This essay will consider in definitional terms whether the statement ‘public relations is the art of getting material into the media without paying for it – nothing more, nothing less’, describes the work of the PR practitioner adequately. It will discuss the alternative definitions that have been offered for the role by advocates and practitioners as well as critics of PR. The essay will also reflect on the question of ethics that the assertion raises, implying as it does the use of less than transparent methods and techniques in PR practice. The ends of PR as well as the means together with the concept of corporate social responsibility in relation to these issues of definitions and ethics will also be considered.
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Throughout the world, but especially in western democracies, thousands and perhaps millions of men and women perform communications duties for organisations. They counsel managers, manage communications programmes, write, edit, design publications, do research, communicate interpersonally and perform many similar tasks. However, as Tilson (2009) notes one of the greatest struggles the profession has had since its inception has been to formulate a view of itself that could be universally accepted (p. 6). Bernays (1996) points out that the term public relations has not only been misused, but people have used the name for press agents, flacks, publicity men and women, individuals who simply try to get pieces into the paper that are favourable to their clients.
Bernays (1996) defines the PR person as ‘an applied social scientist who advises a client or employer on the social attitudes and actions to take to win the support of the publics upon whom his or her or its viability depends.’ He goes on further to describe the PR expert as a member of the ‘intelligent few’ who advises clients on how to ‘deal with the masses just by applying psychology.’
As a member of those intellectual elite who guides the destiny of society, the PR ‘professional’ aims his craft at the general public that is essentially, and unreflectively, reactive. Working behind the scenes, out of public view, the PR expert is ‘an applied social scientist,’ educated to employ an understanding of ‘sociology, psychology, social psychology, and economics’ to influence and direct public attitudes’ (p.10).
With this in mind, Bernays advises the conventional ‘press agent’ image of PR must be avoided. He noted that as PR professional himself he had no contact with the media for about 50 years and added that the job of the PR counsel is to instruct a client how to take actions that ‘just interrupt…the continuity of life in some way to bring about the (media) response (p.14). He lamented though that the field of ‘public relations’ had failed to live up to his ‘professional’ expectations and added that ‘today, any nitwit or dope or anybody can call himself or herself a public relations counsel’ (p. 10).
The lack of understanding among scholars and professionals alike in the field as to what is PR and by extension the roles responsibilities of a PR counsel encompass has often led to much confusion. Wilcox and Cameron (2006) observe ‘among PR practitioners, there are considerable differences of opinion about whether PR is a developing profession. Certainly, at its present level, PR does not qualify as a profession in the same sense that medicine and law do’ (p.85). As Tilson (2009) notes while there are case studies that should be analysed as examples of how not to practice PR, it should be balanced with a review of those instances in which the profession has been practiced professionally. Tilson adds that what is needed is a study of what constitutes good, acceptable practice, the moral and ethical foundations on which such a practice is built and more importantly, a greater appreciation of the role that PR can and does play as a positive source (p.5). However, there must be a clear definition as to what exactly is PR.
Hutton (1999) reviewed the history of United States (US) PR and identified some 472 different definitions in addition to the many definitions of various professionals from other countries. The PRSA (2003) has admitted though ‘many of these definitions were quite lengthy, so much so that they tended more to describe what PR does rather that what it is. After much debate the PRSA’s governing body formally adopted a definition that has become most accepted and widely used – ‘PR helps an organisation and its publics adapt mutually to each other’ (ibid). In fleshing out its official view of the profession, PRSA observes that the definition ‘recognises that all organisations have multiple publics from which they must earn consent and support’ (ibid).
Tilson (2009) said this particular notion of PR implies several inherent components which include a two-way symmetrical communication essential to successful practice (Hunt and Grunig, 1994); such communication must be used ‘to facilitate relationships and understanding between and organisation and its many publics’ (McElreath, 1997, p.3); and as a management function, PR ‘defines and emphasizes the responsibility to serve the public interest’ (Hutton, 1999, p.20). These interpretations point the way to several other definitions but the underlying factor in all these suggest the ‘quintessential importance of the social dimension as well as the ethical underpinnings of PR as it is to be practiced (Tilson, 2009, p. 7). But, while some have argued that PR represents a ‘two-way street’ through which institutions and the public carry a democratic dialogue, ‘the public’s role within that alleged dialogue is, most often, one of having its blood pressure monitored, its temperature taken'(Ewan, 1996, p. 10).
Unfortunately, this has been the starting point for the practice of PR – the advocacy of certain interest rather than the public interest (Ihlen, 2005). This legacy and the unethical practices that have been observed have led some observers to portray all PR activities as sinister activities that work against the public interest (Beder, 2002; Stauber and Rampton, 1995). The flipside of the coin is that PR can also be put to work for public causes and issues such as justice, the environment and heath. In terms of media relations, two conflicting tendencies have been noted – powerful sources have been able to consolidate their access but alternative sources have also been able to gain access (Davis, 2000). The clever use of PR has also yielded political results for groups not normally associated with PR. The most classic example of this development is the 1995 battle between Shell and Greenpeace over the Brent Spar oil drilling platform. Greenpeace succeeded in gaining the support of international public opinion to force Shell (and the British government) to hold off on plans for the deep sea disposal of the Brent Spar (Zyglidopoulos, 2002).
In this sense, Ihlen (2005) compares the all out and sometimes ‘unthinking criticism’ of PR as similar to the rhetoric of ancient times. ‘Those condemning rhetoric tended to forget that their criticism was itself a form of rhetoric, just as those condemning PR often use PR techniques to gain publicity for their views’ (p. 492). Watzlawick (1976) suggest that critics answer the questions as to whether an organisation cannot not use PR and whether it cannot not communicate with its publics. The obvious answer that arises from theory is ‘no’ just as individuals cannot not communicate, organisations and social systems cannot not communicate because one of their basic elements is subject less communication (Holmström, 2003).
Not all literature paints an idyllic or a demonising picture. Much of it instead takes a sobering look at what PR means in society (Coombs and Holladay, 1996). PR just like any other social activity that is neither inherently good nor bad, lies at the heart of society and therefore constitutes one of the foundations of social communication (Ihlen, 2000). Some scholars argue that the prime object of inquiry should be the consequences of PR practice, not its efficacy because in an age of negotiation, when fundamental consensus is absent, communication has become fundamental (Deetz, 1996). Ihlen (2005) adds that deliberation and research from different social theory perspectives will lead to a better understanding of PR activities and the consequences those practices will have for society. As such, Ihlen adds that PR can be studied as a social activity in its own right. ‘It must be understood in relation to its societal context; the crucial concepts of PR are trust, legitimacy, understanding and reflection; issues of power, behaviour and language are at the forefront of PR study and social theory is necessary to understand the practice of PR and to raise important empirical questions about it’ (p. 495).
Based on this theory and according to Kruckeberg and Stark ‘PR is essentially a process of restoring a sense of community. This process of developing ‘community’ applies to corporations and to various organisations as well as to town and cities’ (cited in Public Relations Society, 2003, p.2). And ‘values-driven’ according to Guth and Marsh (2005) implies that ‘PR is guided by personal, organisational, professional, and societal values. In turn, that implies honourable and ethical activity’ (p.2). Wilcox, Ault and Agee (1989) consider such values ‘a hallmark of a PR professional’ (p.55). They also contend that ‘adherence to professional standards of conduct is the chief measure of a PR person (Wilcox et al, 2000, p.75). Given these various definitions of PR, there are certain theories embedded in an understanding of the profession as a morally inflected, ethically principled social practice that best conceptualise the dynamics involved (Tilson, 2009). Resource dependency theory posits that ‘no individual or organisation is entirely self-sufficient and that each party relies on the goodwill and/or resources of others (Guth and Marsh, 2005, p.22). Consequently, organisations ‘must build productive relationships with the publics that control the resources’ (Guth and Marsh, 2006, p.94). And, in doing so, organisations that are successful employ the two-way symmetrical model of PR as such an approach ‘works best when there is an exchange of resources’ (Guth and Marsh, op. cit., p.95).
According to Tilson (2009), while such theories would seem to justify actions based more on pragmatism than on ethical considerations, a deeper look reveals that the models do have more altruistic dimension. In establishing relationships, PR professionals must identify not only common interests but also common values, which recall the view of PR as the ‘values-driven management of relationships’ (Guth and Marsh, op.cit., p.2). Moreover, for any social exchange to be successful over time, the relationship must be built on a level of trust. As Christians et al. (2005) underscore, ‘building and sustaining mutually beneficial relationships with key publics is the foundational goal of PR practice’ (p. 224). As Bauer (2004) notes ‘the task of PR practitioners is to balance stakeholder demands and societal expectations with the goals of the company and to communicate in an effective manner by developing socially responsible strategies’ (p.20).
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Burkart (1993a) uses the work of Habermas to suggest a model that can be applied by practitioners to help further the understanding between organisations and their publics. This in turn might be a basis for legitimacy. He calls for more studies of how trustworthiness in particular is created and for explorations of the way in which the different validity claims put forward by organisations are interrelated. Burkart also focuses on the creation of understanding and places the PR practitioner in the midst of the process. Falkheimer et al (2006) also gives PR a central role. Using Giddens, they argue that PR is one of the main strategies that organisations implement when they try to handle development in a fast paced society. PR they conclude, is a reflexive social expert system.
Holmström (2003) presents a somewhat similar view, but distinguishes between a reflexive system (a rather self-obsessed, non-problematising perspective) and reflection. Using Luhmann (1985), she writes about how PR is a functional system that has turned into a reflective practice that helps organisations become more sensitive and to realise that their perspective is just one of many. This reflective turn is necessitated by the increased need for organisations to legitimatise their existence and conduct. Holmström poses reflection as the core demand on organisational legitimacy and she sees it as a consequence of organisations acting out of enlightened self interest. The crucial tasks of PR are to increase reflection (the sensor function), integrate reflection (the leadership function) and to communicate reflection (the communicative function) (Halmström, 2003). Nonetheless, some commentators have challenged the duality of reflexiveness and reflection, arguing that it leaves out the ‘gray areas in between.’ (Ihlen, 2005).
Despite the insistence on the trust focus for PR, research on the public’s level of trust in the PR industry tends to show rather abysmal results (Larsson, 2007). This negative sentiment towards PR, coupled with a descriptive perspective of its everyday practice, has led some commentators to argue against the close relationship between trust and PR. Instead PR ‘should be redefined as a communicative expression of competing organisations and groups in pluralist states (Moloney, 2006, p.554).
Ihlen (2005) in his adaptation of the work of Bourdieu, argues that PR should be seen as a practice that assists organisational actors in pursuing their interests. To be trusted and to be seen as legitimate enterprise, i.e. to have symbolic capital, can have double functions in this sense because it can be both a means and an end for PR (Ihlen, 2005). For the most part, however, the main goal of organisations is to position themselves in what Bourdieu calls ‘fields.’
Luoma-aho (2006) sees PR as having a critical positive role to play as a vehicle to create social capital. Indeed, she would like to redefine PR as ‘the practice of creating organisational social capital’ (p. 240). She operationalises Putnam’s (2001) social capital concept by using concepts of reputation (centred on past history) and trust (focused on the future). Social capital has emerged as an increasingly popular concept especially as it relates to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). According to Portes (1998), social capital is based upon the fundamental assumption that group involvement and participation can be beneficial to individuals and groups, an idea present in most social theories. Abroad, deep view of CSR also requires managers in institutions and the PR professionals who counsel them to ‘commit to real engagement and take ownership of the consequence of their behaviour, not only economically, but socially and environmentally as well, which requires a deep ethical commitment and a set of principles to guide leadership (ibid., p.5). Such an ‘ethical values-based leadership, based on fundamental understanding of the interconnectedness of the world is guided by universally-recognised principles of fairness, freedom, honesty, humanity, tolerance, transparency, responsibility and solidarity, and sustainability’ (ibid., p. 2) whether enshrined in the United Nations (UN) declarations, professional codes of ethics, institutional credos or personal consciences (Tilson, 2009).
Many scholars see PR as the building of trust and legitimacy, either as an end in itself or as a means for organisational goals such as survival or expansion. However, many of them note that the ontological perspectives of their theories imply that communication, legitimacy and trust are not necessarily something that can be managed.
There are those scholars would like to see PR become a management discipline and various definitions exist that describe PR as the ‘management of communications’ or the ‘management of relationships’ (Grunig and Hunt, 1984, p. 6). In the International Association’s Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundations Excellence project both the quantitative and qualitative results of the study provide evidence that the conceptualisation of the role of PR in strategic management and the strategic management of PR are important in helping make organisations effective (Grunig and Grunig, 2000). However, the study showed that most PR departments do don’t practice PR strategically. The study found that PR units most often contribute to routine operations and in response to major social issues. They are less likely to participate in major initiatives and, especially in strategic planning (p. 315). It also highlighted that communications units that participate in strategic planning most often do so through informal approaches, contacts with influential people outside the organisation and judgement based on experience. PR less often conducts research or uses other formal approaches to gathering information for strategic planning, an indication according to Grunig and Grunig that many communication units are not qualified to make a full contribution to strategic planning. Data showed that both the chief executive officers (CEOs) and the senior PR practitioners in the 323 organisations studied with excellent PR departments believed that PR contributes more too organisational effectiveness than did those with less excellent PR departments (p. 319). In the least-excellent organisations, communication played virtually no part in strategic decision making. In most organisations that scored high in overall excellence, members of the PR department described their role in strategic management. However, according to Grunig and Grunig, strategic management and strategic planning both had many meanings to the people interviewed. To some, strategic planning is done strictly on a financial basis and as a result, PR is out of the planning loop. To others, strategic management referred almost exclusively to media relations: representing the company to the press. To still others, strategic planning was an integral part of the PR function, a true contributor to the top management team. However, Grunig and Grunig lamented that ‘for too many of their interviewees, communication did not enter into the CEO’s worldview related to strategic planning (p. 319). According to one top communicator, despite the expertise in his PR department, the department’s primary function was reactive: taking care of problems when they develop. In the quantitative phase of the study, respondents were willing to use the method of compensating variation to estimate the rate of return to and value of PR. Most of the senior practitioners of PR and their CEOs in the study were reluctant or unable to attach a monetary value to the contribution of PR. However, they cited benefits such as positive relationships that served as buffers between the organisation and its publics during crises. ‘More often they were content to explain the value of PR in building relationships’ (Grunig and Grunig, 2000, p. 320). However, Wehmeier (2000), points out the futility of the ideal of having PR as a management discipline. According to Wehmeier, legitimacy is conferred upon an organisation by different publics and hence it cannot be managed.
In conclusion, it can be argued that PR is primarily concerned with two communication tasks: creating and managing meaning, and creating and managing relationships. In reviewing the history, nature, and practice of PR, much has been made of the shortcomings of the profession, yet in all fairness according to Tilson (2009) ‘the ledger should be balanced with an examination of those instances in which the profession has reflected good acceptable practice and made a difference for the common good’ (p. 26). Definitions of PR that characterize good practice, which have received more attention in recent years, focus on a ‘values-driven management of relationships’ that emphasize a social and ethical dimension of the profession. Such a theory goes way beyond that of the tradition views of PR practitioners as ‘press agents’. This approach, supported by theory, builds relationships on a commonality of values and with a level of trust that moves institutional decision-making from research to tactics, toward a long term and consensual view of the interactions to be practiced locally and extended globally.
While many various definitions exists for that of the PR professional, ‘there is also the idea, advanced by many professionals and the PRSA itself, that the most important thing is for the individual to act like a professional in the field which means that a practitioner should have a sense of responsibility to society and the public interest and manifest concern for the honour of the profession as a whole’ (ibid). Tilson (2009) adds that knowing that PR can indeed make a difference for the common good, in local communities, nation-states, and globally, can inspire both aspiring and veteran professionals to practice their ‘art’ to the highest level of their calling.