PR rules not OK

For an occupation that depends on freedom of expression to operate, it seems there are many who relish nothing more than imposing rules on the practice – and even the conceptualisation – of public relations.

First we have calls for a licence to operate, regulation, accreditation or registration of practitioners.  Even if you voluntarily join a professional body, there are codes of practice, guidelines, “best practice” mandates and a host of other prescriptive instructions on how you should do your job.

Then the academics publish their work, frequently with a modernist perspective of looking for models and concepts to order practice and thinking about PR.  If you read almost any standard textbook on PR you’ll find the same ideas, models, historical references, cautionary case studies and normative paradigms.

Perhaps we’ll find the creativity and flexibility of thinking and practice in award winning campaigns?  Well, the problem is these are pretty formulaic (albeit that the dreaded AVE is increasingly non grata); working within a particular frame of reference of what is “good” in PR.

If you break the rules – particularly in a crisis situation – there’s a lack of empathy and openness about learning from mistakes, just lashings of online (and textbook) criticism.  Of course the next step for anyone who’s been at the eye of a high profile storm is appearing on the conference circuit presenting a case study of their crisis management abilities.  Another sinner saved now they have learned to obey the mantra of golden rules and commandments of how thou shalt manage a crisis scenario!

Does any of this matter?  Surely it is just evidence of PR becoming more professional and seeking to establish standards?  Or does it epitomise an occupation trying to gain status for those who want to play inside the club – and distinguish themselves from those who do not follow the rules.  No original thinkers allowed here then!

Should we blame Bernays and Lippman who set us on this road – appealing to PR’s professional ego with the concept of an informed elite being required to mediate between organizations and the media/public? Or Grunig who gave us the feel-good notion of two-way symmetric communications?  Our conscience is clear, we are no longer responsible for spin and obfuscation, or if we are, then we aspire to be better.

Isn’t it just good management to plan, prepare and control PR activities – whilst simultaneously demonstrating to the executive suite that we are the ones who can save the day?  PR as super-hero anyone?

Maybe it is simply human nature to seek order in chaos – look at the internet.  Once this was pioneering territory where change, originality, exploration and experimentation were welcome.  Now we have social media guidelines, governmental desire for control and regulation, and numerous books and even qualifications instructing us in how to do online PR.

Let’s take that a step further – and hold up this brave new world as one where the holy grail of symmetrical communications will find its natural home.  Of course the reality is greatly different – a great shouting cacophony of one-way Tweets, Facebook likes, LinkedIn connections, must-see YouTube videos, annoying viral emails, automatic tagging in billions of instant photos, pointless Googling of things we never really need to know, and pop-up, personally-directed adverts for everything the marketers believe is just right for your profile.

I forgot, that’s not us – the good PR guys who are only seeking harmony for the benefit of society.  We are the organizational conscience – our mascot is Jiminy Cricket rather than lying Pinocchio.

This pursuit of a “best way” to practice and think about PR bothers me because it splits the occupation in two conflicting directions.  On the one hand are those who optimistically think all will be well if we just have enough rules and regulations.  On the other are those who will do whatever it takes to achieve the client’s goals.  Somewhere in the middle is the spirit of PR – neither goody two shoes nor the devil incarnate.

I believe PR needs to reflect an array of capabilities, flexibility and confidence to deal with the ever changing world.  We can learn from the past, but only if we have the freedom to make mistakes, try new things and challenge the status quo that lies in prescribed performance.

We do not need to be governed by a rule book – nor to be the naughtiest boy in the class.

We need a variety of role models and case studies from which to learn – which are not simplistically narrated as good or evil.

We need to be able to admit when things didn’t go well – and look for new ways not just apply what some deem to be the only way.

We need to be open about what PR can achieve and what it cannot – most “PR disasters” are actually problems of poor management or operational issues.  PR can help address such scenarios – but we are neither to blame nor capable of resolving everything with our communications toolkit.

Indeed, we need to be equipped to apply common sense, a sense of humour, pragmatism, understanding, knowledge, intelligence, integrity, imagination, creativity, compassion, realism and strength of character.

Is that too much to ask for?

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26 Replies to “PR rules not OK

  1. Catherine, nobody could but be touched by the suffering in New Zealand in aftermath of the earth quake. Disasters nearly always bring out the best in people and New Zealand was no exception. Yes, it wasn’t the earthquake that did the real harm but a relatively weak after shock, which brought down already weakened structures. In fact most of the damage was done to older buildings, which had unreinforced masonry structures, that did not meet modern safety standards (Christchurch had a mix of old and new structures). The need to rebuild to correct that weakness in the defenses of Christchurch is actually one of the major lessons of the whole event. So contrary to what you’ve said, the earthquake did indeed expose some major flaws in the planning and preparedness in New Zealand (so no, the pre-planning was not fine, not at all, and it has to be major focus going forward, because that is where the most risk was shown to rest). The other major lesson will be focused on disaster planning in a major urban zone (something other cities can and should learn from). But drawing such lessons and insights based on experience are routine after any significant natural disaster. The rest of your social narrative, like you stuff on Chaos Theory, remains unconvincing.

    One of your leading PR colleagues in New Zealand seems to suggest that actually your country has long had a major problem managing risk. He makes the point that your health and safety culture itself has added to the level of risk people face in a crisis. He says that regulations – and PC nonsense – have actually undermined their capacity to act in solidarity with their fellows in a crisis.

    1. Paul – ongoing discussion of the New Zealand earthquakes is really rather off topic. However, I think Catherine’s personal viewpoint, including her social narrative is as valid a contribution to the conversation as your criticisms of it. You may prefer scientific insight but knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of that body of research and there is much to be gained from narrative and other more humanities oriented fields. We may need to agree to disagree on that, though.

      The fact that major crises bring out the best in people in addressing problems is something that isn’t always recognised in theory and post-situation analysis. You state that planning and preparedness had flaws in New Zealand – as we always see through reflections on such situations, hindsight is a marvellous thing (alongside the “I told them so” brigade). That’s the whole point of raising chaos theory as situations rarely if ever develop exactly as one imagines. Even when you have a “what if” situation, action cannot always be justified to mitigate every risk.
      For example tamper-proof seals were available for medicine bottles prior to the Tylenol issue, but it was the crisis itself that shifted their adoption from a possibility to a must do response.

      It would not be totally surprising that the way risk is managed in society, such as health and safety regulations, has consequences. People may become complacent, develop learned helplessness, rely on the rules (officials in the London bombing being ordered not to help) or reflect the ‘passerby’ theory (whereby everyone expects someone else to do something). That’s why we need to advocate learning, flexibility and intelligence, not simply accepting the rules as a comfort blanket.

      Nevertheless, I believe in a genuine human crisis we continuously see the majority of people go above and beyond to help and act in solidarity with their fellows in a crisis. Self-sacrifice has not been abandoned for health and safety – and long may that be so.

  2. Okay – before we all totally descend into chaos, I’ll try to bring a sense of order here. Rather ironically, my opening line in the post was about freedom of expression. So to use Voltaire’s attributed philosophy, on PR Conversations we generally appreciate each other’s right to say things, even if we may not like them or sometimes, the way in which they are said. And, as the original post concluded: we need to be equipped to apply common sense, a sense of humour, pragmatism, understanding, knowledge, intelligence, integrity, imagination, creativity, compassion, realism and strength of character. Which I think applies as much to the actual discussion here as much as its contents. So let’s try to keep this discussion on track…

    My original argument was about seeking the spirit of PR somewhere between rules and regulation and a free for all. That seems to also perhaps be where we need to position PR in respect of the scientific approach to using chaos theory to seek order in areas that do not obey the traditional, logical, linear rules. The nature of our work is less easy to analyse – human beings being potentially infinitely variable. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean we cannot look for patterns and ways of identifying key variables and how these may develop in a chaotic world – whilst recognising that it is the little unanticipated things that may result in big changes to the normal modus operandi.

    The established system of the mainstream media and the judiciary system in the UK at present seems to be challenged over two small things. First the use of Twitter that seems to have confounded court injunctions and secondly the use of Facebook by a juror which ended in a trial being abandoned. Is this evidence of a descent into chaos, or a need to look for new order in a changing, more complex world – or both?

    Where I would challenge Catherine’s reflection on the comfort blanket of order (particularly that seen in PR’s guiding principles of how we should behave), is that these are not derived from a scientific, or even social scientific, study of chaos in order to look for guiding principles. Instead, they seem to be normative and often used as a mantra even outside the context in which they were originally relevant.

    Hence the Tylenol scenario is used to produce a list of golden rules for crisis management regardless of (a) the fact that this is a particular type of crisis, (b) that it is an example with an external rather than an internal cause and (c) it related to a different time, place and culture to that which most PR practitioners operate in today. It is a simplistic narrative of PR as a hero, rather than truly engaging practitioners in the complexity, and indeed, the chaos of modern crisis scenarios.

    I may be wrong, but there seems to be a common thread between the counter arguments here about chaos theory and PR. Paul mentions how it helps to understand reality with an increased degree of certainty; whilst Catherine is advocating a need to have rules and order in a chaotic world.

    Perhaps the key difference however, is the extent to which we are genuinely able to identify a sense of certainty in the human behaviour at the heart of the need for PR responses and hence provide an understanding and guidance for our practice. If we simply erect bridges and establish rules of operation because they make us feel professional without any foundation in reality, we won’t gain society’s acceptance, understanding and support for our actions – but simply look like charletains.

    We cannot be King Canute hoping to hold at bay the chaos and complexity of the modern world by waiving our licence to operate.

  3. Your reply is unconvincing. What this stuff about interdisciplinary approaches, complexity, chaos and game theory really represents is a retreat from science and from rational thinking toward waffle, such as this:

    “In Christchurch you will find a very real example of how our social and physical worlds are completely connected and codependent.”

    Your description of the earthquakes is quite revealing. It is as if you’ve just discovered that nature can be nasty. There’s no new insights to be had from the Christchurch experience as such. Though I’m sure that it brought to the fore many once hidden inadequacies in New Zealand’s society; such as complacency, poor construction, weak planning regulations and inadequate crisis preparedness etc.. But all this stuff has been known for hundreds of years. Other countries have dealt with such challenges much better. The real outrage in New Zealand was that it took a robust reality check to wake people up.

    PR also needs to wake up. As Heather has argued convincingly, PR does not require a bureaucratic straight-jacket. But we do need to raise the level of discussion generally.

    And that brings be back to chaos theory. When you say my explanation of it is outdated, what you are really saying is that some academics have acquired an attractive phrase (chaos theory) and stripped it of its scientific content:

    “Because we can learn from each other and the relationships that exist between everything – physical, social, emotional and spiritual.’

    However, chaos theory is clearly a useful methodology with scientific credentials. Though it is not really about “chaos” so much as a tool which helps us understand reality with an increased degree of certainty (which makes its scientific intent diametrically opposed to your exploitation of the theory’s terminology). The way you describe the theory, it is no longer a theory so much as a superficial narrative.

    1. Mr. Seaman, I believe this is the last and final exchange with you that will see me active. I have better and more useful things to do that to read your imbecil insults directed at anything that does not fit your fixed and often tedious and unfounded principles.
      Your reaction to Catherine’s comment is unacceptable from any, even the most elementary, standard of education and decency and I am surprised that the convenors of this blog have yet to comment.

    2. Paul,

      You say in your biography that you ‘love a scrap’ – a tendency evidenced many times here on PRC. I suspect your comments on New Zealand are a rather misguided and insensitive attempt to provoke something along those lines, albeit they demonstrate a woeful ignorance as to my country, its geography, the sequence of events around the earthquakes and our governance structure, leaving you hoist with your own petard.

      I won’t be taking your bait, but I will, for the record – and more for other readers of PRC than for you – contradict your criticisms of New Zealand.

      New Zealand, along with Japan and other countries, lives with earthquakes on a daily basis – here we have around 250 of significance each year – and, as such, an emergency management structure has developed over time to deal with them. We know ‘nature can be nasty’ believe me. We have survival kits in our cupboards, earthquake drills run alongside fire drills, have detailed building codes and a continual programme of upgrades to bring older structures up to standard so they can, as far as is humanly possible, withstand the force of nature. For the most part, life and earthquakes rumble along together, occasionally shaken but mostly unstirred and as prepared as it is possible to be.

      On September 4 2010, a magnitude 7.1 quake hit at a depth of 10km, centred 40km west of Christchurch. The Haiti earthquake was 7.0. Our September quake was the beginning of a long series of extraordinary natural events but in Christchurch that night no lives were lost, some older buildings suffered damage and, stoically, the City picked itself up and began again.

      A blistering series of aftershocks then commenced, continuing relentlessly through the months ahead until, on February 22, a magnitude 6.3 hit – this time incredibly shallow at just 5km deep, centred 10km south east of the Christchurch central business district – effectively right under everyone’s feet at lunchtime on a busy working day. 181 people lost their lives, more were injured and buildings that had withstood the first quake and aftershock series could stand no more. If you want to get an idea of the ferocity and frequency, visit

      As one, the nation came together to help deal with the aftermath, gratefully accepting the help of other search and rescue teams who came in from elsewhere in the world – help reciprocated by our own search and rescue heroes who within a month of the quake flew to Japan to help with recovery efforts there following the March earthquake and tsuanmi. The resilience, courage and tenacity of the people of Christchurch is astounding. Last week, on June 13, two more quakes hit within two hours, the first a 5.7 magnitude, the second a 6.3, with one life lost, several injuries and the hideous liquefaction again bubbling up through kitchen floors and neighbourhood streets.

      This period in our history is not framed or defined by ‘inadequacies in the system’ as Paul idly suggests. Had the system of preparedness not been created and understood many more lives would have been lost and, in all probability, the entire city flattened. As it was, infrastructure to the affected areas – such as power and water – were restored within two weeks – work that under normal circumstances should have taken two months – thanks to the superhuman efforts of those involved. The loss and grief of those whose family members were killed or injured will take much longer to deal with, along with the wider longterm rebuild. As for Paul’s dismissive line ‘other countries have dealt with such challenges much better’, I have to disagree, not just because this ‘challenge’ is unprecedented, but because I have been witness to the courage, humanity and sheer determination to deal with this ‘challenge’ from people at all levels – government, private sector, co-operating competitors, self-created student volunteer armies, farmers from the fields and ordinary folk coming to Christchurch from around the country at weekends to help clean up and make things right.

      Finally, Paul’s glib remark ‘there’s no new insights to be had from the Christchurch experience as such’, could not be further from the truth. The insights from this life-shattering sequence of events are considerable and cross many areas – scientific, social, political, environmental, medical architectural – and, of course, crisis communication – to name but a few. The knowledge gained will not only help us here in New Zealand but be shared generously and without hesitation with others around the world who may one day have need of such insights in order to manage a similar sequence of events. Our hope would be that such knowledge would, in some way, alleviate the pain and suffering we know to be caused by the unpredictability of nature’s force, offering a hand of humanity rather than the chaos of misplaced criticism.

  4. Catherine and Toni, you are both talking rot. Chaos theory presupposes that the physical world is ordered and has laws that have universal values and applicability. It presupposes that those laws of motion can be understood. It sets out to make sense of things which are merely apparently random, but when looked with the aid of mathematical methods can be shown to have identifiable and predictable patterns. As for those particles everywhere that, as you put it, collide at random, that again is something you’ve misunderstood. It might be difficult – perhaps impossible – to say which particular particle, though we know full well which type, will colide with another. We know perfectly well how particles behave, how and why they decay and at exactly at what rate they do so (that’s what nuclear physics is about). Chaos theory helps us understand the variables of phenomena within certain ranges – one’s in which small variables influence outcomes – precisely to discover the order within the seeming chaos. So the word chaos is misleading… it is not chaos that chaos theory studies… but the seeming chaos (it takes us closer toward certainty, which rather sinks your take on it). Chaos theory seeks to show how the material world behaves according to certain physical and predictable and measurable laws and boundaries.

    As for you points:

    “Chaos is a behaviour not a sum” and “If ‘one plus one equals two’, we [here you mean PRs] are charged with dealing with two and how it relates to three, five and seven to achieve a suitable solution, as opposed to how one plus one became two in the first place. ‘One plus one’ just identifies and counts the atoms as they move around.”

    That’s voodoo PR-speak that deserves pride of place in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

    And when you say:

    “Regulations, ethics, codes of practice and suggested modes of operation are simply attempts to put down the roads and bridges that will allow publics of many kinds to feel confident that no advantage is being taken or exploitation made.”

    That’s nonsense. Regulations are very often used to protect players within a market to favour the strong and established over contenders… they are often the codification of advantage (that’s why de-regulation often has great appeal and massive liberating potential).

    You two have jumbled up stuff, which confuses the social and physical worlds. You have jumbled up the social and physical sciences. You have jumbled stuff that’s not related and then you have attempted to weave it into a narrative that sounds good but has no bottom. In short, it’s mere spin that turns you on…it’s mumbo jumble.

    1. Paul,

      I always find it strange when the opinions of others are dismissed as ‘rot’ – or anything else for that matter – because in doing so the opportunity to understand and learn another’s thoughts is lost. If an opinion doesn’t immediately resonate with my own experience or thinking I have found, over many years, that the best course of action is to think about it for a while, then question and discuss the concept, as inevitably, some new or transformed thinking will emerge that leads to a greater understanding of the topic and the people involved – leaving me the wiser for it.

      I also believe that dismissive words and actions – particularly when coupled with insults – are disrespectful to my fellow human beings and I question why one would want to introduce such unnecessary and frivolous friction in a world already full of chaotic tribulations? It is the kind of behaviour normally experienced by parents faced with recalcitrant toddlers and I am always surprised when I find it in the adult world.

      Your point about chaos theory relates to the early development of the field circa 1960 and, in that context, set against that time, is correct. But the field has developed substantially since then, in parallel with the associated fields of complexity and game theory (which itself has undergone considerable change since its ‘birth’ in the 1700s). I mention this because you accuse me of ‘jumbling up stuff’ and I would like to draw your attention to the interdisciplinary approach taken by those studying these three areas – complexity theory for example, draws on economists, physicists, administrators, biologists and mathematicians to name but a few. Why? Because we can learn from each other and the relationships that exist between everything – physical, social, emotional and spiritual. The knowledge we gain can then be put to good use to improve conditions in society and our physical environment, because, after all, what good is knowledge if we don’t do something with it?

      You may not be aware of the destructive earthquakes that have occurred here in New Zealand. Since September 4 2010 there have been nearly 2500 earthquakes, 30 of those with a magnitude of 5.0 and above and resulting in the tragic loss of many lives. To give you an indication of scale, yesterday the Insurance Council advised the ongoing episodes are equivalent to eight Hurricane Katrinas. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed and the rebuild – among continued aftershocks – will take years to complete. In Christchurch you will find a very real example of how our social and physical worlds are completely connected and codependent. The chaos of an unpredicted event, its aftermath and the recovery means that new relationships, new rules and ways of dealing with things must be forged to mitigate seemingly impossible circumstances. Our social and physical worlds – and their associated sciences – have always been intrinsically connected and to separate the way we deal with them or study them is to the detriment of us all.

      Established rules have had to change – and change quickly – for Christchurch in order to help people there adapt to their altered, life-changing circumstances. And that’s where this discussion began I believe, with Heather’s post querying whether rules were a help or a hindrance to our profession. As humans, we try to find order in the chaos and to do so we create theories and rules to help us. It doesn’t mitigate uncertainty and unpredictability, simply helps us to deal with it more effectively. Your point that regulations are often used to protect the powerful is valid – and sadly is a shameful indictment of some human behaviours – but in the context of public relations practice, the codes and guidelines in use are designed, as I said, to give those outside the profession confidence in and an understanding of our role and responsibilities.

      As a final observation, I’ve found that when dealing with chaos, courtesy and thoughtful deliberation make good starting points, particularly in the field of human relationships.

    2. (Further to an offline discussion about the “talking rot” comment above.) when we relaunched PR Conversations, we spent a great deal of time developing our commenting policy. I’d like to point you, in particular, to this paragraph:

      Talking Points

      “Conversation is encouraged, provided respect is shown to others, particularly with opposing views, and comments are not abusive, intended to provoke hatred, or otherwise reflect an anti-social attitude. Comments will be deleted if in the opinion of the editors of PR Conversations, they do not meet these responsibilities or if they generate justified complaint from others.”

  5. What a wise and wonderful discussion!

    My contribution, picking up on one of Heather’s points, is to propose an entirely different ‘PR planning’ assignment for the CIPR Diploma.

    I’ll be circulating a suggestion by email and I’m sure Heather, Kevin and others will critique it robustly.

  6. Great comment Catherine – making sense of chaos as you explain is appropriate as it doesn’t mean pretending the world is actually ordered by the illusion of controls

  7. As humans we like to make sense of chaos and pretend, for the most part, that it doesn’t exist. We put down roads, build bridges and reconfigure our environment to protect ourselves from the uncertainties we fear to acknowledge. Put simply, we like to kid ourselves we are safe. The reality is that particles everywhere collide at random and public relationships are no exception, providing us with the complexity that so many practitioners positively thrive on.

    The notion of a ‘single public interest’ is another comfort blanket we don against uncertainty because none of us likes to think that another will be taking advantage of life’s chaos for their own ends.

    Chaos and public relations walk hand-in-hand. If you’re hung up on the maths it’s worth remembering that chaos itself is a behaviour not a sum. The mathematical modelling simply seeks to bring order and explanation to that behaviour so we can better understand its implications and ramifications. The very existence of ‘chaos theory’ demonstrates our very human need to contain and constrain universal phenomena according to our will. Public relations ‘chaos theory’ is more properly bound to the consequences of behaviour. If ‘one plus one equals two’, we are charged with dealing with two and how it relates to three, five and seven to achieve a suitable solution, as opposed to how one plus one became two in the first place. ‘One plus one’ just identifies and counts the atoms as they move around.

    Where all this becomes relevant to Heather’s post and the interesting comments above is that the regulations, ethics, codes of practice and suggested modes of operation are simply attempts to put down the roads and bridges that will allow publics of many kinds to feel confident that no advantage is being taken or exploitation made.

    There are times when we need to make sense of chaos. Driving, we need the patterns of left, right, stop, go – and particularly give way – or we crash. Medically, we need to feel confident that our doctors are equipped and qualified to make sense of our complex anatomy. Some stability is required in order to prompt us to creative leaps, whether that involves slapping down a roundabout or finding a cure for cancer.

    In public relations – theory and practice – we need to establish some stability, manifested in ethics, professional associations, models and theories, if we are going to successfully help others to build and maintain the relationships they need to function amid their own chaos – and for them to feel confident we are equipped to do so given the profession’s somewhat erratic, unreliable and chaotic past.

    Such parameters do not make it less chaotic or less creative – just more trustworthy.

  8. Having done ten years in financial PR I was never asked to solve a non-linear differential equation: thankfully! While I’m always open to new ideas, it will take a lot to convince me that Chaos Theory is of much use to social sciences, and to PR in particular, the way it might be useful to science proper predicting weather patterns etc..

    That said, I can see sense in using mathematical-based tools to map social networks to help understand patterns of communication in value chains. It is obvious that firms must track their employees’ associations and behaviour in social networks, within and between enterprises, if they are to understand how social business (E2.0) functions in practice (that is outside of the vision of their organizational charts). Though conversation-based business networks don’t have much call for communication. And that insight has led Jeff Jarvis and others to predict that PR is dead or soon will be. What a bumpy ride!

  9. I state for the record that I gave up on Chaos Theory when I realized that my second-rate education in an East London school did not equip me to solve, or even understand the signs behind, linear and non-linear differential equations. (Or even to know what that last sentence was really about) Its all gibberish to me, though I’m sure it is anything but nonsense to a properly trained mind. But I suspect that few PRs understand this stuff:

    ∃ε>0 ∀x(0) ∀δ>0 ∃t>0 ∃y(0) [ |x(0) − y(0)| ε ]

    As for those Amazonian butterfly-wings causing chaos on the other side of the world, that thought now makes me scared to cough in case I set off the next Tsunami in Japan. I remain to be convinced that Chaos Theory really does offer PRs the insight we require to do our job better. But the problem on my part could just be that I’m crap at maths…

    1. I used to love solving differential equations when taking Maths A level – and you probably know my view that it is not good enough for PR practitioners to rely on competency with words whilst excusing their poor understanding of numbers (in budgets let alone chaos theory!).

      If you are interested, the idea of linear differential equations is that you can use these to predict outcomes – specifically in the area of mechanics (think of the direction of travel of snooker or pool balls when hit in a particular way). That is, the output is proportional to the input. This is evident in the traditional application of systems theory to public relations where cause and effect is viewed quite simplistically.

      Much more interesting (and realistic) are non-linear systems – which are likely to have multiple variables causing any result. Hence, the idea of chaos because trying to produce a mathematical equation for such systems is difficult. I like the concept that solutions are not simplistic and that small effects can lead the system in a new, and often unpredictable, direction.

      If nothing else, chaos theory should be used in PR as a means of understanding crisis scenarios are not a simple matter of cause and effect, that you cannot predict and control the outcomes of complex human behaviours and you never know where that snooker ball is coming from to hit you in the back of the head (even if you can then work out its direction and velocity of travel).

      What you can do is learn to surf the wave caused by the butterfly flutter – and enjoy the ride!

    2. Hi Paul,

      I struggled with maths and physics at school too and continue to have to work hard to get numbers.

      Fortunately, (for me) I don’t think you necessarily need to know algebra to understand the principles of chaos and complexity theory.

      To my mind, applied to management, it’s about letting go, or more importantly knowing when to let go and when to (try to) control. And then, of course, it’s not really completely letting go, it’s moving to the “edge of chaos” that we’re really talking about. This is what Charlene Li discusses in “Open Leadership” without relating it directly to chaos theory.

      For PR practitioners, “edge of chaos” theory takes us to the point where attempts to always control the message are acknowledged as futile. Planning is less a formulaic, linear, process and more a daily scrum, akin to Aagile Software Development Manifesto methods described as:

      Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
      Working software over comprehensive documentation
      Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
      Responding to change over following a plan

      That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

      A version for PR could be:

      Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
      Working conversations over meticulously crafted scripts
      Dialogue over one-way messaging
      Responding to communication and rethinking what we do over following a plan

      As above, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.


  10. Kevin, I agree with you: “there are codes of conduct and principles for public relations, but they are really broad so I’m not sure we’re working in a heavily rule-bound and regulated industry…yet.” I say, long may that remain so.

    My worry, however, is that too many PR pros hide behind the fig leaf of Grunig’s excellence theory and our trade’s multiple codes of practice, precisely because they are embarrassed about what PR is really about. Even Richard Edelman tells his own staff that they don’t work in the real world and that instead they should get out of the office and live in color (how inspiring is that?). Too many PRs are too prepared to denigrate what we do. They seek instead to wrap themselves in other stuff the way we often tell clients not to love their core business but to look elsewhere to find salvation (a good reputation and public acceptance) and self-worth (a sense of purpose) in CSR and NGO causes etc.. I love my trade. So I push back on those who belittle its contribution to the real world of creation. It is time we took more pride in our own core business and talked up what we do in reality – without shame.

    1. Did you ever see Karen Russell’s great keynote from the 2010 International History of Public Relations Conference entitled Embracing the Embarrassing? Video available here: http://www

      – I’m standing up for early circus press agents (eg Dexter Fellows) as part of my presentation at this year’s Conference.

  11. Hi Heather,

    As someone, like yourself, who is heavily involved in teaching public relations, I’d like to think that we encourage students to be critical readers of text books. I think that CIPR qualifications for example, are actually broader than many other vocational qualifications (e.g. CIM) and include a consideration of the impact of what we do on wider society.

    Incidentally, we had a meeting of PR Academy tutor and markers last night and we’re going to be putting more focus on chaos theory and social theory in our courses from this autumn.

    In my own specialism of internal communication the courses I developed for CIPR encourage a different approach to practice, with a heavy emphasis on the employee rather than the management perspective.

    I am also developing a new Digital Communication Certificate, though not to “instruct” people, more to inform and enable people to think more deeply about how to use digital communication.

    I know there are codes of conduct and principles for public relations, but they are really broad so I’m not sure we’re working in a heavily rule-bound and regulated industry…yet.


    1. Kevin – thanks for the comment, and I do agree with the importance of encouraging critical thinking – hence my favourite session of the CIPR Diploma is when I get to bring in Marxism, alongside L’Etang, Moloney, Holtzhausen, Michie, Miller etc. And the best ever CRT question was to discuss the quote from Toxic Sludge: “PR is to democracy what prostitution is to sex”…

      I’m also a big fan of chaos theory (included in the Risk, Issues and Crisis chapter I’ve written for next edition of Theaker) but am also revisiting systems theory in its original holistic form – and find Ihlen et al’s PR and Social Theory book a great read, along with Public Relations, Society & Culture by Carrie Hodges & Lee Edwards.

      The issue I find though is that to get to these fascinating, thought-provoking texts, “we” (PR academia more broadly) still go through the traditional modernist (ie largely prescriptive) framework first.

      As we’ve discussed before also, when it comes to learning that is specifically about application to practice, there tends to be reversion to linear models where the world is considered stable as far as developing PR campaigns are concerned. Can we propose a chaos case study for a future CIPR planning assignment? Maybe the case is issued and then a week later, an update of a change is released, then again, and again…

  12. For once I agree with Paul!!

    I am being accused by my fellow founders of this blog to always ‘push my own agenda’ in my comments. Therefore I will refrain from doing it now.

    I liked your post because you seem to consider our profession as a ‘free for all’ which in itself is fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that organizations of all sorts are using public relations mostly to impact on what I call the public interest.

    This in turn gives the public interest a very good reason to protect itself from nasty behaviours that are in no way sanctioned by professional associations that in turn represent a meager 10% of professionals.

    I agree with the utmost freedom of the professional to do whatever is best for the client as long as, as you say:

    Indeed, we need to be equipped to apply common sense, a sense of humour, pragmatism, understanding, knowledge, intelligence, integrity, imagination, creativity, compassion, realism and strength of character.

    To this I would add: responsibility of the professional in considering the consequences of any action on the public interest.

    1. The problem with responsibility is that it works on so many levels – which brings us round to balancing duty to ourselves, clients, our occupation and society as well as the extent to which it is reasonable and feasibly to go beyond our legal duties, etc.

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