PD problems may not have PD solutions

Without opening up the whole is PD the same as PR question I think that it’s interesting to keep an eye on what Public Relations professionals are thinking about…

Crisisblogger has a post attacking the idea that the reputational damage suffered by BP during the Gulf oil spill last year was avoidable with better PR: as he puts it

No effective messaging or communication can cover for the fact that you are dumping millions of gallons of ugly crude into a body of water for months in full view of the world and with all your technical wizardry and billions in resources, are not able to stop it.

This sounds rather like the policy/communications problem…

I think that this is nice example of the idea that  ‘public relations problems aren’t always problems with your Public Relations’  or to paraphrase  ‘public diplomacy problems are not necessarily problems with your Public Diplomacy

Persuasion, Rhetoric, Ethics

I was looking for something else and I came across this piece in  the latest Public Relations Review

Porter, L. (2010) ‘Communicating for the good of the state: A post-symmetrical polemic on persuasion in ethical public relations’, Public Relations Review, 36: 127-133.

You don’t have to read into the PR literature for very long before you become aware of James Grunig’s argument that PR practice should aspire to a symmetrical relationship between the organization and its publics.  The implications of this idea is that the ideal practice should seek to neutralize power differentials.  This line of argument has rendered the role of persuasion, long assumed to be the basic function of PR, ethically suspect.  Porter, coming from a rhetorical perspective, challenges this view.  In his perspective the rationality of rhetoric comes from competing efforts to persuade.  In some of my previous work I’ve argued that ‘spin is the rhetoric of the information age’ so it’s an argument that I’ve got a lot sympathy with.  I also like Bruno Latour’s defence of political speech in his Contemporary Political Theory essay

Again there are parallels between the debate in PR and in PD studies.  Conceptualizations of soft power seem to be getting progressively softer to the extent that I’ve heard it being argued that persuasion is too hard to qualify as soft power.  Part of the issue here is what we understand by persuasion.

This leads to the broader issue of the normative bases of public diplomacy.  This questioning of persuasion seems to come out of communications theories of ethics for instance the work of Jurgen Habermas.  I’ve got some doubts about the extent to which this type of work is really useful in the PD context.  The first of these is the fundamental question about the extent to which it really makes sense to work with such strongly rationalist model of ethics.  The second is that there are well established ethical positions in the IR literature that start from a more collective model of ethical practice.  It seems to me that if a normative theory is to have any significance it must have some relevance to the practice that provides criteria for judgement for and that communication ethics seem to raise an impossibly high bar for what is a form of political practice.

Now that opens the requirement for a post on what a relevant set of criteria actually are but that is going to have wait for another day (or month).

Brown, R. (2003) ‘Spinning the World: Spin Doctors, Mediation and Foreign Policy’, pp. 154-72 in F. Debrix and C. Weber (eds) Rituals of Mediation: International Politics and Social Meaning, Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press.

Brown, R. (2003) ‘Rethinking Government-Media Relations: Towards a Theory of Spin’, Politicians and the Press: From Co-operation to an Adversary Relationship?, Marburg: ECPR General Conference. [Zap me an e-mail (r.c.m.brown at leeds.ac.uk  if you’d like a copy of this]

Latour, B. (2003) ‘What if we Talked Politics a Little?’, Contemporary Political Theory, 2: 143-64.

Learning from Diplomacy 1

In reading through the PR literature you see that over the past thirty years or so the field has been keen to move away from the idea that PR is about companies trying to manipulate their publics through the use of the media.  One idea that you  find recurring is the companies (or other organizations) need two way relationships that is they need to, at least, listen to their publics and preferably engage in a dialogue with them.  Further these relationships should be symmetrical which means it is not just up to the public to adapt to the organization but the organization needs to adapt as well.  The extent to which PR lives up to this in practice is another matter.

In thinking about the relational turn in both PR and PD I was struck by the importance of turning to  another literature on relationship management – diplomacy.

A few aspects of diplomacy immediately come to mind.

  1. Diplomacy in the modern international system has symmetry and ‘two way’ built into its DNA through the doctrine of sovereign equality.  In legal and protocol terms all states are equal.
  2. Diplomacy is used to dealing with conflictual or mixed relationships that endure for extended periods.
  3. One of the most characteristic tools of diplomacy is negotiation.   This points us to modes of influence and communication that come neither from interpersonal communications or models of mass communication.  Negotiation can involve both a redefinition of situations, interests and identities through dialogue and information exchange  and bargaining.

Learning from Public Relations

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.