Dissent and protest – new directions for public relations

It has never been easier for people to protest or express dissent. But there’s actually a long tradition of public action, supported by organised campaigns. Rather than positioning such activities as dissent or protest public relations within the “field’s fuzzy and continually gerrymandered boundaries” (to cite Cropp and Pincus 2001), they have generally been viewed as threats or challenges to those working within or for organisations, and counter to the dominant viewpoint that public relations is an organisational function.

Dissent and Protest Public Relations is an initiative by Bournemouth University (BU) to help develop new directions for exploring both practice and theory. A series of seminars launched this initiative in late 2012, and PR Conversations is delighted to have the exclusive opportunity to publish papers from three of the four contributors (including myself) who approached the topic from different perspectives.

Click to download the full Dissent and Protest Public Relations papers in pdf format.

As a brief introduction, here is a synopsis of the four perspectives:

Dr David McQueen, BU lecturer specialising in politics and media, considers the topic ‘PR wars’ between charities and corporate interests.

Dr Pawel Surowiec, BU lecturer specialising in propaganda studies, looks at information campaigns by the Solidarity trade union against the Polish communist government.

Heather Yaxley, PR consultant, BU lecturer and PhD researcher, presents some historic cases of women in dissenting and protesting roles.

A fourth seminar was given by Neil Duncan-Jordan, national officer of the National Pensioners Convention, who detailed his activist group’s two year campaign against public expenditure cuts although unfortunately, campaigning time pressures prevented him writing it up for this publication.

The seminars were co-ordinated by Dr Kevin Moloney, senior research fellow at BU, who introduces the papers with his argument that dissent PR and protest PR are useful sub-categories subsumed within the more common term: activist PR.

One of the reasons why PR Conversations has been invited to publish these papers is to stimulate discussion around the terms and whether they can, and should, be applied to current, recent and past PR happenings. It would be very interesting to hear thoughts about whether or not the concepts should be developed further and views on considering a wider perspective on public relations than the normal idea that it is employed primarily within organisations and so is often critiqued as a right-wing, or at least, establishment, method of communications.

Reference: Cropp, F. and Pincus, J.D. (2001), The Mystery of Public Relations: Unraveling Its Past, Unmasking Its Future, In Heath, R.L. (Ed), Handbook of Public Relations (1st edition), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. p189-204

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22 Replies to “Dissent and protest – new directions for public relations

  1. Hi Tina! Great blog. I’m like you – punster first and then plot gets in there. I see you’re from Boston. My novels are set in and around Boston and the fictitious town of Laski, Mass. Thanks for following on Twitter… will catch up with you there! Cheers!

  2. Yes I agree and please let me clarify the context:
    certainly an organization -social, public or private- houses differing and often conflicting worldviews, aims, objectives, tools and channels.
    Its leadership, when provided with a ‘license to lead’ (where internal stakeholder group alignment is more essential and effective than a board approval), will attempt to listen to external stakeholder groups and determine its decisions keeping their expectations in mind.
    You imply that the internal alignment process could well signify an inflexible and dogmatic organization and I concur.
    But in this case I would not speak of a ‘licence to operate’ but, in the very best of cases, ‘pushing’ reputation by shooting messages to targets.

  3. Toni – I think you make a valid point that PR can be employed by all sorts of organisations to help achieve its aims. Whether or not the organisations wish to accommodate the views of others is debatable – surely it depends on their perspective and purpose?

    However, your point about those working within the organisation being in agreement and working together to achieve a common aim should not be assumed to be a core characteristic. In some organisations, yes, there may be such consensus, but it may signify an inflexible and dogmatic organisation as much as one that has vision of purpose. I think this is a more variable and complex issue to respond here, but may be worthy of another post at some point.

  4. In our discussion are some insights as to why the recession is so hard to beat. There are also some clues in our exchange of views as to what’s wrong with the modern corporation. Yes, they’re not faking it. The problem is real and deep-rooted. We require a new ethos…

  5. You’re welcome re: the Paul Willis post, Heather, although the original serendipity was a tweet, perhaps found on @PRConversations Champions. If not in an issue, I definitely followed someone’s “captured” tweet from there into his or her twitterstream, and then found it there.

    I like to experiment with different platforms to share relevant, interesting and useful posts. Often a G+ one (or LinkedIn update) gets more attention than Twitter.

    I admit to not examining the papers before asking this question (although I did go over to the university site and glanced through that other information you sent me), but is anyone examining activist websites and petitions? That was an area I explored in my Reputation Byte: Three Taxing Areas Beyond Control in Social Public Relations

  6. Hi again – I’m working through the papers but I have one fundamental question I wanted to throw out here that might help me shape my response…

    I read the definitions of ‘dissent PR’ and ‘protest PR’ and think to myself… isn’t this just PR? For instance, Kevin writes: “Dissent PR is the dissemination of ideas, commentaries, and policies through PR techniques in order to change current, dominant thinking and behaviour in discrete economic, political and cultural areas of public life.” – isn’t this just public relations applied for a specific function? Maybe the difference is in the way PR is applied, but then that’s quite a meta-argument and I wonder about the usefulness of this approach given the myriad definitions and applications of PR.

    Similarly, ‘Protest PR’ is interesting as it “persuades in order to implement those ideas, behaviours and policies into law, regulation and other forms of executive action.” This seems odd, as it seems to contradict the notion of protest; that is: a form of rejecting or resisting an idea or practice and turns it instead into a constructive notion seeking an outcome rooted in some form of normative democratic action, e.g. laws, regulation or executive action. This is definitely an outcome contra many social movements. In fact the Occupy movement(s) expressly rejected contemporary democratic responses owing to the wider limitations/problems with capitalist, representative democracy. See: http://www.possible-futures.org/2012/01/03/a-movement-without-demands/ (serendipitously this article is co-authored by Jodi Dean who I mentioned in my previous comment).

    What do others think? Look forward to getting deeper into these papers.

    1. Simon: There is a completely different way to look at Dissent PR. Traditionally, public relations has been presented (and operationalised) as a corporate construct with the emphasis on the organisation managing relationships with stakeholders. Kevin Molooney and colleagues have turned the model on its head by focusing on public relations from an activist perspective. Kevin’s book “Rethinking Public Relations” (2000, 2006) tackled this and Tim Coombs and Sherry Holloday called for a re-imagining public relations from an activist perspective (2012). (See IHPRC wesbite http://www.historyofpr.com/proceedings for 2012). This their proposition isn’t common or garden PR but a different paradigm.

      1. Thanks Tom – that’s helpful and I can see now how Dissent and Protest PR offer a re-imagining. However, I’m still not sure how far the difference extends. For example, surely the paradigm holds regardless whether the corporate entity managing relationships with stakeholders is a multi-national commercial organisation or an NGO. Both operate through comparable corporate structures and strategies. Paul’s comment above points out the convergence and conflation of activist/NGO aims and strategies. So, you could argue that based on the evidence of what, how and why gets done the paradigm remains the same – you’re just approaching the subject from a different perspective.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited by the opening up of PR research into challenging and non-commercial fields only I believe we need to expose ourselves to new and diverse fields. As already mentioned, there are rich seams of research into activist communications in social movement studies, political science, political communications, political theory. We should be looking to how these communications have already been imagined and using these perspectives to challenge normative perspectives. For example, one such limitation of Dissent/Protest PR is that despite the ‘dissent’ or ‘protest’ on offer the outcomes remain locked into a distinctly liberal democratic model. Some adopting a critical perspective would argue that this space is entirely co-opted by capitalism and thus offers to real opportunity for real democratic dissent. This is why many social movements – certainly the significant movements of recent years, Climate Camp, global Climate Justice movement, Occupy, Anonymous – don’t fight/campaign for outcomes rooted in liberal democracy, rather they seek to build an alternative through their actions (inc. communication) or simply disrupt the existing order.

        There’s is a distinct anti-normative approach rooted in political theories rejecting the philosophical and theoretical possibility of any normative framework and should be recognised by studies of dissenting or protesting movements. In a perverse way, the conception of dissent/protest PR as it stands could even be seen to reinforce the corporate model; although perhaps I’m taking it too far!

        Again, this is an exciting new avenue for studies of PR and campaigning which I welcome and look forward to getting involved in the debate further!

    2. Thanks Simon,
      You make some good points and for me at this stage of thinking about the terms dissent and protest PR, they are in the future. You are clothing them in the heavy garments of political economy. But hey – I’m just offering two new terms (I believe) to fit under ‘activist PR’ so that we can refine our analysis of activism. I present them today to see if they are fit for that purpose.

      So under ‘activist PR, the terms suggest two stages can be differentiated: dissent PR prepares the ground for the desired conceptual, ideological, ideological change wanted by activists and protest PR is getting that accepted by policy makers.

      I present the terms as ideologically neutral. I can see examples from left and right. Historically, I remember the early Thatcherites being very successful with their dissent PR for neo-liberalism.

      The stages are sequential in operational terms and in practice can no doubt be uncoupled in time and personnel; maybe simultaneous, and maybe in reverse order.

      PR is always about pushing and persuading, so what’s new? Nothing here except an attempt to refine our understanding of activism.

      Are PR methods the same in both categories? Largely (narration building; media relations; events management, lobbying) but I don’t see demos, marches or sit-ins been done by capitalists in suits.

      Funny – wasn’t there one over the extradition of one of the Nat West Four?

      1. Thanks Kevin. You comments help clarify things further. Really useful.

        I would only add that while some elements of political economic analyses flavour my responses, my position is firmly against any determinst position – economic or otherwise. Rather, the approach I adopt draw on a range of critical, cultural and philosophical disciplines. The common thread is that they reject the normative framework of liberal-democracy. So, I definitely agree your terms can be adopted by left or right political ideologies, but my argument is that it can’t step outside of the framework. Maybe that’s a further development of the terminology!

  7. I warm to Simon’s comments. Part of Heather’s post and reply to Simon needs challenging.

    Social media is increasingly becoming conformist; dissent free. Free speech does not reign supreme. People are being imprisoned for writing drunken posts on twitter and facebook or for expressing their views, some of which others don’t like. Sure, right now such draconian sanctions mostly apply to idiots and activists on the far right. But if that’s how we respond to inconsequential twits expressing naughty sentiments, how would the authorities react when society faced a real challenge…?

    Second, Heather doesn’t get how the protest movements – greens and NGOs – have taken over the boardroom. They have become mainstream parts of the establishment, while positioning themselves (increasingly unconvincingly) as radical excluded underdogs. For instance, Unilever joined forces with Occupy Wall St and endorsed its demand to reclaim democracy from the corrupting influence of BIg Business. Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, Europe’s leading home improvement retailer, has declared that “we have to get consumers in developing countries past wanting the “American Dream of more.”’ Almost every company on the planet wants to be seen to be Green and to be more concerned with constraint and limits than with growth and ambition… Even FMG firms don’t defend consumerism, consumers, mass production, profit and their core business (so BP went Beyond it…Beyond Petroleum). This is much more than greenwash or spin or faking it; though that goes on. There is something deep-rooted and real about it. That is what makes it so damaging and so in need of challenging.

    Hence, Toni’s points are even further off the mark than some of Heather’s. The enemy Toni speaks of – that the boardroom supposedly fears – does not exist.

    “No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
    – George Orwell, Animal Farm, Ch. 10

    Yes: PR needs disrupting.

    1. Paul – I said that social media makes it easy to engage in protest/dissent, not that they make such behaviour effective. I wouldn’t disagree with you about thetrend you notice for people’s opinions and behaviour to be stamped on when it signifies any dissent. That’s not exclusive to social media as, for example, CCTV cameras are also used to monitor and control behaviour. And the numpty UKIP MEP was talking face-to-face when his less-than-intelligent use of the term ‘sluts’ for women (regardless of whether or not we clean behind our fridges) were recorded and later issued to the media.

      I most certainly do get how some protest movements have become part of the establishment – a friend of mine noted several years ago how today’s activist is tomorrow’s corporate adviser when talking about Jonathon Porritt. Again, however the nature of the dance between non-profit organisations, or activists (of all different types) and companies (likewise not homogenous) is not something I feel can be tackled simply in a response to a comment.

      Personally I do feel there is something going on that isn’t just about companies capitulating to others’ agendas. Indeed look at how causes have capitulated to being little more than a promotional tool eg the Pink Ribbon campaign being increasingly about selling goods rather than a symbol for those with breast cancer (as highlighted by Judy’s 2012 post http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2012/02/pink-ribbons-inc-%E2%80%94-rage-against-the-marketing-machine%E2%80%99s-shiny-pink-success-story/).

      This runs counter to Toni’s view where working together seems to have dangers as much as benefits for both non-profits/activists and corporates.

      Does Sun Tzu help?

      “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

  8. I don’t agree when you differentiate from us our colleagues from the social sector (and from the development sector, I would add) .

    Two reasons:

    °we are all professionals and in the same practice boat and we all work from an organizational pespective, even if one is private and the other is social. The core characteristic is that it is an organization. i.e. individuals who agree, for whatever purpose, to work together to reach a common aim (this is why I do not align with the distinction of the postmodernists amongts us between a social and an organizational perspective);

    °like lawyers from both sides of the issue make it a practice to meet and explore possibiities of negotiation, mediation or agreement I am always stunned at how we tend to make it a compulsory stereotype to consider our colleagues on the other side as ‘enemies’.
    Every time i have discussed with these I have always found alternative and less ‘bloody’ ways out of the conflict.

    Is it because we fear being perceived as ‘friends of the enemy’ by our c-suite colleagues?
    If so,this is very very infantile and counterproductive for our client/employer.

    1. Toni – I think you make a valid point that PR can be employed by all sorts of organisations to help achieve its aims. Whether or not the organisations wish to accommodate the views of others is debatable – surely it depends on their perspective and purpose?

      However, your point about those working within the organisation being in agreement and working together to achieve a common aim should not be assumed to be a core characteristic. In some organisations, yes, there may be such consensus, but it may signify an inflexible and dogmatic organisation as much as one that has vision of purpose. I think this is a more variable and complex issue to respond here, but may be worthy of another post at some point.

      What did make me smile though is the thought of organisations internally reflecting this sense of working together to reach common aims. My experience is that most are far more disfunctional than that…

  9. Thank you Toni.

    See also Paul Willis’ post (Director of the Centre for PR Studies at Leeds Met University) – http://ukprman.com/2013/09/18/pr-people-need-their-own-dissident-networks (via Judy’s marvellous engagement with Google+).

    When responding there, it occurred to me that this post does align with emerging thinking from a number of sources – for example, Derina Holtzhausen and the London College of Communication conference earlier this year on PR & Disruption (http://greenbanana.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/a-disruptive-week-in-pr/)

    Then I remembered the PRC post that Ira Basen wrote about talking truth to power focusing on PR pioneer, Chet Burger : http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2011/06/truth-to-power-a-tribute-to-pr-pioneer-and-critic-chet-burger/

    It is interesting that Chet was personally a crusader for civil rights, and worked hard to bring African-Americans into PR and as ever, the history of PR contains evidence that we have solid foundations on which to build a position around all these ideas.

  10. A nice post Heather, and I second Toni for your timely and interesting initiative!

    I also agree for in our new era that “prostesting” and ‘communicative actions”allow more and easier dissents – it never be so easier than now.

    “Activist Public Relations” would be a parallel term for dissent public relations, which Jim and Lauri wrote a piece in 1996. The paper has not been published but includes a thought-provoking ideas of how (powerless) activists (activist publics) would gain normative power and pragmatic resources/leverage for their cause and toward problem solving! I strongly recommend this piece to deepen our discussion on this topic.

    I wish you and colleagues continue the quest for how citizens and lay publics ‘should’ share and raise the causes in a new digitalized, networked society what I call ‘cybercoping’ of active publics or cyberactivism : )

    Cheers colleagues there!

    JN : )

    1. Thank you for your reference to Jim and Lauri Grunig’s earlier work. There have also been other recent publications on relevant aspects of Activism PR and also drawing on social theory to take a different look at PR. Plenty to keep us on the quest…

  11. I tip my hat to this brilliant initiative, to its inspirers and authors alike.
    Wish there were many more.
    Well done prconversations and am very, very proud.

  12. Hi Heather – interesting post. Couple of thoughts from me…

    “It has never been easier for people to protest or express dissent” – is there evidence to support this claim? I would argue from experience that a range of factors have made free association and protest harder, e.g. the use of policing tactics such as kettling, change in legislation, e.g. SOCPA Designated Area, strategic use of bail conditions, pre-emptive threats and misuse of legislation (e.g. Terrorism Act). While many of these factors physically make protest difficult they are also – arguably – designed *pour l’encourager d’autres*.

    Then there’s the issue of structural changes that have made it harder to organise protest, e.g. rise of consumerism/consumer apathy; economic precarity – that’s an interesting one as unlike the 80s when no-one had a job which meant they were free to protest, now people have fractions of jobs/part-time jobs so their ability to mobilise is harder; rise of social media, etc.

    I guess I’m labouring a point around a very specific element – but I think its an important one as the role of communication has been critiqued as a real problem for protest. I’m thinking around displacement of action, e.g. Jodi Dean’s “communicative capitalism” or issues of representing protest – being able to unpick dominant media narratives/dichotomies a big challenge for social movements, particualarly around the issue of peaceful/violent protests. I’m not sure how this might work into your sub-categories but will have a further read and think!

    1. Simon – my apologies, your post got delayed in our approval process…

      Thanks for picking up on the first sentence where I should clarify my thinking was more about how protesting and expressing dissent are made easier by technology to start with. Although of course, the ease of using social media and other digital channels to garner support for a cause is countered by the overload of the approach and criticisms of Clicktivism.

      You are right that other developments seek to block dissent or protest – including the use of technology of course to monitor and campaign against certain positions that those with power (using their PR practitioners) oppose.

      Consumerism and the economic situation are similarly double-edged. Consumers are apathetic, but promotional approaches used by charities, causes and CSR initiatives make it relatively easy to make a benign contribution. I believe activism is more than simply buying a product that supports a charitable cause or wearing a coloured wristband or boycotting goods etc. But those who are affluent consumers can easily accommodate ‘feelgood’ protest/dissent in their lives with little disruption.

      Communicative capitalism seems linked to ideas around promotional and brand culture which we’ve also considered here (Judy’s last post re Ira Basen’s CBC radio show for example).

      I’ll join you in the further reading and thinking as there’s plenty here that impacts on future direction for PR I think.

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