Whatever else, PR polymath David McKie (Waikato Management School) makes you think.
His presentation at BledCom of a paper he wrote with Deborah Munshi and Margalit Toledano, Communicating Unity without Diversity, veered off in countless directions and I doubt if anyone in the audience was familiar with all the references. Stripped to its absolute basics, the theme was - I think! - that as long as PR theory is rooted in a single paradigm, the Grunig Excellence model, its US-centric focus will suffocate much-needed investigation of non-Western framings and be very much the poorer for this neglect.
Talking afterwards, David emphasised the importance of Dejan Vercic's comment that it was time to get away from normative conceptions of PR and deal with 'dirty reality'. We had both been struck by Dejan's suggestion that to develop the Excellence model, PR had had to 'commit patricide'; in my notes, 'They needed to kill Bernays to make PR work."
David himself characterised Bernays as 'the spectre haunting PR'; he was referring to his 1928 book Propaganda, and in particular, I think, statements like this, from Chapter One, entitled Organising Chaos:
The conscious and intelligent manipualtion of the organised habits and opinion of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
Invisible governors ... pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and and guide the world.
The great achievement of James Grunig is to recast PR as a business-based discipline that could achieve results through the application of a different conception, ideally based in a two-way symmetrical flow of information; PR as dialogue not command.
The problem for PR is that so powerful was this framing it has remained almost unchallenged for over 20 years and, in the view of McKie and others, a discipline with a single dominant paradigm lacks strength and vigour.
He said: "The way forward is by theorising practice. The rise of Asia in business terms is going to force PR to reflect on its Western-centricity. The fracture will come when the economic power has shifted to Asia. We will get many more complex approaches; two-way symmetry is only the beginning."
Ironically, while at once celebrating what he saw as an overdue challenge to Excellence, David suggests that the two way model that had seemed so unrealistic when first put forward was now looking more viable. The reason was the emergence of what he calls the electronic world; sadly Bled was characterised by an 'electronic absence': "It is not acceptable to me that the Bled Manifesto didn't mention social softwares."
I think David is right. And I think, too, that social softwares will force us to rethink some of the core theories of PR.
Quite where that rethink will take us I have no idea. But I strongly suspect it is more likely to resurrect the spirit of Bernays than to bury him.