Developing a worldview of public relations

All conversations about public relations reflect specific worldviews – and this is something we should examine when developing theory, considering practice or undertaking research in the field. Our opinions, prejudices and arguments are the outcome of personal and professional experience, our educational background, our values and perspectives on how things are – or should be – and how we assimilate the views of others into our existing mental frameworks. Likewise when reading the work of others, we need to consider their particular worldview.

There are plenty of academic terms derived from philosophical traditions to summarise the nuances of various worldviews. You may be a pragmatist, or consider yourself to be a critical theorist. Perhaps you demonstrate a modernist or post-modernist perspective in your thinking. Or you may lean more towards a scientific, artistic, social sciences or humanities approach to understanding public relations. Some people are pluralistic and open-minded in their worldview – others reflect single minded thinking that is resistant to change.

You might think this is all mumbo-jumbo – but that same dismissal of academic concepts is indeed a worldview. The University of Life, learning by doing, experience over qualifications – however you wish to sum up your thinking, it reflects a way of looking at the world.

Differing worldviews underpin much of the debate on this blog, as well as in academic and practitioner oriented forums. Look at a PR LinkedIn group and you’ll see similar variety of perspectives to that found in academic journals or at any real world gathering of PR folk.

This rumination is a prelude to a short series of three posts which will present an outcome of a recent offline discussion between three respected and insightful thinkers in public relations: Toni Muzi Falconi, Robert Wakefield and Jim Grunig.

What this introductory post aims to do is to examine that conversation process and how it sought to establish a shared – or at least co-oriented – worldview between the three writers regarding conceptualising a public relations paradigm at the present time.

In editing the conversation for publication, I had a choice in whether to read the discussion from beginning to end or from the last comment back to the original suggestion. Whichever direction I read, I found an interesting dimension of the conversation, which is how responses combined three aspects:

  • immediate reaction to the last comment,
  • considered reflection against previous work, and
  • suggestions of development (often in a new direction) for the discussion.

Each participant brought his own worldview into the discussion and enriched it, redirected it and re-presented it back to the others. There was a politeness in the discussion rather than great opposition or argument – but still I could see how ideas were being challenged and developed.

I wanted to share some thoughts on this creative cognitive process as often readers (particularly those studying PR) view blog posts, academic papers or other publications as complete, final works. In truth, most writing is the result of discussion, reflection, ongoing research and previous forays into print – that is, it represents a progressive worldview and as such is open to further development.

In reading the conversational thread, I found my own worldview being invoked. I didn’t necessarily agree with what I was reading – but my role wasn’t to participate in the discussion. But as I craft the series of posts, my worldview will be implicit within how I narrate the perspectives of our learned colleagues. Such is the nature of secondary reporting.

The idea being discussed relates to establishing some generics of the profession of public relations (my worldview would question the use of the term profession, but as this isn’t my conversation, I will not interject further – for now).

The goal is to develop some common understandings that could be applied by PR practitioners in any organisation, much as accountants and lawyers have a toolkit of informed practice that they apply – and indeed, are required to demonstrate within their role.

However, the conversation recognises that as well as common understandings of possible industry standards, the nature of public relations requires consideration of how the field operates in respect of specific organisations and other varying cultural dimensions.

The conversation pondered the difference between proposed generic and general principles, which would allow for commonality and difference respectively.

This paradigm was thought by the participants in the conversation to warrant revisiting existing literature (particularly that which related to a so-called generic/specific theory of public relations). It was recognised that other issues may arise in considering the suggested distinction between generic and general standards away from the initial conversation.

There was also concern to review and reflect on what would be published, to give it a polish or at least to check the validity of initial raw expressions. This was matched to an excitement to see what others would do with the concepts when they were published.

As well as reaching sideways and forwards, the conversation stretched backwards into earlier studies that had been articulated and developed by other contributors over time.

It then reached a point between Toni and Rob when it had been sufficiently explored to present possible ground breaking to involve Jim’s input. As Toni wrote: Jim provided some agreement, but also more substance to the reflection. This process brought consensus on a need to initiate public review of the concept – with the hope that other viewpoints would focus, challenge, debate, adopt and otherwise develop the issue.

Agreeing there is value in shining such a light on the initial idea and its development, I took on the challenge of turning it into a series of posts. My aim is to convey clarity from the conversation, which reflected linearity within the initial Muzi Falconi-Wakefield main conversational course, with a side order of Grunigian input as relish.

Whether or not the proposed paradigm will be viewed as a reconstruction of a classic dish – a la Heston Blumenthal (innovative British chef) – or will be considered as fare that is lacking in flavour or gastronomic value, is to be decided. It will undoubtedly reflect an attempt to develop a worldview for public relations – which in itself is a challenge when each reader and anyone prepared to join the conversation will have their own worldview from which they will applaud or critique the concept.

I trust I have now whet your appetite for the following bon mots. But also would like to ask for you to share your own experiences of the creative process involved in developing concepts for publication. From crowd-sourcing, to co-authorship and group work (as per the Stockholm Accords and the Melbourne Mandate), the idea of working with others to formulate and refine ideas is increasingly common. Alternatively, individual authors involve editors or peer review in enhancing the veracity of their writing. Or perhaps you feel there is more merit in the approach of a single voice presenting premises that are unsullied by the input of others – does that result in more or less originality? How do you suggest we should develop a worldview of public relations?

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NOTE: This is the first part of a series of 3 posts.  Part 2: Generic principles and specific applications in public relations - appeared on Monday 15 April with Part 3: Three wise men – homage to a public relations paradigm – published on Friday 19 April.

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4 Responses to “Developing a worldview of public relations”
  1. Reed Byrum says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking point of view about a global mindset for the Babylon that has evolved in the last decade of social media. It is very cogent thinking and very necessary to a dialog that happens at the Global Alliance and in places like Barcelona. Despite the push for hyperlocalism from social media, the true professional dialog for issues, products and services is global and will continue to be global. Thanks for your efforts to advance the dialog, particularly with the thinking provided by your trio of thought leaders.

  2. I’ve connected this post to a discussion happening in the CIPR LinkedIn group between two candidates running for 2014 President – Dr Jon White and Stephen Waddington. Their open approach in discussing issues with other commentators there is very interesting and reveals their worldviews in several ways. See: http://lnkd.in/eCurY7

  3. Maybe because it is a damp and grey Monday morning or maybe my inner devil’s advocate just needs an outing but my first thought when I saw your question ‘How do you suggest we should develop a worldview of public relations’ was that a good first step would have been to include some women in the initial conversation.

    I have the deepest respect and admiration for those participating in what I am sure will be a fascinating series of posts but the worldview from this end of the bench is that public relations and communication management is a working world that now contains more women than men. This suggests to me that female involvement should go further than secondary reporting, even when Heather, that reporting is conducted in your own brilliant style.

    • Cathy – it is an interesting point about whether the inclusion of women (or different nationalities, ages, etc) would create a different worldview of PR, or at least one that included, or reflected, female input. We could perhaps say the same regarding other demographic or geodemographic aspects. Or, would this segmentation either need further breaking down – what about the worldviews of young women or gay men for example?

      But does that lead us in the circle of saying that there are many different worldviews and any attempt at a consensus would dilute that diversity? Or is there a single worldview that encompasses – or indeed, stands outside the diversity of practitioners?

      I’m very much a “PR is what PR does” type of person, allowing for variation, but at the same time, I feel there is a core dimension of a PR mindset. As I commented on Judy’s recent Windmill Networking column, Hutton distinguished a PR attitude/mindset which resonates with me.

      I recently taught some young engineers doing their work experience rotation in a PR function who were struck by the different way of viewing things in the two areas. They said that in engineering, the blinds are drawn (literally and metaphorically) as you concentrate on your particular job – but in PR, the blinds are open and there is a focus on the wider world you can see outside, as well as the bigger picture of the organisation within it. I thought this was very insightful.

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