Anne Gregory relaunches the debate on ambiguity as… a reason for public relations.

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In a recent post I had raised the issue of the ambiguity of public relations concluding with the question: Are we ready to challenge ourselves over our own ambiguity?.
Here are Anne Gregory’s thoughts, lucid and controversial as ever

Ambiguity lies at the heart of public relations in two fundamental ways. The practise itself deals with ambiguity and the practice is perceived as ambiguous.

To unpack what I mean by this a little. First, the practise deals with ambiguity. It was Pearson who said that ‘public relations practice is situated at precisely that point where competing issues collide. Indeed, public relations problems can be defined in terms of the collision, or potential collision of these interests’ (p.67). These collisions can be seen from several perspectives. Oganisations and individuals, groups or ‘society’ can have conflicting agendas. An organisation that produces tobacco products will have groups and individuals who are opposed to it whatever they do – their agendas are diametrically opposed.

Organisations and their publics may have conflicting interpretations of the same situation. A company spokesperson may, from their point of view be telling the truth about a particular occurrence, whereas others may see it differently .Indeed, there are often different perceptions of what ‘the truth’ is. This is well illustrated by the genetically modified crops debate. It is clearly the desire of producers to promote GM crops as safe and beneficial and indeed, many of them genuinely believe this to be the case. GM is a safe way to increase crop yields to support a growing world population. However, numerous environmental groups see sinister reasons for the large agro-chemical companies supporting GM crops, and voice concerns over increased dependence on these companies and fear for the contamination of the food chain.

Public relations practitioners often have to try to reconcile conflicting loyalties. For example, does a duty of care to an individual outweigh the public’s right to know things that are of interest to them? Should the UK Ministry of Defence have confirmed scientist David Kelly’s name to the press as the source of the claim that at any time Britain was 45 minutes from nuclear attack by Iraq: the subsequent media maelstrom led to him committing suicide.

So, practitioners have to deal with and try to reconcile these types of ambiguity all the time and have to be comfortable that they can deal with them.

One of the management roles public relations is asked to perform is environmental scanning and issues management. Practitioners constant survey the external and internal environment of an organisation in order to identify any issues, challenges and/or opportunities that it might face in the future and advise senior management on what they should do. Senior managers want, as far as possible to operate in a predictable environment. In other words they want to remove ambiguity – environmental scanning and positive issues management helps to provide predictability. With the advent of the new technologies and social networks, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Organisations have no notice of when or by whom an issue may be created – it could be by one person, tomorrow. As Gollner predicted in 1983, public relations is increasing in importance because external issues are ‘crowding in’ on organisational decision-making and that the shrinking, mutually dependent world increases complexity as often incompatible value systems are forced to interact. The reason d’etre of public relations is the resultant conflict. In other words public relations practitioners both seek out sources of ambiguity that may lead to conflict and help in their resolution, all within a dynamically changing context which brings ever more ambiguity.

To my second proposition – public relations itself is seen as ambiguous. Not much remains to be said on this topic. Public relations is often seen as promoting the voice of the rich and powerful, of self-serving corporates, of shady political positions. Furthermore the techniques it employs are often seen to be dodgy too – front groups, use of journalists who will write favourable copy for money, lavish and corrupting hospitality and so on. It is not perceived as a transparent profession, indeed its very claim to be a profession is questioned, largely because of what are perceived to be its ethics. Hence, the vast majority of practitioners who do act with integrity and honesty are doomed to fight the persistent stereo-type of the corrupt and corrupting spin doctor. They will be regarded as ambiguous figures, fulfilling an ambiguous role.

So, ambiguity in the practice and in the perception of the practice – it’s all enough to make the public relations professional want to give up. Not so. These are some of the aspects of the job that make it one of the most rewarding, exciting, challenging and dynamic careers there can be. It’s a job for the brave and for those who are unafraid to challenge and change the stereo-types. Ambiguity is at the heart of the practise and the role – if you can’t deal with ambiguity, it’s not a job for you.

Anne Gregory, August 2007.

Pearson, R. (2000) Beyond ethical relativism in public relations, in Public Relations Research Annual (eds Grunig, JE and Grunig, L), Vol 1

Gollner, A.B. (1983) Social Change and Corporate strategy: The Expanding Role of Public Affairs.Stamford: Issues Action Press

3 COMMENTS

  1. As ever, excellent insight. I agree entirely with the final paragraph. But there are many in PR who are not brave or need support to be so. As educators, we should equip younger colleagues to be courageous, with the skills and knowledge they require to manage ambiguity. As practitioners, we need to demonstrate our abilities to be brave and wise counsellors.

  2. As a junior practitioner I stood up to my top top management when I didn’t agree (I have never lacked courage)–but I must admit that I was demolished. I quickly learnt that courage wasn’t enough. Knowledge was needed to argue with them and superior knowledge was needed to convince them.

    Being able to deal with and advise on ambiguity is a competitive advantage of the function of public relations. But we need the right knowledge to do so.

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