Is there such a thing as European public relations?

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By Janette van Kalkeren

The European continent comprises 51 countries with a total of 837 million habitants. Of these, 27 countries (500 million citizens) are members of the European Union (EU), within which there is free movement of people, goods, services and capital; 16 of these countries have the same currency, the Euro. So does this support homogenous or heterogeneous public relations?

From my experience, having lived or stayed in many European countries, I can tell you there is no such thing as ‘one’ Europe. Within the EU alone there are 23 official languages, with an additional 60 unofficial minority languages. There are also differences in the way that politics and economics are run within countries and distinct cultures, even within countries – as identified by Hofstede.

For example, in Southern and Eastern Europe it is considered normal to inherit the family business; in the Netherlands this rarely happens. The Dutch save money for a ‘rainy day’, whereas in Spain people spend theirs in the hope of winning the lottery.

Old battles live on, such as in Belgium between the French and the Flemish speaking citizens or between countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands. You only have to look at major sporting events, where national pride and rivalry with fellow European countries is evident.  Attitudes take time to change – those in the West still view former Communist countries in the East as uneducated and poor – some 20 years after unification.

Given these differences, how can anyone suggest there could be a single European perspective to public relations? Actually, the history of public relations in many countries reveals a common origin as it developed during wartime with a focus on propaganda. This led to a media focussed approach to public relations.

However, the negative connotations from this heritage of propaganda led to different ways of representing public relations. For example, in the Netherlands it is often called ‘communicatie’ (communication); in Finland it goes under three different names: ‘ytheystoiminta’ (affiliation work), ‘viestintä’ (communication) and ‘sudetoiminta’ (relationship activity). In most European countries, the term ‘public relations’ is rarely used, making it hard to define the practice across the entire continent.

Language differences also affect any attempt to reflect homogenous PR practice. In many countries, practitioners need to engage with publics who speak different languages – and this means different media for those communities. The media scene across Europe is complex, and although largely uncensored, there are few commonalities between its style, ownership and agendas across individual countries.

There are some generalisations that can be made about PR practice. For example, those countries that were formerly under communist rule in the East tend to be dominated by a press release approach. When I was at the Euprera Conference in Bucharest in 2009, I noticed the difference from Western Europe where the focus is more multi-media, including online and social media.

Some countries, such as the UK have a more established consultancy industry, with many international PR firms having their main offices in London. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, it is more standard to work as an in-house practitioner.

Differences can also be found in respect of how public relations is taught. In the Netherlands it is taught alongside journalism; in the UK, PR is frequently located in business schools. Most surprising to me is the lack of status given to PR graduates in the UK because their degree subject is taught in ‘new’ Universities formed from polytechnic or higher education colleges post-1992. In my Masters research, I found it is often considered better to have a general degree from Oxford University than to have a specialist PR degree; with employers believing they can teach PR skills on the job. The situation is similar in Germany, where PR is not seen as a science and a general degree is taken more seriously. In contrast, in the Netherlands, it is viewed as vital to have a degree in the area you wish work because you need to understand the practice. Here, the type of degree is more important than your choice of university.

Perhaps the place to look for more homogeneity of thinking about public relations is among its European scholars. But here also there are noticeable differences. Verçiç, the main PR scholar from Slovenia, reflects an Eastern European perspective. In the UK, L’Etang is a leading critical scholar, who has written extensively about the history of the profession. From the Netherlands, Cornelissen has focused on corporate communication; whilst in Germany, PR theories derived from the social sciences and work by Luhman and Habermas. This presents a wide range of perspectives and theories of public relations rather than a single European conceptual approach.

There are many reasons why there is no such thing as European public relations. Differences in culture and language can be found across nationalities and their media. Variation in practice is found between East and Western Europe, and there is noticeable disparity between terminology, education and academic perspectives.

Thus when discussing European public relations, it is wise to be clear about what part of the vastly divergent continent you are talking about to avoid misunderstandings.


About the author

Janette van Kalkeren undertook her undergraduate studies in communication management in the Netherlands, and post-graduation she worked as a public relations practitioner in a non-profit organisation in both the Netherlands and Spain. She then undertook a MSc in International Applied Communication in England, and is currently based in the Netherlands where she is job hunting.

Connect with Janette via Twitter or LinkedIn.

10 COMMENTS

  1. An attractive post, indeed.

    May I also add that, mutatis mutandis, the same comments related to the the many europe’s could be applied to the many north american territories.

    Not only public relations is different in Canada from the US, but it is different in Quebec from Victoria and in New Orleans from Lousiana.
    Even though the language is (more or less..) the same.

    This is why the generic principles and specific applications paradgim is so crucial for our profession.

    Yet, having said this, in analysing european public relations vis a vis asian or latin american or north american public relations, one should also look at other indicators.

    The Van Rule and Vercic book on public relations of 2004 gives a number of common threads of pr in europe.

    The Bled Manifesto and the delphi research which preceded this highly important document described significant commonolaties in european public relations.

    What is more important is that the van rule book approaches the different practices in many european countries with a similar approach and this allows to have a useful dashboard.

    I am not aware of anything similar in the north america simply because the overall stereotype there is that pr practice is either northamerican or is not.. yet practice in California is surely different from practice in DC or Montana.

    One more point: the European Association of Communication Directors and Euprera monitor practice, function and budgets in large corporations and the are many more similarities in this region than in the Annenberg GAP studies, which are the only existing ones, as far as I know.

  2. Toni – I really don’t follow the logic of why diversity means that generic principles are crucial to public relations. Ignoring differences and focusing on commonalities reveals only part of the picture and is a modernist approach that misses the richness of understanding that comes from looking at the experiences and viewpoints of “others” rather than the dominant “norm”.

    I expect you will say that you are referring to a focus on relationships where of course there needs to be understanding of those with whom we communicate. However, even that general concept becomes normative or proposes focus on broad groups (stakeholders) and so loses the nuances that are found in complexity rather than in simplification.

    I agree that there are plenty of examples of studies in PR that look for commonalities between countries, practitioners, organisations and so forth – that isn’t surprising as the discipline is still oriented towards the idea of finding “best practice” and taking a reductionist approach.

    But surely your point about the North American perspective of PR being homogenous underlines the importance of examining the differences in California, DC or Montana (and elsewhere) for their own sake and not to look for simplistic similarities.

  3. Heather I must apologise. >This is the first time I read a response to a comment without understanding your questions. It is my fault and my comment was not sufficiently clear. Let me try again by picking up on your points:
    a) the value of diversity for effective public relations on a global level IS a generic principle.
    b) generic principles for any organization, even when it operates in a single territory, improve the effectiveness of pr only if and when integrated into that territory’s specific applications..i.e. the public relations infratsructure of that territory.
    I frankly do not see in these two points anything that might lead to ‘ missing the richness of understanding that comes from looking at the experiences and viewpoints of “others” rather than the dominant “norm’. Quite to the contrary. Unless you imply that the ‘dominant’ norm (where? practiced by whom?) is the paradigm in itself, that of course is normative, save for a few cases (I have been involved in some over the years with satisfaction).
    The concept of specific applications (a clear understanding of the legal, political, economic, active citizenship, soico cultural and media systems of that territory) seems to me everything but simplistic. Yet it is not complicated, but as you correctly say, complex and needs a lot of work.
    As for the last point of your comment, I did say very clearly that pr in america is everything but homogeneous in practice but is looked upon by scholars and teachers as a model distinct from other models (ie. european, asian, african, latin american, oceanian). But while europeans and asians (at least) deeply explicit in their works the diversities within their own regions, the northamericans (at least as far as I know) do not.
    I hope this clarifies better what I had written, stimulated by the original post.

  4. Janette asks, “how can anyone suggest there could be a single European perspective to public relations?” Easily! The search for difference is never ending and fruitless. Multiculturalism is on the way out. It’s about time too. That’s because multiculturalism undermines diversity for starters. It’s a conformist approach that fences us in and separates us at the same time. The German Chancellor said as much the other day.

    PR is mostly about identifying commonalities (it is about creating cohesion and cooperation) on behalf of firms, institutions and states. So, there is only one public relations and that applies globally.

  5. @toni muzi falconi:
    You are right that this topic does not reflect on just Europe, as you can also not talk about PR from an Asian point of view for instance. Though in Europe something special is going on compared to for instance North America or Asia, on the one hand you have all these small countries, with each their own origin, legislation, culture and totally different religions for instance. On the other hand, half of those countries are united within the European Union.

    What you argue about North-America is valid, yet this article was written on just Europe and I never said North-America was homogeneous in the way it practices PR. The point I am making is that often people coming from other countries compare their PR to a European model of PR, or a European major paradigm…and there just isn’t one. Though there are similarities indeed and common threads, but this does not mean that it is homogeneous. For instance, you could find similarities and a common threat between China and Italy (censorship), does that mean that they are then homogeneous?

    @Paul Seaman:
    I must say I find your point of view rather surprising and don’t quite understand how you can claim that there is ‘one’ public relations globally. Culture, thus also multiculturalism, is an important part of pr, just as language. In order to build a relationship with the public you need to adjust to who they are. If I want to built a relationship with my 60 year old neighbour coming from Spain, which will probably work different than building a relationship with a new colleague at work from my age coming from the Netherlands. That what influences relationships is identity, thus culture. When you say that you can use one model for the entire world, to me this sounds like taking the easy way out. How can you expect to built a relationship and forget about culture, someone’s identity? I have lived abroad and I know more people who have and each one of us has one commonality: the patriotic feeling towards their home country because it is just so different.

    Another example, when you do international PR and you target people from India as well as from the Netherlands with one model of PR you will not succeed. In order to be trusted by the Indians, in general, you should use older people in pictures and get someone who many people know and respect to be your spokesperson. In the Netherlands, you need to be to the point and quick because people are not bothered to listen to you because they are only after ‘what’s in it for me’ (also generally speaking). That is a world of difference; Indian people engage and care about others while most Dutch people are very individualistic (one of the pillars of Hostede’s theory). How can you expect to reach your aim with both groups with using one model of PR?

    And yes you find commonalities because targeting each individual on an individual level within PR is impossible, yet this does not mean you can put everyone in the world in one box because none of those people will fit in that box.

  6. Janette, your reply to me covers tactical issues. Of course, in the Swiss German part of Switzerland one speaks to the public in German, not French. If in Saudi Arabia the law says women must have their head covered, one covers up, or perhaps only puts up men as spokespeople. And, yes, language has to be geared towards the audience and the task at hand. But the “model” this covers is just tactical; and sometimes it is a form of “commonsense tactics” we should question. Moreover, the politics of identity undermines diversity and reduces us to stereotypes etc etc. So mostly multiculturalism is counterproductive and very limiting, not to say mostly patronizing.

    PR is too often defined by OUR prejudices about other people’s identities. It is the mistake made by all those who believe that there are as many PR models as there are “different” cultures. That’s exactly the lesson the German Chancellor acknowledged when she said multiculturalism had failed her country.

  7. Paul – The article I wrote says that you cannot speak of one PR in Europe because of cultural differences, but also because of differences in legislation, education and practice. This means that you cannot say that PR is homogeneous in Europe, just as that it isn’t homogeneous in Asia. And yes, PR deals with different cultures and this affects the tactical level of PR, true.
    And obviously we do not need a model for each culture because you can fill an enormous library with books about it. Plus it would be partially a common sense model like some other PR models; but that is another discussion.

    Merkel is talking about the integration debate in Germany, which is a very difficult topic and also is a big issue in the Netherlands. So I know that debate and I know Merkel’s views on it. And somehow you link this with Merkel’s argument on integration, which is a debate on how to deal with the integration and multicultural society so how you get the Muslims to obey by German rules, rather than them following the Koran. We got that battle here too, like the revenge killings when a Muslim girl gets raped. But this really is a different discussion in my opinion and I think it is important to understand the importance of the influence of culture on PR. The difference in history is infinite, the way it is practice is different, the public is different and even the definitions of what PR is differs in each continent and even in each country.

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