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.