Presenting the shadows of public relations

Public relations is frequently presented in a dim light; “entering the dark side” is how journalists refer to working in/with PR. And a theme of presentation, representation and re-presentation of some shadowy corners was evident at the 5th annual International History of Public Relations Conference (#IHRPC) held at Bournemouth University

A dominant trend in the papers I heard seemed to be the representation of activism as public relations, alongside presentations examining social movements through a PR lens.

These included insight into the activities of Muriel Matters the Australian born suffragist, lecturer, journalist, educator, actress and elocutionist, P.D. East’s satirical civil rights stance in the Petal Post newspaper, the French resistance, and anti-road campaigners of the 1990s. Each brought those who challenged the powerful out of the  shadows and into the spotlight to be re-presented from a PR perspective.

But this was a flattering focus – albeit a fascinating one – showing the underdogs in a good light, with PR on the side of the righteous. It was a clean, scrubbed up face to PR. Little mention of the dirtier PR dimensions that could also be presented/represented/re-presented with each of these examples.

What about the activities – atrocities even – undertaken by activists and within social movements – are they not public relations? Should we shine a light on such dark and dirty deeds? As Karen Russell put it at the first IHPRC conference – embrace the embarrassing? Do we simply accept consequentialist ethics at play as the ends justify the means in the cause of righteousness?

Doesn’t that simply present a morality of public relations that is often at odds with practice? Shouldn’t we delve into the shadows of the moral, nonmoral, ammoral, and immoral corners?

Wasn’t PR evident in tactics employed by the anti-suffragism movement or in the cruel cartoons and postcards used to satire the suffragettes and their cause. Didn’t PR play a role in the representation of the French resistance as terrorists? Where are the critical PR examinations of activist rhetoric (direct action, eco-warriors) or is it always the establishment that reflects shadowy forces – at least with the hindsight of historical knowledge?

Is it as simple as saying this is clean and this is dirty PR? Isn’t the grubby underbelly just part of the same body of public relations practice? The sole surviving founder of the Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR), 91-and-a-half year old, Tim Traverse Healy said he believed PR is a force for good and his credo (published earlier this year) set out a challenge to those he felt were at best ammoral in representing the unethical.

There were papers at #IHPRC14 that stepped into the shadows – examining terrorism as a tool to change society, the paradox of liars, the private corridors of the Vatican and the deliberate manipulation of public perceptions of democracy.

There are many ways in which the history of public relations can be presented, represented and re-presented – and this conference has, over the past five years, undoubtedly lifted the carpets, reached into dusty back rooms and uncovered previously unexplored people, places and perspectives.

The simplistic history of PR as oft repeated online and in text books of a linear progress from bad to good; propaganda to CSR, predicated on a single presentation of US experiences, should be viewed as simply one representation of PR’s origins.

There is a richness and full range of histories now available through the IHPRC archives, special editions of the Public Relations Review, various textbooks and articles, along with the new series of books being edited by Professor Tom Watson who instigated the history conference.

But there are yet more shadows and historical stories to examine in embracing the embarrassing as well as expanding our knowledge of the histories of public relations.

For those with a story to present, the dates for IHPRC 2015 have just been announced as 8-9 July – with the call for papers to follow shortly.

Image: Light Shadows by Zero Lighting and Orrefors Kosta Boda

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2 Replies to “Presenting the shadows of public relations

  1. Toni – great addition to the shadows/embarrassing perspective on PR practice, and a fascinating area of research. Couple of presentations from last week’s conference PR & the Visual organised by the Network of Public Relations & Society at London College of Communications have some relevance to this.

    Liz Bridgen of DeMontfort University in UK presented a paper: Public Relations – Dirty Work? (@LizBridgen on Twitter). An interesting conceptualisation of PR which I think that working for paymasters in organised crime would definitely fit with.

    Jessalynn Strauss of Elon University in USA presented a paper: Las Vegas embraces is mobster heritage: considering the museum as a public relations tactic. (@jrstrauss on Twitter). Here the presentation is more about the tourism value of organised crime, at the – which has the official name of National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

  2. Heather,

    I participated to the first day and unfortunately had to leave the conference the second day.

    Your take is very stimulating as it develops from different perspectives the ’embrace the embarassing’ aspect of our profession that obviously is not only a serious historiographic issue, but is very much a pressing and urgent one for those who have an interest and a ‘stake’ in improving the quality of what we do every day being well aware of what is going on around us without failing to understand and interpret the past.

    For some time I have been collecting episodes, events and trends in what appears to me to be a growing relationship between public relations practice and organised crime, the largest industry in our planet today.

    As much as it is not easy to identify and characterise this relationship also because it encompasses two subjects (public relations and organized crime) that are both difficult to describe and ambiguos in their manifestations. What is more… with many other human activities involved that are neither, but certainly interconnected and interdependent.

    This interest I have expressed with many interlocutors in recent months. Reactions have been diverse but, even compared to a couple of years ago, I have noticed more encouragement than skepticisms.

    I wonder if amongst the many readers, commenters and active posters of this blog it would not be possible to create a network of likeminded thinkers that could share their knowledge and opinions.

    Does this make sense? Is it much too vague and generic?

    I imagine it is. But let’s see what, if any, reactions it induces.

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