Ever since Edward Bernays proposed Public Relations as an attempt, by information or persuasion, to engineer public support for an activity, a cause, a movement or an institution, the practice definitely moved towards a publicity-propaganda style…..The numerous changes which in many years have impacted on PR practice failed to induce an inversion to this essential feature of Bernays’ view. The need to obtain “public support” still prevails today in many organisations, and the profession appears to comply.
One question, then, becomes seminal. Are we facing the need for (and the opportunity to) shift away from this model based on the need for “public support”? Is it possible to integrate an alternative model which incorporates a greater concern for the “support of the publics”?What does this all mean?
The “public support” view Corporate leaders and their PR counsellors believe that legitimacy comes from the support of “public opinion”, principally interpreted as the opinion that emerges from mainstream and specialized media. The “other” (consumer, shareholder, employee, stakeholder….) is conceived by “my” organisation’s world view and, at best, a decision impacting on such ‘other’ comes following a bi-directional, but not simultaneous, flow of information.
This implies that the organization “Listens > Decides” or “Listen > Negotiates> Decides”. In this view, there is also the belief that publics are dependant on information sources which are somehow controlled by the organisation. The underlying communication model is the two step flow of information, ie. targeting opinion leaders because, as Bernays explains, they are pivotal in achieving the public’s approval. (what you, Toni, have been referring to as the “Communicating to” paradigm). There is also a shared assumption that media have significant cognitive impacts because issues from the media agenda are mirrored, both in presence and in importance, in the public agenda (this is the agenda setting hypothesis).
The “support of the publics” view Other thinkers, visionaries and unrested minds in our field appear to find the grounds for one other conception and ask themselves: . it is no longer clear that legitimacy may be obtained from acclamation in the sense of published opinions. Organisational (and decisional) legitimacy comes from the “opinion of the public”, this time interpreted as a collective opinion achieved by a group with a certain degree of consensus which results from a debate of differing views. This opinion becomes a form of social will, not necessarily dependant on publicity or mass media. Those with whom we communicate are conceived as a special form of human association capable to produce an autonomous and free collective will (assuming the shape of a public), with a wide range of interests which go beyond its relationship with “my” organisation.
Decisions of course imply bi-directional and simultaneous exchanges based on equality (symmetry?) and dialogue. The underlying communication model is more focused on narrowcast media outlets and alternative public spheres which support the creation of that “opinion of the public” and where issues are discussed before they arrive to the mainstream public sphere (and media). (and this, Toni, looks like the “communicating with” attitude).In this perspective PR professionals accept and integrate the autonomy of publics to find diverse information sources, as well as the multiplicity of tactics and strategies that actors use to try to build agendas (this is the agenda building hypothesis).
I would like to know if you agree with this distinction and whether you think that it is possible, and how, to continue to elaborate and operate a framework of PR based on the “public support”. I definitely think that we should deepen our research and our understanding of the “other” with whom (and no to whom) we relate and communicate on behalf of our clients or employers, and that this becomes not only an emerging trend of the more aware and sensitive parts of our profession but also a rational moral imperative.
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Joao Duarte is a young portuguese scholar-professional who has recently attracted much attention by presenting articulate and innovative papers and opinions in various European contexts and is currently active in helping to put his country on the evolving European public relations map. I am very excited by this post and I hope you will be also. (tmf)