It’s all different now – not!

In June next year the International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

As well as having a gala dinner (Australians always think of it as a galah dinner given the behaviour at some PR dinners) the conference will look not only at PR history and related subjects but also the history of the conference itself.

Two of the great revelations from 10 years of conferences are: that the US-centric view of PR history is just plain wrong; and, that while technology changes much of the tactics of PR, strategy continues to contain some universal features. The blog discussed some of this in its book – How PR Works But Often Doesn’t – available free online on this site.

The conferences are organised by the Public Relations Research Group of the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University in the UK. The founder, and for many years, the driving force behind the conferences was the Australian academic – Tom Watson – who relocated to Bournemouth.

In the materials announcing the 10th anniversary conference – from June 26-28 2019 – the organisers reflect on some of the themes which have been significant over the years.

They include subjects such as the developing or diverging relationships with other disciplines such as corporate governance, HR, marketing and legal; and, the historiography of public relations and the application of historical theories and interpretations to the history of PR. In the latter area the blog has regularly written about the relevance of the work of historians such as Peter Burke and Andrew Pettergree to an understanding of not only major events in history – such as the Reformation and monarchical government – but also to PR history and contemporary practice.

Conferences have also challenged the ‘great man’ or ’great woman’ view of how the industry was shaped in explorations similar to those being undertaken in other areas of history – particularly in terms of women, indigenous communities and other groups neglected by history for centuries. At the same time it has looked at organisational structures in companies, NGOs and other organisations and how that shaped PR practice.

Some of the conferences looked at the tools practitioners use from media releases to social media and how the technology is less significant than the framing, the message and the targeting. They have also emphasised alternative views of practice- for instance the significance of networking and issues scanning revealed by Professor Anne Gregory in her research into what senior practitioners actually do.

What PR practice has actually been called – through press agentry to propaganda and strategic communications – has been addressed. This is useful, from the blog’s point of view, as an integral part of confronting the many myths practitioners and industry associations have promulgated about the industry as a ‘profession’. Practitioners can be professional but it is a sad joke to describe the industry as a profession.

There have been many other themes and subjects: ethics, oral histories, PR theory and theories; how PR practice differs in various sectors of the economy from industry to government; the formation of professional bodies and how they have impacted on the industry; and, the usefulness of oral histories.

In terms of professional bodies it may well be that the most significant research on them will be into their obituaries as they become less and less relevant to practitioners from dramatically different professional backgrounds. Any quick survey of the most senior practitioners in the private and public sector reveals how few of them are members of organisations such as Australia’s Public Relations Institute or its international counterparts.

The shaping of public opinion – how, when and why – is a far too important subject to be left to other disciplines such as political science –even if many political science academics such as Sydney’s Professor Rod Tiffen continue to provide us with important insights into politics, the media, and political PR. The conferences address this need.

The blog has been meaning to go to one of the conferences for years but has been content to read the abstracts, the proceedings and some of the published journal output. But being a retired practitioner, who mainly comments from the sidelines, it doesn’t seem so urgent. But for those young practitioners obsessing over contemporary tactics and techniques it is worth sparing some time to explore some deeper strategic perspectives which can be illuminated by some attention to the incredible diversity of the things which make up PR history. They can all be found here.