Five hypotheses on an epistemology of public relations

Published in the Asia-Pacific Public Relations Journal Vol 4 No 2 2003


Public relations education in Australia has primarily developed in response to market forces within the public relations industry. While this development has led to an increasing number of courses, and a range of subject choices, there has been relatively limited work on developing an epistemology of public relations. The current review of public relations education at RMIT University is providing opportunities to explore new approaches. When the review of the competencies required for such a course is  combined with consideration of  work in some scientific and social science disciplines, which illuminate our understanding of what shapes attitudes and behaviours, it is possible to develop some tentative hypotheses on future directions for public relations practice, teaching and research. Further, it is possible to identify insights into critical theories of public relations which can be derived from analysis of the interactions between these competencies and the context within which they operate.

Public relations practice has, historically, been market-driven. This was reflected in the first development of public relations as an academic discipline over the past two decades and has informed the structure, content and location of public relations courses in tertiary institutions in which the subject is taught. It would now appear that opportunities exist to review our strategies regarding modes of knowing about public relations.

Conventional versions of public relations history tend to focus on its US origins, Lee and Bernays. This has probably been inadequate simply in terms of public relations as it is currently understood by practitioners. It also ignores significant work by historians such as Burke, Jardine and others investigating areas such as court ritual, the dissemination of intellectual concepts and technology diffusion. Burke, for instance, describes court rituals and governmental persuasive activities during the reign of Louis XIV (1) within a framework analogous to 20th century political and communication practice. Jardine, similarly, interprets the influence of Erasmus (2) within a framework which would be familiar to practitioners focussed on the role of opinion leaders in shaping public attitudes.

In Australia in the 20th century the early history of public relations was fundamentally about a process by which journalists were employed to shape and place information about public and private sector organisations in the mass media – until recently the dominant communication channel.

The development of tertiary public relations courses

By the 1970s, however, there was considerable internal industry debate about whether public relations practice was a “profession” or not. While this debate appears quaint in hindsight it drove two significant developments. First, it inspired a commitment to developing an industry “body of knowledge” appropriate to such a profession. Second, it encouraged the industry to approach tertiary institutions with a view to creating degree courses in public relations. This was successful and now every State offers at least one degree course plus various post-graduate public relations study options. The PRIA operates a national accreditation system for the courses thereby maintaining the market-industry link which had initially inspired the move to create the degrees. It should also be noted that there was another dimension to this market-driven development. The rapidly developing public relations industry needed more practitioners at a time when it, and other industries, was looking to tertiary institutions as a source of employees with more systematically-based skills. It should be noted however, that although many of those who entered the industry from journalism had pursued the craft-based training of cadetships there were a number of journalists with tertiary education. The Melbourne University Diploma in Journalism and direct entry to journalistic gradings from graduates were examples of this.

This market-driven development has continued. In the 2000 Review of Emerging Public Relations Industry Education, Training and Research Requirements commissioned by RMIT University the authors found that

The public relations tertiary sector has responded to public relations industry requirements opportunistically over the past few years. First, growth in the industry, and in interest in the industry, has led some institutions to develop public relations programs as a means of encouraging applicants and enrolment. Second, the specific requirements of the industry have lead to the creation of research centres and specific courses seen as relevant to industry requirements. (3)

Since that Review RMIT has now sought to re-construct its public relations courses into a new multi-disciplinary degree. The elements of the re-construction include

–       Developing a PR education for students that provides the necessary communication competencies, as well as offering a wide background of knowledge and conceptual thinking required by industry into the future

–       Providing students with research, analytical and interdisciplinary skills; and

–       Preparing students for a life-long career in a global workforce (4)

Practice and learning – the industry and the courses which prepare for it

The author has submitted to the RMIT review process that an appropriate framework for viewing public relations practice – the competencies required for the industry –  is three dimensional.(5)

First, the core competencies that underpin the activity such as writing, PR strategy, research. Second, the broad areas of specialisation such as strategic counselling, public affairs, marketing communications, issues and crisis management, social marketing, investor relations and so on. Third, industry segments in which core competencies and specialisations are applied to specific situations. An example of this would be health communications and its further segmentation into areas such as public health, health and medical and population-wide social marketing.

In meeting the industry educational and training needs for graduates with specific competencies tertiary courses have generally been constructed to provide a theoretical component, an introduction to tactics and tools and case study based learning.

In participating in the 2000 RMIT review it appeared that the primary theoretical focus was the Grunig model of symmetric and asymmetric communication. (7) Almost every generation of students has been introduced to the theory of public relations practice through this perspective. The Grunigs have since further developed the model and in a paper at the November 2002 Public Relations Society of America Annual Conference in San Francisco they have explored how reputation is shaped by the relationships developed through symmetric communications(8). McCoy has been investigating a similar framework within Australia (9) and a commercial research firm has developed a model which measures the quality of relationships which shape reputation (10), suggesting that the area has a robustness and relevance which amply justify its initial inclusion as the theoretical cornerstone of public relations courses.

The tactics and tools aspects of courses range from workshops on desk top publication through to writing classes and practical exercises in conducting campaigns and organising events.

Case study teaching is modelled on the dominant teaching system in business schools although business schools have access to more, and a wider range of, academic case studies. As the RMIT 2000 Review observes

The trend in the public relations industry is for practice to develop almost weekly, and on a case by case basis. For example, Shell’s experience over the Brent Spar oil platform and the company’s involvement in Nigeria had a powerful impact on practice over the course of a few months in the latter half of 1995, but only in the last year or so have fully developed case studies relating to this experience started to appear in the lists of case collections available for management and other teaching purposes. (11)

The problem with case study based education is that, while it can be useful by demonstrating practice options through analogy and by making practice more vivid and relevant, practice situations are rarely identical and that without a directly analogous relation such studies have no predictive power regarding the efficacy of specific practices. Indeed, it could be argued that the case study method in business and public relations study is inherently unscientific because of this lack of predictive power and, hence, to be approached with caution. However, its efficacy as a teaching method for industry practice tends to transcend this limitation.

Some implications from the RMIT Review

These industry trends, and these perspectives, informed much of the work of the 2000 RMIT review report.

The review terms of reference set out its purposes as: identifying the emerging education and training and research needs of the public relations industries; assessing the appropriateness of RMIT’s responses to those needs; and, making recommendations for changes which would help the University better meet those needs. (12)

The review drew on the 1999 United States Commission of Public Relations Education on 21st century public relations education and the ongoing European Centre for Public Relations Group study of appropriate public relations career education and training. Course materials from other Australian universities were reviewed and there was extensive industry consultation. (13)

A key report finding was that

Because of changes taking place in the environment for management, and demands now being made for public relations advice and support, conceptions of public relations have broadened, and it is now more than a communication practice. The Review Panel feels strongly that public relations is an interdisciplinary subject area that depends for its development on broad social and strategic perspectives, as well as a fully developed understanding of communication. (14)

The report found that there was an emerging view in the industry that

…public relations practice is based on three strands of study that could function as majors (or as sub-majors) underpinning public relations studies, and could provide the basis for the development of core competencies. These emerge from studies of the social, economic and political structures within which the industry operates;
studies of the social sciences (psychology/anthropology etc) to develop understanding of human behaviour; and, an applied communications/public relations strand which addresses core industry skills such as writing etc. This strand would include some work experience. (15)

The location of public relations education and training

Currently public relations courses in Australia are taught within a variety of faculties including business, liberal arts, social sciences, communications (mass advertising, journalism etc) with some cross-faculty arrangements representing a combination of the above. In the USA and Britain the situation is equally diverse with “homes” for public relations ranging across communications, speech communications, journalism, film, media and business schools.

What appears clear from the discussion above is that, if public relations is an inter-disciplinary subject, one specific location within a school may well be inappropriate if that location skews educational and training practice to that discipline. A corollary of this, of course, is that public relations education and training in tertiary institutions would be facilitated by the extent to which it can be situated in an inter-disciplinary context.

An interesting perspective on these inter-disciplinary needs is that of Getz who has investigated some theoretical foundations for public affairs practice and political strategy.

She suggested that public affairs practice was “primarily descriptive and atheoretical” but canvassed a range of disciplines which were relevant to practice. Getz’s list is not exhaustive but it is enlightening. It includes: political science (interest group theory); economics (collective action theory, public choice theory, transaction cost theory,game theory);sociology ( resource dependence theory, institutional theory); management (agency theory, behavioural theory of the firm, business strategy theory, population ecology theory). (16)

Getz’s assertion about public affairs being “primarily descriptive and atheoretical” is no doubt apposite for public relations as well. Indeed, our discussion of public relations education and industry needs also indicates that, while there is a strong interdisciplinary element to industry requirements, there is as yet a limited set of agreed theoretical foundations for such interdisciplinary study.

It is, of course, moot whether any practitioner can ever master all of these disciplines, whatever their relevance. The implication may be that public relations practice, education and training will increasingly focus on awareness and knowledge of the inter-connectedness of these areas while advanced public relations research focuses on the theoretical foundations and implications of that inter-connectedness.

Productive areas for contextual research

In seeking such theoretical foundations – in establishing an epistemology of public relations so to speak– it may well be productive to look in more detail at the insights obtained from other disciplines and the context within which public relations operates.

In the previous discussion of Getz and the RMIT review we have canvassed some broad views of contextual subjects relevant to public relations practice. This has been based on the assertion that it is axiomatic that behaviourial sciences and social sciences – from psychology to anthropology – have a clear relevance to public relations practice. Indeed, any discipline which provides us with insights into how people and groups form attitudes and behave must by definition be useful to public relations practice.

Quite clearly there are a host of such areas. Nevertheless, while we know a great deal about behaviours and attitudes the complexity of societies and individuals makes much of it uncertain. Indeed, we may never acquire, nor even want to acquire, predictive certainty in what is ultimately a persuasive practice. However, recent research in three specific areas illustrates how much closer we are to knowing more about attitudes and behaviours. These areas are not presented as those which must necessarily be studied in public relations but rather as illustrations of the benefits an interdisciplinary approach and the specific benefits which might flow from these areas to public relations practice.

Economic behaviour

In 2002 The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to two innovators in the field of psychological and experimental economics. The winners were Daniel Kahnemann from Princeton University and Vernon Smith from George Mason University.

Economics has always had a weakish methodological base relying on observations of complex real world behaviours rather than experimental methods which can produce replicable results with predictive power. It has also been widely recognised, even before Keynes’ observation about “animal spirits”, that non-material and seemingly non-rational explanations were necessary for some economic phenomena. This is now known as behaviourial economics. Essentially behavioural economics combines laboratory experimentation, cognitive psychology, game theory and other concepts to explain economic behaviour.

The most accessible source of information about these theories is Schiller’s work on the stock market (17) which, as well as successfully predicting the end of the 1990s stock market bubble discusses the various behavioural explanations of stock market movements. Drawing on the work of economists including Avery and Zemsky (18); Bikhchandani, Hirshleifen and Welch (19); and Bailey (20) Shiller provides invaluable insights into how attitudes to economic matters are shaped and what influences behaviours. The Welch work is also reflected in the popular work recently much-cited in public relations practice by Gladwell (21).

It is not the purpose of this paper to canvass this research in detail. It is to suggest that within the work there is a body of knowledge directly relevant to public relations practice and that we need to identify what role it has to play and how we can incorporate it into our modes of thinking about public relations practice and theory.

The brain

Perhaps the discipline most relevant to understanding attitudes and behaviours is that related to the study of the brain and consciousness. Since Descartes, mind-body dualism and its derivations have been influential in a philosophy of the brain both at the level of describing consciousness and also at the level of debates about nature versus nurture.

While it is not within the competence of the author (indeed, of any practitioner probably) to describe the state of play in brain and consciousness research it seems clear that the area is currently undergoing a series of revolutions. Work on evolutionary psychology, systems-based approaches to the brain; and actual observations of how brains function have all made significant progress in the past decade. A popular, if polemical, summary of much of this can be found in Pinker (22).

Again, without canvassing the detail of the work, we need to identify what role it has to play and how it may be incorporated into the work of various social science disciplines.

Small-world mathematics

Another area of productive research is small-world mathematics.  This discipline involves the study of networks in natural and technological systems. The original small-world question was posed by de Sola Pool, a political scientist at MIT in 1960 and an IBM mathematician, Manfred Kochen. The query related to the number of acquaintances which connect any two people selected at random.  This was further explored in the mid-60s by Stanley Milgram who developed the concept of “six degrees of separation” (23).

While doubt has been raised about the replicability of some of Milgram’s work (24) the network effect has also been used to look at word and language associations (25); old boy networks and most famously Strogatz (26) and Watts’ (27) work in the area popularly-termed the Kevin Bacon graph (28).

In brief what this research describes are communication networks within society. Thus, if we are able to understand them we are better able to understand the dissemination of information within communities – both through formal communications and through word-of-mouth communications.

Once again, without requiring practitioners to be experts in mathematics, we can suggest that the body of knowledge in small-world mathematics may well be relevant to our mode of thinking about public relations practice and theory.

Context and competencies – how their interaction may provide insights into an epistemology of public relations

Public relations undergraduate education has focused on providing potential industry entrants with a set of competencies necessary for employment in the industry. Increasingly it has become to address the societal context within which these competencies operate as demonstrated by the RMIT Review and Getz.

At the same time students in political, cultural and media studies have sought to explain how concepts of society have developed. The critique of mass media, advertising and public relations has been integral to these developments – expanding and explicating concepts about hegemony in neo-capitalist societies.

It is arguable, indeed, that it is the competencies we teach students which are important in shaping the context within which we teach and study those competencies. Without assuming that all public relations graduates are complicit in some conspiracy to create a particular world-view their activities do help to shape perceptions of products, issues and societies.

It would appear, therefore, that a productive way of approaching public relations critical theory is to investigate the tensions, conflicts, complementarities and contradictions created by the interactions between the competencies taught and the contexts within which they operate.

While students of cultural and media studies may claim that they are already addressing these concepts, public relations educators and practitioners may well be able to provide unique insights into the interactions between context and competencies. Moreover, they may be able to use these insights to develop new critical theories regarding public relations which lead to both an understanding of an epistemology of public relations as well as an enhancement of industry best practice. This would operate as follows:
Clearly such a framework has a number of implications ranging over what we teach, how we teach it, when we teach it, how we interact with other disciplines and how we develop relevant connections between the needs of employers, industry practice, undergraduate and post-graduate study, training, research, continuing professional education and professional ethics.


It is beyond the scope of this paper to address those implications in detail. Moreover, it does not seek to establish certainties about public relations practice, education and training. Rather it seeks to identify some hypotheses which might provide a guide to both our way of knowing about public relations theory and the future direction of public relations education, training and practice.

The hypotheses are:

HYPOTHESIS 1: While public relations education and training has been primarily market-driven, descriptive and atheoretical there are now opportunities to develop new approaches to public relations practice and theory.

HYPOTHESIS 2 : Such approaches will be derived from the recognition that public relations is an activity which functions at the interface between best practice professional activity and all those disciplines which provide insights into human behaviours and attitudes.

HYPOTHESIS 3: There are a number of disciplines, of which public relations practitioners and educators need to be aware, which are giving us new, and superior, insights into these behaviours and attitudes.

HYOPTHESIS 4: The most profound insights into public relations critical theory will most probably evolve from analysing the interactions between professional practice – industry competencies – and the societal context which professional practice both operates within and influences, thereby enabling us to begin to develop an epistemology of public relations.

HYPOTHESIS 5: The range and complexity of these considerations require us to situate public relations courses within a context which transcends the boundaries imposed by existing organisational structures and which creates new opportunities for interdisciplinary approaches in undergraduate, post-graduate, practice and lifelong-learning education and training.


(1) Peter Burke The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven and London:Yale University Press, 1992)
(2) Lisa Jardine Erasmus Man of Letters (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press,1993)
(3) Jon White, Geoff Kelly and Noel Turnbull Review of Emerging public relations industry education, training and research requirements and programmes offered by RMIT to meet those requirements (Unpublished paper RMIT 2000 available at RMIT Library)
(4) Letter to RMIT students from Professor Robin Williams and Lauren Murray (RMIT 31 May 2002)
(5) Noel Turnbull, unpublished Discussion Paper on RMIT Public Relations Education (RMIT 2002)
(6) Larissa and James Grunig, seriatum in reading lists ad infinitum.
(7) Larissa and James Grunig New Methods for Measuring Relationships and Reputation Speech and Power Point presentation PRSA Annual Conference San Francisco USA 2002.
(8) Lelde McCoy unpublished MA research material communicated to the author.
Quantum Market Research  Carecom Model for measuring relationships between business entities (brands, corporations, industry groups) and any stakeholder group. Corporate publication available from Quantum Market Research Albert Park Victoria
(10) White et al
(11) Ibid
(12) Ibid
(13) Ibid
(14) Ibid
(15) Ibid
(16) Kathleen E. Getz “Public Affairs and political strategy: Theoretical foundations.” Journal of Public Affairs Vol 1 No 4 and Vol 2 No 1 2002 pp305-329 (London UK: Henry Stewart Publications)
(17) Robert J. Shiller Irrational Exuberance ( Melbourne Australia: Scribe Publications 2000)
(18) Christopher Avery and Peter Zemsky “Multidimensional uncertainty and herd behaviour in financial markets” American Economic Review, 88 (4) (1998)pp 724-48
(19) S.D.Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifen and Ivo Welch “A theory of fashion, social custom and cultural change” Journal of Political Economy 81 (1992) pp637-654
(20) Norman T. Bailey The Mathematical Theory of Epidemics (London UK: C.Griffin 1957).
(21) Malcolm Gladwell The Tipping Point ( New York NY: Little,Brown 2000)
(22) Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of  Human Nature (London UK:Viking Press 2002)
(23) Karen Wright Six Degrees of Separation Discover Vol 23 No 6 (June 2002)
(24) Ibid
(25) A.E.Motter, Moura , Y.-C. Lai and P. Dasgupta “Topology of the conceptual network of language” Physical Review E, 65, 065102 (2002)
(26) S.H.Strogatz Exploring complex networks Nature, 410 (2001) pp 268-276
(27) D.J.Watts Small Worlds:the Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness (Princeton University Press,1999)
(28) James Case The Continuing Appeal of Small-world Networks siam news Vol 34 No 9 November 2001 Pp1-3.

The author is also indebted to Dr Peter Horsfield of RMIT University. Discussions with him inspired and crystallised some of the concepts discussed in the paper – in particular how critical theories of public relations are best developed.