PR and dissent

These days if your revolution has failed to get out of the cafes where you have plotted with your comrades; your cause has failed to prosper; or your political party has just lost, the next best thing to blaming the media or the forces of reaction is to blame the PR industry

The blog has experienced a few of these but has, probably unsurprisingly, never blamed the PR industry for the failures. Yet increasingly a number of PR academics and practitioners are becoming the leaders in analysing how PR is used as either an activist or repressive tool.

Bournemouth University has an initiative, Dissent and Public Relations, which seeks to address some of these issues. The BU team behind the initiative say: “It has never been easier for people to protest or express dissent. But there’s actually a long tradition of public action, supported by organised campaigns.” The blog has written about some of these in How PR Works but often doesn’t – the online book on this site – from the British anti-slavery campaign to early environmental campaigns. Dissent and Public Relations launched the initiative in 2012, and the papers from some of the contributors are now available.  The papers include: Dr David McQueen on ‘PR wars’ between charities and corporate interests; Dr Pawel Surowiec on information campaigns by the Solidarity trade union against the Polish communist government; Heather Yaxley on some historic cases of women in dissenting and protesting roles; and Neil Duncan-Jordan, national officer of the National Pensioners Convention, on his activist group’s two year campaign against public expenditure cuts. One of the team’s aims is to stimulate discussion around “the normal idea that it (PR) is employed primarily within organisations and so is often critiqued as a right-wing, or at least, establishment, method of communications.”

Professor Tom Watson, in a comment on the Dissent and Public Relations page suggests that: “There is a completely different way to look at Dissent PR. Traditionally, public relations has been presented (and operationalised) as a corporate construct with the emphasis on the organisation managing relationships with stakeholders. Kevin Moloney and colleagues have turned the model on its head by focusing on public relations from an activist perspective. Kevin’s book “Rethinking Public Relations” (2000, 2006) tackled this and Tim Coombs and Sherry Holloday called for a re-imagining public relations from an activist perspective (2012). (See IHPRC website for 2012). Thus their proposition isn’t common or garden PR but a different paradigm.”

The blog’s experience as a practitioner and amateur student of PR history tends to confirm Tom’s view. The overall history of PR has been less about the US-centric corporate focus on persuasion and manipulation and more about activism and social change. The emphasis on the former is the result of recent events (the past century) rather than a longer perspective. It’s a bit like the current situation with China. The remarkable thing is not that China is rising but how brief the dominance of the West has been compared with the historic millennia long economic dominance of China and India. Equally, US press agentry and persuasion are recent phenomena compared with the longer history of activist PR.

A recent book, Public Relations, Activism and Social Change Speaking Up (Routledge Research in Public Relations), by Kristin Demetrious of Deakin University is another example of PR analysis of the industry’s activist history. Professor Demetrious says her book “explores the intersection between public relations and activism in risk producing industries through a number of case studies, and rebuilds knowledge around alternative communicative practices that aim to be ethical, sustainable, and effective. The book offers a powerful critical description of the dominant model of public relations used in the twentieth century, showing that ‘PR’ was arrogant, unethical and politically offensive in ways that have severely weakened democratic process and its public standing and professional credibility. It argues that change within the field of public relations is imminent and urgent—for us all.”  You can find more information about her views on the Routledge website at

Among her comments: “Spin’ is one of the most lamented aspects of modern society: the exaggeration, the puffery, the blinding obfuscation and the trickery of words. Sometimes it’s like a mouth full of fairy floss, sweet and sickly, other times it can be brutal, ugly and searing. Journalists hate it, the public is bewildered and angry about it – but no one really can say what on earth it is with any certainty or how to arrest the debasement of public debate. What we do know it that it is socially divisive, politically offensive and needs to change.” Hmmmm one might say.

“On the whole, it (PR) is very pro-business and it is supported by a number of institutions that promote it as the only way to think about professional communication ……These institutions (eg PRIA) set boundaries around who can call themselves a ‘PR practitioner’ and the like. So I don’t believe PR ‘existed’ before the institutions that regulate and privilege its authority. Public communication, on the other hand, doesn’t have institutional authority and therefore is not ideologically invested in the same way……. So I think one of the key differences between public relations and public communication is the purpose of the communication. For example, PR seeks to control the public in the hope they will become more yielding and passive whilst public communication seeks to wake them up, empower and create citizens that think and act,” she says.

A couple of things about all this bother the blog: first the industry associations such as the PRIA are much less influential than imagined, have little impact on ‘defining’ the industry and practice and are generally representative of only a minority of the industry; and, second, the distinction between public relations and public communications is probably an ahistorical and artificial construct. Obviously PR is a term with negative connotations although its emphasis on ‘relationships’ and core teachings about symmetric and asymmetric communications are exemplars of the sort of conversations about PR and dissent the BU group is encouraging. Professor Demetrious concedes this in saying: “I actually don’t think there will be a black and white dichotomy between public relations and public communication, there will probably be infusions of the two. I think we are already seeing this in online activism.”  Nevertheless, she continues, “I really want readers to know how PR works and doesn’t work, and the possibility of an alternative. I want readers to watch activism as a site of social significance and to realise that some really brutal things have happened under the banner of public relations…”

The blog sympathises with the viewpoint but wonders about quite a lot. When brutal things happen what are the causes and effects? Who is complicit and to what extent?  Is it PR which is the problem or social and economic structures? Is PR a greater or lesser repressive or liberating force than other forms of controlling and influencing world views? Is the media more of a problem than PR? Does PR just exploit hegemonic world views? Do we define PR as activities we disapprove of and public communication as those we approve of? When is public communication propaganda? Are activists quite as innocent as they claim when it comes to prosecuting their cases publicly or do they also indulge in ‘spin’? Overall the situation – let alone who is wearing the white or the black hats – is much more complex than it appears.