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Learning from Public Relations

May 18, 2010

One of issues that bubbles below the surface of Public Diplomacy Studies is the relationship with Public Relations as a practice and as a field of study. Partly this is a matter of PD scholars and practitioners trying to distance themselves from a communication activity with a poor public reputation. If we move beyond this I think that there are things that Pd can learn from the development of PR as a field.

Over the weekend I’ve been following up some of the references that Kathy Fitzpatrick cites in her 2007 Hague Journal of Diplomacy piece and Rhonda Zaharna uses in Battles to Bridges. I will have more to say about the substantive differences and similarities later but I though that it’s worth flagging up some of the things that PD studies can learn from PR studies. Some of the debates that are currently going on in PD seem to echo earlier developments in PR.

A major element of this is the turn to relationships as the central focus of PR. Over the past 20 years there has been an effort to refocus PR from a concern with communications and image to substantive relationships. The consequence of this is that an organization’s PR should be seen not as communications but as a general management function that uses strategic communication as one tool. In part this goes back to the lament of communication professionals in business and government that products or policies are developed without their involvement and they are then expected to sell them. There is also a deeper point that relationships are central to success of an organization so that maintaining those relationships is not an afterthought that can be addressed by some advertising or a TV interview. This has a couple of consequences. Firstly, communications professionals have to be prepared and able to play roles in the management of the organization as a whole. Communications specialists in organizations always lament that their specialized skills are not appreciated and they are not represented in senior management but the logic of the ‘relational turn’ is that specialized skills are not enough more general strategic management skills are also required so that they can actually participate in the overall running of the organization. Secondly, it is no longer enough to assess the impact of PR activities in communications terms either on inputs (how many press conferences have we held) or outputs (do more people recognize our name) PR evaluation has to look at the state of relationships with relevant publics.

This question of measurement and evaluation is bubbling up in the ISA PD group at the moment and it’s worth pointing to a programme of work that was commissioned by the International Association of Business Communicators in the 1980s (there’s a summary in the Grunig, Grunig and Dozier chapter listed below). One of the conclusions was that it wasn’t possible to directly measure the impact of PR at a programme level because pay offs were long term and contextual. This is an argument that PD practitioners have frequently made but it definitely seems like PR has a body of research that can contribute to supporting the argument.

Here’s are the references that this post draws on. More on this later as I dig further in the literature

Fitzpatrick, K. (2007) ‘Advancing the New Public Diplomacy: A Public Relations Perspective’, Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 2: 187-211.

Grunig, J.E. (1993) ‘Image and Substance: From Symbolic to Behavioral Relationships’, Public Relations Review, 19: 121-39.

Grunig, J.E., L.A. Grunig, and D.M. Dozier (2006) ‘The Excellence Theory’, pp. 21-62 in C.H. Botan and V. Hazleton (eds) Public Relations Theory II, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ledingham, J. (2003) ‘Explicating Relationship Management as a General Theory of Public Relations’, Journal of Public Relations Research, 15: 181-198.

Ledingham, J.A., and S.D. Bruning (1998) ‘Relationship Management in Public Relations: Dimensions of an Organization-Public Relations’, Public Relations Review, 14: 55-65.

Zaharna, R. (2010) Battles to Bridges: US Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy after 9/11. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

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