PR and post modernism

The problem with irony is that if it is sufficiently dead pan, and readers are sufficiently literally-minded, the irony can get lost.

Some 20 years ago the blog wrote an article for IPRA Review (1993 16 (3)) asking whether PR was the first post-modern profession. At the time the blog had been reading a lot of Umberto Eco, not just the novels but also the semiotics work and his collection of essays Faith in Fakes. The latter basically focussed on how in a post-modern world for many people the fake was more real than the real. Eco also talked a lot about how perceptions shaped reality.

Anyway the result was the International Public Relations Association journal article. It canvassed (article is not on this site but to be uploaded soonish) some of the ways opinion had been shaped over the years and talked about how PR was very like some post modernist theories about perception and reality. It was a bit tongue in cheek but it managed to be re-produced in a number of national public relations association journals including the South African one. The South African one emphasised that the article was a confirmation of the fact that PR was a ‘profession’ although that was far from the blog’s intention and its views.

Over the years the subject came up from time to time and Burson Marsteller even adopted the concept of perception management as the company’s core positioning – not it should be stressed as a result of the IPRA article. Indeed, at a PRIA Conference in South Australia the then BM Australia head gave a presentation on how perception management was the future of the industry. The blog couldn’t resist asking him during the question time whether BM was paying royalties or a licence fee to Eco but the speaker went a bit blank and didn’t seem to know what on earth he was being asked about. Ironic tone failed again. The Sokal hoax  ( was a later example of how post-modernism seeps into humanities thinking although this time not through Eco but through physics and the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment about quantum mechanics. The fact that one can try to extrapolate from the sub-atomic realm to contemporary social sciences is beyond irony but Sokal managed to convince some journal editors that you can – among other things.

But now we have a book on the subject of  PR and post modernism –  Public Relations as Activism. Postmodern Approaches to Theory and Practice – which has just been released by Routledge. The author is Dr. Derina Holtzhausen. Her university website describes her as “Ph.D. University of Johannesburg; M.A. University of South Africa; B.A. University of Pretoria and now professor and director of the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University….. (and).. a recipient of the Pathfinder Award from the U.S. Institute of Public Relations for her original research agenda on postmodern public relations.” The blog hasn’t read the book yet but Professor Tom Watson (the blog seriatum) emailed suggesting it might be time to reflect on the post modern journey from the 1993 article to the new book.

It’s worth doing so because, while the arts and the literary world seem to be a bit over post-modernism and we have even had some post-post-modernism in some fields in the arts,  it persists in public relations – not because of irony – but because semiotics, literary theory and post modernism are very useful tools and theoretical approaches to examine those PR practices which focus on shaping perceptions of reality. It is particularly relevant to analysis of political communication.  Equally one could argue that the most effective PR practice is based on stimulating conversations about reality and letting those shape perceptions. Conversations – and books – about these subjects will continue to be fruitful for academics and practitioners whichever approach you take. And, of course, we constantly need to think about how the public’s misperceptions of what is real or true impact on our practice – from public belief in the reality of soap star’s existence to Tea Party beliefs and the detritus of celebrity culture.