A book that maps pr the world over.
by Liz Bridgen
Italian public relations scholar Toni Muzi Falconi estimates that there are between 2.3 and 4.5 million public relations practitioners in the world (you can find out how he reached that figure here) .
Among those millions, some are doing amazing work that will change the world, but many are working on instantly forgettable campaigns – while others are promoting the ideologies of despotic regimes. But when we read about public relations, we tend to focus on what’s relevant to our own work (unless there’s a Bell Pottinger-type scandal, where we tend to distance ourselves – "that’s not what we do!").
I’ve just edited a book (with Dejan Verčič from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia) which explores the backstage of public relations – the aspects of working life seen as too trivial, too shameful, too awkward or too, well, foreign to be written about by mainstream public relations authors. Putting the book together I was struck not by the differences between public relations in other countries and other sectors but the similarities. The problem is, these similarities are sometimes with organisations we find repugnant. But I’d argue that only by understanding how ‘bad’ organisations do ‘good’ comms, can we even try to think about how we counteract it or offer an alternative position.
For instance, it’s easy to see bad governments as having bad comms people. But if you’re acting as a spokesperson for a government where allegations of corruption circulate, does this mean that your ‘professional’ behaviour is any less competent? Probably not, as this South African description demonstrates: "(Government) spokespeople must not only think, speak and operate appropriately when confronted, they must also keep pace with the dizzying amount of information derived from the Internet (and) social media conversations … spokespeople are sought out for responses to bring clarity to audiences." Which is a pretty good description of good spokesperson, even if we are uneasy with who they work for.
And if we are thinking about our communication strategy, a description of an organisation which believes that a "series of key, politically symbolic statements need to be clear and communicate the vision and goals to different target audiences … (and) capture the mind and imagination of those publics in order to resonate with them" sounds fairly sensible – it could be describing any communication by a UK political party, trades union or pressure group. Even when we add that the organisation in question used "spectacular and very newsworthy large-scale events to attract media attention and publicity" we could be still describing a mainstream campaigning organisation. But this description is actually of Al Qaeda.
These two examples may seem extreme, but students and practitioners alike will be better off being familiar with the different sides of public relations, and it is by admitting the not-so-palatable ones that we can aspire to improve them – and ourselves.
Elizabeth Bridgen is Principal Lecturer Undergraduate Recruitment Lead, Dept of Media Arts and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University.