PR Conversations often seems to advocate the two-way symmetric “normative” approach to public relations, but it is important to recognise the limitations of this “ideal” as championed by Grunig and his followers and at the very least, engage with alternative, critical or radical perspectives.
A number of such views can be found at the Radical PR blog set up by a group of academics who “have ambitions to reform and liberate the field of public relations” most particularly from the organizational focus that has been the dominant paradigm (systems and modernist theories). A focus on societal impacts sets out to be a “powerful corrective” to the largely US-centric approaches that lead the agenda and curriculum of much reflection on public relations. The 17 abstracts published following an initial “round table” Radical PR event provide fascinating reading, and should lead us to their wider body of work.
I think it is vital that practitioners and students of public relations are exposed to such views on our profession, not least because they challenge our perspectives on communications and relationships which are largely derived from experiences gained working within organisations or agencies where we are employed to promote the interests of our paymasters.
Even if our organisation does not exist primarily to generate profit, it will have an agenda that it seeks to achieve. Seeking to raise the status of PR to a management function with the ear of the dominant coalition has in fact, embedded the function even more with the partisan perspective of achieving what the organisation’s management wants, often at the expense of others (even internal publics).
Studying the societal perspective of PR is a great opportunity to understand how others may see our “profession” and acknowledge why not everyone has the positive viewpoint that is argued for most often at PR Conversations.
I am about to engage with dozens of new students on the CIPR Diploma course, who are experienced practitioners seeking to gain a greater understanding of “best practice” and theoretical underpinnings. Their first Unit is titled PR Theory and Practice, and I have divided the syllabus into three separate perspectives: professional, organizational and societal.
The first enables us to reflect on ideas of PR as a profession, its history, ethical frameworks, associations with propaganda, spin and publicity, global perspectives, trends (including new media) and an introduction to different theoretical models and opinions.
The second presents a perspective with which practitioners are most comfortable, that of the role of PR within organisations, the classic Grunig models, systems theory and boundary-spanning, strategic communications management, organisational culture and change, planning models and evaluation, stakeholder theory, relationship building, working with dominant coalitions, CSR, issues and crisis management and so on.
My favourite, however, is the third session. Students largely buy-in to the concept of PR as a profession and themselves as an “ethical guardian”, providing a strategic management function where they are able to influence and take responsibility for building mutually beneficial relationships, etc. Even if their current role or organisation does not enable them to reflect the “model of excellence” approach, they generally desire to do so.
So bringing in the critical perspectives approach that makes them confront the reality of the modernist perspective is a joy to teach. Whether it is looking at the role of PR in society, criticisms of the “feel-good” theories of PR, rhetoric and persuasion, PR’s dark past – and present, unethical practices, feminist perspectives, the dominance of press agentry, questionable CSR activities, PR’s involvement with “democracy” and spin, or even chaos theory, there is plenty that stimulates debate and challenges practice as well as theory.
I believe this third perspective on PR is one we have to get to grips with and would like to see more discussion about here at PR Conversations.
Whether you are a practitioner or an academic, someone who believes PR is simply about generating media coverage and publicity (as many who talk about it online believe) or an advocate for the more “ethical” viewpoints expressed in textbooks or here at PR Conversations, you can only gain from confronting alternative perspectives.
If we are to truly be proud of working in public relations – and ensure it has a valued future in society – the work of those participating in the Radical PR forum needs a much wider audience.