PR and disruption

Getting ready for a one day conference in London: PR and Disruption: Embracing and Managing Change. I will be speaking about the need for public relations research to incorporate non-instrumental approaches and embrace social theory in this regard. Here is an excerpt drawing on the work I have conducted with my good colleague Piet Verhoeven at the U of Amsterdam.

PR and Disruptive Society: Perspectives from Social Theory

Previously a one-trick pony, public relations theory has now branched out. Whereas instrumental approaches previously dominated in the academic field, scholars have increasingly taken up broader perspectives. How does PR work? What does it do in, to and for organizations? What does it do for society as a whole?

Answering such questions is fundamental in order to build a sound academic discipline. This endeavour also calls into question what public relations is. It sends us off to scout for a new identity for the academic discipline. Here are five ideas.

A new compass: Public relations scholars need to get past the focus on effectiveness and also study the consequences of public relations activity. While scholars within sociology and other fields have made significant contributions in this regard, public relations as a discipline owes it to itself to incorporate such non-instrumental perspectives. This is necessarily a warts and all-approach. Public relations is not intrinsically good or bad. It can be used for good and bad purposes. A proper academic discipline has to recognize this.

A context focus: It you want to study the effects of public relations in society, you are best served by looking at what is on offer within social theory. You can roll out the big guns—the Habermases, the Luhmans, the Bourdieus. What diagnosis do they offer for society? What remedies do they provide? And, for better and for worse, what role can public relations be seen as playing?

New concepts: Social theory provides a whole host of concepts that are useful to understand public relations. For instance, the decline of society’s authorities means that organizations of today have to strive for trust and legitimacy on a continuous basis. This is not something that is done once and for all. Social theory also helps to understand how public relations has to do with the negotiation of knowledge, meaning, and behavior.

Critical issues: The call to bring in social theory is also a call for public relations research to focus on some particular societal issues. It is a call to study how public relations contributes to furthering some interests in society at the expense of others. It is a call to study how organizations behave in society and how communication plays a key role in both constituting and legitimizing certain behavior.

Empirical avenues: While a plethora of social theoretical and methodological approaches should be invited, public relations research really needs to incorporate a social constructivist perspective. The basic premise is that all knowledge rests on social consensus.

These then, could be some common starting points that would allow for the reconciliation of consistency and multiplicity. This could provide a possible new identity for public relations research. As a byproduct it would also give practitioners better tools to think with. Tools that could increase reflection. Tools that could help disrupt and rethink organizational conventions. It’s served!

Øyvind Ihlen, Prof.Dr., U of Oslo, Norway

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