One of the many things PR can be coy about is admitting that persuasion isn't just about saying nice things. The "goodwill and understanding" approach overlooks the self-evident truth that to win an argument it is often helpful to damage or diminish competitors.
PR pragmatists Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy certainly appreciate this position, and their latest book, PR Today comes out with all guns blazing. With a certainty that would make many academics shudder, they add the immodest subtitle The Authoritative Guide to Public Relations. This is not a book characterised by 'some might argue ... others believe' balance; M&G say it how they think it is and their style is more 'No, you are wrong' rather than 'critical reflection.'
Judging a book by its cover, whilst most PR texts stress the importance of listening and two-way symmetrical conversation, M&G opt for a cartoon megaphone which may not necessarily signify shouting but definitely reflects firm conviction!
And good for them.
I disagree with quite a lot of what they say, but this is the best PR textbook of the year.
It is an excellent read - and also a nightmare for those of us who teach PR. Yes, Parts 2 and 3 are really helpful practical guides to doing the job, written in a highly accessible style. But the first nine chapters are a take no prisoners critique of the professional project and its academic conceits.
M&G begin by ripping into vested-interest trade association definitions of PR: "Ironically, by defining PR in terms of that many of the public might find unclear and unhelpful, or even disingenuous, they risk further damaging the reputations of those they seek to protect....
"...These definitions are marred by their failure to stress the reasons for public relations activity."
They also criticise the almost universal reluctance to acknowledge negative PR or persuasion.
PR activity is generally undertaken to achieve objectives that are more specific and hard-nosed than mutual adaptation
PR is not about love of mankind, but about a desire to achieve something for its paymaster.
This leads to their own definition:
PR is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways which further its sponsor's objectives. It works primarily through the use of media relations and other forms of third party endorsement."
They go on to explain "One reason we have chosen to emphasis media relations is because it is the only persuasive technique which is the unchallenged preserve of PR."
Whilst there is some truth in the position, I believe M&G carry the argument too far. PR is about persuading people to do what organisations want, but it is achieved by managing a broad range of relationships.
Then again, I would take issue with them, wouldn't I?
"Many major universities do not deign to teach public relations.... Understandably some of the growing number of PR academics are uncomfortable with this, and see the generation of academic theory as away of boosting their status."
This maybe so, but I am not convinced by the suggestion that academic PR is crushed by the weight of media and mass comms theory derived from the Frankfurt School. No, it is not easy to be respected by some colleagues but I for one am quite happy to teach PR in a media department.
And M&G are right when they point out that theoretical PR lacks firepower when, for many academics, the most potent weapon is Grunig's "well-meaning but seriously flawed" Excellence framing. James Grunig has made a huge contribution to PR thinking, but there is surely something wrong when one paradigm so dominates the debate; he deserves respect but not the god-like status accord by some...
Anyway, in a six-point list that amounts to a hand grenade lobbed into the conventional, safety-first PR classroom, they argue that "In essence (Excellence) remains a massive piece justificative for the PR industry and its academy...
"Perhaps the main reason for the success (of teh Four Models) is that they play brilliantly upon the industry's insecurities."
To help any of my students who are looking to spark things up next semester, here is a summary of the M&G list.
And, for the record, all the points are to some extent justified.
- The models are self-serving - more about advertising PR than a serious analysis
- No proof/ hard evidence. What they describe does not ring true to day-to-day experience
- Blurring - hard to say where one stops and the enxt starts. And many campaigns have bits of at least three
- It is hard to think of 'pure' public information. It is about what is left out - one person's public information is another's propaganda
- All PR is two-way. Repressive regimes spend a lot of time monitoring
- Two-way symmetry is impossible: All PR serves organisational interest, to say otherwise is disingenuous. People smell a rat.
PR Today will be core reading for most of my modules from starting in January.