may be working in any kind of role. Male/female, married/single, parent or not, with a degree or without, happy with their career or frustrated, any and/or all demographic, psychographic or other variable, all are welcome to put themselves forward.

The study involves the following stages:

  1. Invitation to potential participants to get in touch by email: to complete a short profiling questionnaire
  2. Identification of the research sample – from the above respondents
  3. Selection of 20 people who will be provided with full details of what is involved in participation
  4. Completion of a confidential, detailed career and personal profile by those who agree to participate
  5. Initial in-depth face-to-face interview scheduled with each participant (approximately 90 minutes in length) at a mutually convenient location
  6. Follow up process of correspondence with individual participants to develop their career tapestry (my chosen career metaphor) from the interview transcript and reflections
  7. Provision of summarised study findings to participants – and completion of doctoral study

This research process with selected participants will start in August and be concluded by end of 2014. So I’m looking for initial responses by 31 July 2014.

The research will be confidential, conducted with full participant consent and subject to Bournemouth University Research Ethics Code of Practice. Participation is entirely voluntary and may be discontinued at any time without consequence. No fee or expenses will be paid to participants.

Thank you for your interest in my research – and I hope that if you meet the above criteria, you will consider participating, or passing on details of my search to those you believe may be willing to get involved.

Public relations needs to be rhizomatic – academic, scholarly, professional and practical

rhizomatic tapestry

I describe myself as a hybrid, which I view as representing heterogeneity or a mixture of different things. I prefer the complex and chaotic to the simple and predictable. I relish individuality, variety and multi-tasking. For me, that also sums up public relations. Hence my argument that public relations needs to be rhizomatic and embrace the academic, scholarly, professional and practical. None of these alone is enough.

Those who deny the academic or view it as a pejorative in respect of not directly useful are missing the point. Those who spend their entire lives conceptualising the field without ever considering vocational elements could benefit from demonstrating the value of their reflections. Those who simply practice PR, and never consider what may make their work professional have a job and not a career. Those who omit scholarship from their understanding of public relations, seem to me to be lacking in intellectual curiosity.

Such neat little boxes of academics, scholars, professionals and practitioners suggests a lack of connection, let alone integration, between these roles. This is an ongoing topic which I’ve covered before – including applying the concept of intersectionality to the creation of more ‘stripey triangles’ i.e. those who practice PR and also study its academic underpinnings.

I also wrote in April about T-shaped careers in public relations extending an analogy of a tree (proposed by Natalie Bovair on a post at PR Conversations) into conceptualising public relations as a rainforest with different layers.

I’m currently reading A Thousand Plateaus by the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze and psychiatrist/social activist, Félix Guattari which includes the term rhizomatic as a concept allowing for multiple, non-hierarchical connections as opposed to the established arborescent (tree-based) model that works with vertical and linear connections. I’m not clear where I’m going with these ideas, but they resonated with my thinking around public relations careers in my PhD studies where I am not convinced of the value of ladder and matrix approaches to career progress and competence development.

The rhizome idea seems to fit with three concepts that I’ve identified as threads through my research to date, which I wrote about in a 2012 post: Plotting a personal path to PR career success. These looked at:

  • how there are a variety of career starting points in PR and also Broughton’s 1943 observation of a post facto connection to the occupation
  • von Bertalanffy’s 1968 concept of equifinality reflecting how we can reach the same end by following different paths
  • the importance of self-efficacy (belief in one’s capabilities to change a situation) as articulated by Albert Bandura who further emphasised the exercise of personal, proxy and collective agency.

In short, we can come into PR at different points and make an immediate connection, get to a common end point by different paths, and use our own and others efforts (as advocates or community members) in pursuit of our careers.

This is overlaid by personal, organisational/occupational and societal factors. As such, I believe that careers in public relations are, and should be, wonderfully personal, messy, complex and unstructured. Most people in public relations do not seem to climb well-positioned ladders, follow neat pathways or step up and across a prescribed matrix in their careers.

My research is seeking to understand how PR practitioners make sense of their career through the construction of a narrative framework (which Savickas has proposed).

The metaphor I’ve been using in thinking about all of this is a tapestry with stories providing narrative threads (yarns) that we can stitch in different directions, including out from the canvas rather than simply along the warp and weft. I also like how many of the words that apply to tapestry can be utilised within the metaphor, such as textile (woven from Latin texere, to weave), fabric (Middle French, fabrique, to build or make something and Latin faber, an artisan who works in hard materials). It provides a richness in conceptualisation as well as in the practice of our careers.

Deleuze and Guattari rhizomatic concept has been likened to a “crazy patchwork quilt” allowing for how rhizomes develop in unforeseen directions and in unforeseen ways. According to contemporary career theory, traditional organised, linear models do not reflect the modern world of work. So rather than seeking to force a professional or bureaucratic career structure onto public relations, I believe we should be pioneering a new way of conceptualising careers in the occupation, looking at emerging models of learning and development and demonstrating how public relations is at the forefront of 21st century rhizomatic careers.

So what does this mean for the academic, scholar, professional and practitioner in public relations?

Jacquie L’Etang and Mandy Powell seem to be doing an interesting study at Queen Margaret University looking at how public relations practitioners develop “expertise” as “reflective practitioners”. As such, they are considering how practice and theory “articulate with each other and are developed” – which they feel may be conceptualised as rhizomatic rather than a linear progression.

They also refer to Engestrom’s concept of ‘knotworking’, which involves collaboration between otherwise loose connections and relate this to consideration of communities of practice. Engestrom connects his concept to new ways of working that are decentralised, collaborative and ever-shifting.

As with Deleuze and Guatteri, Engestrom’s work is new to me, but seems to offer great potential for considering careers in public relations along with the interface of academia, scholarship, professionalism and practice.

The final thread that I’ve been weaving with this week is rhizomatic learning – and the work of Dave Cormier. I’m interested in his thinking about how knowledge creation is increasingly about co-construction and evolution rather than a search for personal expertise.

This suggests to me that as well as – or perhaps instead of – looking at traditional approaches to bridging the academic-practice divide in public relations (placements, academic-in-residence, guest lectures, etc) or a hybridisation model, we need to become more rhizomatic in our creation, sharing, negotiation and co-construction of knowledge in our field.

Let’s move away from criticisms by practitioners and professional bodies regarding what is taught about PR in academia and counter-claims that professional bodies and practitioners don’t engage with scholarly underpinnings. Rather we can adopt Cormier’s mantra that “the community is the curriculum” and encourage a more organic, spontaneous, flexible, collaborative perspective among the different the PR tribal communities. Then whether or not we, and our knowledge and behaviour, can be described as academic, scholarly, professional or practical will be less relevant than whether it forms a useful knot (connective node) for the network that comprises the full tapestry of public relations.