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.