Critique or criticism – thoughts on PR academic conferences

Dandelion: AKA 'piss en lit' (English: pee the bed) - perhaps a metaphor for criticism

This Summer, academics have travelled across Europe chasing the conference season. For Toni Muzi Falconi, the journey started with the Bledcom 20th anniversary symposium in Slovenia, followed by a political PR post-conference after the ICA conference in London, and then the International History of PR conference in Bournemouth (IHPRC). I caught up with Toni in Bournemouth – where we were both presenting – for his thoughts on the ’season’. As well as IHPRC, I’m participating in the PR and Disruption event at London College of Communication on 10 July (still time to book a place).

Although we missed out on a few legs of the Grand European Tour (such as the AMEC European Summit in Madrid, the IAMCR Conference in Dublin and the European Communication Summit in Brussels), here is a conversational critique of what we found in our forays into academia. [There are links to Toni's presentations at the end]

Toni Muzi Falconi: This is the first time that I’ve been to all three of these conferences, which are part of the ‘events’ side of our craft/profession. I find they are successful when, and if, the convener succeeds in attracting the ‘right’ participants and in stimulating a left-right-left dialogue and enrichment of participants that increases the event’s reputation and ensures that future events will be even more successful.

On the three conferences I participated in, I have a few criticisms, as well as a positive critique to share:

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Bled. For the past two decades, I’ve found this event to be influential, and I believe I owe to Bled much of what I have understood about PR from the participants and their expressed/written thoughts. That said, this year’s Bled was a low key event rather than the celebration we might expect. It is possible that it is time for a break there. I am a strong supporter of discontinuities, and love happy funerals, particularly with a jazz group playing. So, perhaps we should have a requiem party next year with our great pianist Gunter Bentele and great vocalist Ronel Rensburg marching along the beautiful lake of Bled celebrating 21 years and marking a short hiatus.

One of the greatest attractions of Bled is that every year Dejan Vercic pulls out of his hat a wild rabbit; someone not connected to PR but who listens to us and then shares considerations on our perspective. This year we were really blessed by the presence of science writer and columnist, Miha Mazzini. I found his thoughts thrilling regarding some recent findings on how the brain works and how we listen to understand what is happening around us.

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London. I was only there for a post conference on political public relations. Again there seemed relatively few participants but some highly interesting stuff. The convenors were Chiara Valentini, a bright young and successful academic with whom I have in the past written a book on how Italian journalists see public relators and vice versa (to be frank, she did the research and I commented the results) and is now teaching in AAruhs in Denmark, together with Spiro Kiousis (University of Florida) and Jesper Stromback (Mid Sweden University) authors of Political Public Relations (Routledge 2011).

The most interesting presentations were Adam Saffer and Maureen Taylor’s on Political Public Relations in Advocacy: building online influence and social capital as well as Roger Mortimore’s (from Ipsos Mori) on the theory and Practice of Political Public Relations. I thoroughly enjoyed the event.

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Bournemouth: I consider myself a militant activist in public relations, but found this year’s IHPRC, unfortunately, revealed an unexpected and unpleasant feature. Rather than the needed criticism of the traditional approach to a history of PR mostly based on biased memoirs of western male professionals, two authoritative UK academics felt the need to discredit other highly respected scholars, by accusing them – without citing factual evidence – of having polluted the culture of PR. Sadly, this undermined the transition of PR’s history towards a societal, activist and global rather than ethnocentric perspective, which has been driven by the Bournemouth event. I felt this personal criticism was an immature and unnecessary attempt to attract attention by shooting at a big target, which is the opposite of the rigour that an academic conference should strive for.

Away from this rather sour note, I believe that, as before, more than half of the presentations at the history conference were of great quality.

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Heather Yaxley: Thank you Toni. I was sorry to have missed the first day at Bournemouth to form my own opinion of the situation you describe – as that’s the essence of critical thinking for me, the ability to reflect on what you hear at conferences and relate to other knowledge, or be motivated to check out more on a topic. I also find it somewhat ironic that there is a tendency to revise history (something Robert Heath noted at the first IHPRC) in this case to criticise those who are undoubtedly a major aspect of PR’s past, whilst we are ‘rehabilitating’ some earlier practitioners and otherwise ‘embracing the embarrassing‘ as I memorably recall Karen Russell arguing in her keynote at that initial conference in 2009.

What I love particularly about Bournemouth is that it attracts an eclectic group of people and some wonderfully left field topics. I was fortunate to chair a stream of presentations this year, each of which brought something new to my understanding of PR history. In addition, each of these seemed to come from a different theoretical basis than the normal or dominant framework, which resonated clearly with me. As you know, I have my own critical perspective on the ‘big target’, but what I prefer to do is look for the alternative perspectives where I feel something new is emerging.

Boston University’s Cheryl Ann Lambert gave an interesting presentation on the WW2 Victory Garden campaign as she used Fisher’s narrative paradigm to look at the stories that were conveyed at the time rather than simply viewing such government work as propaganda. This meant that although a critical perspective could be evident in the analysis, this didn’t mean automatically labelling such communications pejoratively as those who see all wartime PR as propaganda tend to do.

The real nugget of delight for me was Thomas Mickey’s presentation on the promotion of the English Garden by the Nineteen Century American Seed and Nursery Catalogues. As with Cheryl Ann’s work, there was a lovely thread conceptually connecting Europe and the US. I felt this implied some societal and global expansion of thinking about early communications (beyond the Americans created everything about PR simplistic narrative). Thomas also underpinned how in effect, the American seed companies were creating what may today be called lifestyle marketing.

And as a Brit, who couldn’t love the idea of all these Americans seeking to emulate some classic English stately home gardens simply because a catalogue emphasised this as the right way to garden. Apparently even the German immigrants switched to planting vegetables in the English method of straight rows behind the house. Again, Thomas focused on the content of the communication – and he started his presentation with a quote from a chapter in a book he’d found on the Routledge desk at the conference. Which just happened to be written by me:

Public relations can be seen as a promotional industry, albeit with a focus on developing strategically beneficial relationships.”

As Thomas said, this summed up the approach of the seed company owners who sought to develop relationships with the home-owners in promoting their English garden flower and vegetable seeds.

The third presentation was by friends of PR ConversationsJean Valin, Anne Gregory and Fraser Likely (although only Jean and Anne were at the conference). This looked at the origins of the Global Alliance, which again helped present a different perspective on our occupation. What was interesting about this, was the point made about fallibility of memory – which I know was a theme of Toni’s presentation that I missed on the first day (link below). As my own doctoral research will involve narrative and memory (in respect of career strategies in public relations), my morning’s work gave me a tangible outcome as well as being hugely interesting and entertaining.

I was also fortunate for the third successive year to present a paper, with my colleague Kevin Ruck, on the history of internal communications. Another nice aspect for me of this conference is the discussion that follows presenting a paper which makes you think further about your work.

Next up, I will be chairing again at the London College of Communication PR and Disruption event (10th July – booking link). I am hoping to see plenty of ‘militant activism’ in that – not least thanks to other friends of PR Conversations, Paul Seaman and Richard Bailey (FCIPR). I will certainly be encouraging critical thinking but expect rigour in the arguments being made.

This links nicely to the launch of the Routledge research series in public relations and communications which took place at Bournemouth. Edited by Kevin Moloney, it aims to encourage ‘change spotters who feel their ideas are a shade too novel, radical to get published’. For me that’s the epitome of what critical thinking should be – where we can justifiably present critiques with robust criticism, but also look to build new understanding.

It is an exciting time for PR academia – which matches the changes happening in practice and practitioner conferences as Judy Gombita noted in her recent Maximize Social Business post. The challenge is to be able to marry the two aspects of public relations more as there is certainly plenty in the academic conference season of relevance to practitioners. Something that I recall a practitioner raising in the conclusion to the history conference.

So if you’re a practitioner who has never been to an academic conference, the London College of Communication PR and Disruption event (10th July - booking link) would be a great starting point as it promises to be a little different (I’m sure including many of Judy’s recommendations and observations).  And if you can’t make it, follow the hashtag: #PRdisrupt on the day.

Toni Muzi Falconi presentations:

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7 Responses to “Critique or criticism – thoughts on PR academic conferences”
  1. Tom Watson says:

    As one of Toni MF’s targets in his criticism of the highly successful International History of Public Relations Conference, I don’t feel I have to justify my views. However, I’d like to set out what was said in my keynote speech.

    The central point made was that PR historians needed to move from comfortable stances to become more “dangerous” and develop their research from a grounded base, rather than rely on convenient benchmarks like the Grunig & Hunt four models. Specifically, I said:

    “I will argue for greater international and cross-cultural cooperation between scholars. This will help the field move beyond description and into analysis, and to reconsider the “Great Men” focus and Anglo-American leadership (e.g. Grunigian models) content of many texts and articles.”

    This was followed shortly after by:

    “It concerns me too that many developing country scholars use Grunig’s four models and Excellence Theory as frames to record and benchmark the growth of their national PR sector using these convenient but culturally inappropriate standards.”

    That is a critique of the use of models in PR history and not of the theorist. Heaven knows, we all use the four models and Excellence Theory in our teaching, even though we have our doubts. They are the benchmark.

    I will post the keynote speech and presentation at http://historyofpr.com under the Proceedings heading so that PR Conversations readers can see the whole story. For those interested in the conference, put July 2-3, 2014 in your diaries. You’ll enjoy it.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Well, I find myself defending professor Grunig. The problem with the study of history within PR circles is not the focus on “Great Men” and “Anglo-American leadership (e.g. Grunigian models) content of many texts and articles”. It strikes me that Tom Watson wants to “out-divesify” and be more “multi-cultural” and less “universal” and “historical” than Jim Grunig. It’s two split peas in a pod. This debate needs a real shake. We need to engage the history of ideas and, yes, rhetoric. But it would seem Tom is not only confused (“even though we have our doubts. They are the benchmark”) he’s headed in the wrong direction. Anytime anybody wants to debate the issue – I’m ready to offer an alternative.

  3. Dejan Vercic says:

    Hi Toni! You are perfectly right to note that the 21st International Public Relations Research Symposium – 2013 BledCom was not a revolutionary, but a comfortable one. There were many of us who enjoyed some humble reflection on where our field is today (20 years after we started discussing it regularly in Bled), where it is heading and what we should do.

    Also organisers: we were debating if and in what direction to continue the event. The answer is here: The call for the 21st BledCom symposium, 4-5 July 2014, Lake Bled, Slovenia on DIGITAL PUBLICS: NEW GENERATION, NEW MEDIA, NEW RULES with a special issue of the Public Relations Review to follow.

    So, next year (I know you will be back) we will again be entertaining. Thank you for your vigilance and this all endeavour makes sense because of people like you!

  4. Toni muzi falconi says:

    I have no intention to distract PR Conversations readers from the overall quality of the Bournemouth conference, Tom.

    You will remember that I joined you following your presentation and said that citing the models six times in 15 minutes and never mentioning that they have not been advocated as a dynamic historic interpretation of PR for at least 15 years reveals somewhat of a psychological issue.

    Also, your presentation was quickly followed by Anne Gregory who launched grenades against the ‘generic principles and specific applications’ model ( sic!) while no scholar I am aware of ever used this term.
    And when a learned participant mildly suggested that amongst the developers of this paradigm were many Asian scholars and that it was a paradox to say that it was ethnocentric and Western, she replied ungenereously implying that scholars need to comply with their mentors’ thinking….

    I am not implying that yours was a concerted effort, yet it must have touched many sensitivities as the subsequent plenary discussion revealed general discomfort…..

    Looking forward to the posting of your keynote as well as to next year’s conference.

  5. toni muzi falconi says:

    Following some back and forth, I really wish to apologize to Anne Gregory -for whom I have always nurtured great esteem- for having misinterpreted at least two of the core features of her presentation at the Bournemouth Conference.

    A first misinterpretation is when she referred to the generic principles and specific applications paradigm as a model.

    The use of this -in my mind misleading- term lead me to a natural association with Tom Watson’s opening remarks (that may be now accessed here http://historyofpr.com ) that I also criticized, in which he deplored the passive adoption of the Grunig models in many countries as benchmarks to be a-critically used when analyzing that country’s phase of public relations development of public relations.

    In fact Anne’s presentation had no reference to any of my recent efforts to entirely revise the generic principles and specific applications paradigm that were posted here in a lively discussion with Rob Wakefield and James Grunig who were amongst its early thinkers, nor did it describe the ‘model’ simply arguing that it should be, at the very least, ‘suspended’ (i.e. ‘while we look at the what emerges from the indigenous grassroots’).

    A second misinterpretation is that I mischieviously used her ‘but Asian scholars are known to show deference to their mentors’ reply to a Bournemouth participant who revealed that the paradigm had been mostly developed by Asian scholars and thus it appeared audacious to infer that it was, as Anne claimed, ethno and western centric.

    Again, Anne, I apologize and am very eager to learn what you will find from ‘what emerges from the indigenous grassroots’.

  6. Toni – we didn’t mention either of the authoritative UK academics (Tom Watson is actually Australian although UK based!), and of course, as with any impressions taken at such events, our responses are subjective, often based on an instant reaction to what we hear (or believe we have heard) in relation to our existing position on a topic. So it is good to have clarification from Tom on his viewpoint and through your apology, to appreciate Anne’s perspective.

    I did hear that there had been ‘lively debate’ on the first day from a few other people there, so clearly there was some points that lead to differences of opinion either from these presentations or more generally in the day’s wrap up forum. It is always good that people have strong reactions rather than simple consensus or silence (ie let’s get to the pub asap) after a full day of presentations.

    Again, as I think we’ve discussed before on this site (most recently in relation to the three-part ‘wise men’ posts), ideas presented are always part of a work in progress and open to adaptation, development, total amendment and so on.

    I welcome critical reflection on the Grunigian work, but also want to hold criticisms of it up to similar examination. Likewise, it will be useful to see other developments (from other countries, cultures or where PR has already been widely studied) emerging which are independent of any existing thinking. That’s what makes our writing, conferences and so on worth engaging with IMHO!

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