Public Relations in Britain: A History of Professional Practice in the 20th Century, by Jacquie L'Etang (2004) Laurence Erlbaum Associates
When a handful of UK practitioners met in October 1946 to convene what would become the Institute of Public Relations much of their effort was focused on finding ways to crystalise their various activities into something that went beyond being an occupation and could be recognised as - and billed out as - a profession. This week their successors won what supporters will rightly see as a significant milestone in that quest by achieving chartered status.
It's been a long road, and the length and character of the struggle have brought into focus some of the problems inherent in teasing out public relations from the competing and at times overlapping disciplines of advertising, marketing ... and propaganda.
The IPR believes chartered status marks the ‘coming of age’ of the PR profession, hailing it as "official recognition of the important and influential role that public relations plays in business, government and democratic society". Whilst presumably acknowledging the significance of the accolade, Jacquie L'Etang argues that despite its rapid growth the 'central story' of PR in Britain is of the failure of an "occupation" to professionalise.
Public Relations in Britain: A History of Professional Practice in the 20th Century is both a major contribution to the academic literature and an alternative history of the IPR. Her critical approach draws on the sociology of professions, propaganda studies, public opinion, PR and media studies - not always happy bedfellows. She uses extensive interviews and a valuable trawl of primary sources to paint an intriguing picture of an occupation that, as she notes, has a sensitivity to sociological analysis.
A Very British Practice
The narrative convincingly projects L'Etang's view that public relations in Britain was not simply an import from the United States, rather a discrete discipline emerging of its own accord which has retained a distinct character and priorities deriving from differing socio-economic and cultural factors. These are points well made, and should be borne in mind by academics trying to squeeze UK practice into American theoretical models.
Here, a key driver was the perceived need for local government to articulate issues key to its credibilty and legitimacy, namely professionalism, ethics, communcation and democratic accountability. Substitute public interest for democracy and it could serve as a checklist for those shaping today's IPR.
Any account of its history has to be concerned with some fairly basic questions - what is PR for? and what do PRs do? That both supporters and critics still find these questions so tricky adds to the relevancy of L'Etang's analysis.
She identifies a dominant theme of early editions of the IPR magazine Public Relations that its business was of ideological importance to the world. Sir Stephen Tallents, in his 1932 pamphlet The Projection of England, wrote of the need "to support British economic aims through the promotion of culture, technology and science and an enhanced sense of nationality and core values", a direction that continues through Grunig and Hunt's view that the dominant paradigm is broadly liberal pluralist and which sees PR as supportive of democracy, by opening up channels of communication in society and facilitating dialogue between organisations and publics.
Interestingly, one of PR's most imposing figures, Tim Traverse Healy, argued that the post-War emergence of consultancies and the independence of working for several clients enables (the consultant) to "take a stand when advocating a course of action he feels to be right and in the best interests of the client and the public". Half a century on, the IPR announcement of chartered status includes among its objectives "to work in the public interest to raise standards and promote high levels of skills, knowledge and competence within the PR profession".
This regard for the 'public interest' is a lofty ideal; the problem is that it involves identifying what this 'public interest' might be, and, perhaps more worringly, assuming that public relations officers might have a clearer grasp of a slippery and debatable concept than the rest of society.
So significant were the public sector roots of British PR that of the 101 organisations listed as IPR founders in 1948 only four were consultancies. But that was soon to change, and as L'Etang demonstrates the emergence and growth of consultancy marked a distinctive historical development in the professionalisation of PR; it was acheiving a sufficient hold on certain crafts, knowledge and experience and gained a sufficiently coherent identity for businesses to survive, indeed thrive, in the market place.
A problem, presumably down to the paucity (or at least unavailability) of source materials is that L'Etang finds it easiest to trace developments through the voices and writings of IPR luminaries. As she acknowledges: "Professional status has ... become the loudly articulated aim of a small subgroup of practitioners. Historically such practitioners have not been the leading lights of the business, many of whom have remained outside the Institute."
It is a good point, and perhaps we will have to wait for a British version of Stuart McEwen's PR: A Social History of Spin for a broader picture to emerge.
PRs vs Journalists
The ongoing tensions between journalists and PRs always make for good copy and L'Etang brings some interesting historical perspective to the scuffles, not least when she focuses on the 1960s contributions of, say, Bernard Levin, who dubbed PRs 'creepers' and Michael Frayn.
She sees the post-war era as a period of renegotiation of the boundaries and relative status between PR, advertising and journalism: "By identifying itself with journalism PR could more easily separate its practice from that of advertising and there was also the allure of greater professional status."
As many will recognise, it is not an association welcomed by the many journalists who proclaimed their unswerving allegiance to truth and objectivity to be an unbridgeable chasm between the two occupations. L'Etang sees this conflict as a jurisdictional struggle over which occupation constructed news: R West, in his 1963 book PR The Fifth Estate was rather more cutting: "Journalists know in their heart of hearts that they may too become PROs when they fail at their profession; they tend to see in PROs the embodiment of their own future failure."
One of the ways in which professions seek legitimacy is by drawing up and - ideally - enforcing codes of conduct or practice, but trying to encapsulate what PRs should and shouldn't do has been a thorny problem from the outset. Drawing a convincing red line that separates the charlatan from the creative, the dissembler from the diplomat is not at all easy; the more enthusiasm applied to the task, the more the question 'what is PR for?' comes to the fore.
Those who look forward to the chapter on ethics as a warts and all expose of treachery and spin will be disappointed. This is not because L'Etang fails to deliver but because the IPR Code doesn't go in for that sort of thing. As my own research highlights, the rulemakers find it much easier to look at transactional ethics - business practice - than those relating to diffraction, the obligation to truthful transmission.
Mischievously noting that they provided a useful weapon in the infighting between IPR luminaries, L'Etang concludes that after nearly half a century the IPR's code has been "a worthy text to encourage good behaviour, but in reality has proved too general and open to interpretation to be particularly restrictive in practice".
So, impressive bark, shame about the bite: "Externally, the code has been a symbolic acquisition for use in the public relations campaign for public relations and can be seen thus far as as a sad attempt to emulate the professions."
Clearly, the development of the IPR is of huge significance to the development of the discipline, occupation or profession that is public relations and rightly occupies a pivotal place in a history of PR in Britain. The problem, though, is that a large number of people who style themselves as PRs are not members of the IPR, and that its codes and values, woolly as they sometimes are, don't register on the radar of many practitioners. Tellingly, it is not just the newcomers, also-rans and no-hopers who fall outside its aegis - some of the most influential players would give very different answers to the core questions of PR's purpose and intent; and they are the ones who do so much to shape our socio-economic and cultural landsape.
L'Etang makes a convincing case that the lack of a coherent definition that can explain the purpose of public relations - rather than merely expounding its ideals and techniques - is a crucial weakness which continues to makes it difficult to delineate an occupation from its competing interests: "This failure can be explained by a lack of intellectual rigour in the field and also by practitioners' desire to separate their practice from propaganda. These characteristics have remained features of the PR landscape."
None of this, however, diminishes the importance of Public Relations in Britain as a work of significance. The heart of the book pulls together a rich and valuable base of historical knowledge that will be much used by others; the introduction and conclusion provide a challenging and rewarding platform for anyone engaging in the academic study of the 'occupation'.