- ‘Bisi Olawuyi, PhD
Department of Communication and Language Arts University of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Public Relations, both as a discipline and profession is misperceived, misconceived and misconstrued, especially in this part of the world. It is commonplace to see people with no formal training in public relations or former journalists transmute into practitioners based on the erroneous belief that PR is essentially about media relations. Bruning and Ledingham state that the dominance of the field by former journalists “reinforced the notions of manipulation of the mass media as the central focus of Public Relations practice, and generating favourable publicity was the number one goal of most PR practitioners.”
Although the evolution of PR was publicity. when practitioners’ brief was “to get the client’s name in the paper” as times went by the likes of Edward Bernays, Arthur Page and Harwood Childs redefined public relations practice as a “way of balancing the interests of organizations and their publics”. Unfortunately, “those perspectives were often ignored in the rush to garner “free” favourable publicity through the semiotic relationship of public relations practitioners and the mass media” (Bruning and Ledingham, 2000). When the activities of these flacks are critically evaluated, they may not be too blameworthy because most practitioners have also not demonstrated enough convincing competence about the strategic deployment of the art and social science of public relations.
Most PR agencies are truly AGENTS whose practices are still at the beck and call of clients; not consultants with pedigrees that could challenge and call to questions some decisions of the client. These agencies are simply Seyi or Muyiwa, diligent messengers who lack discretion and judgement—these are runners. This state of anomie, to a large extent, has affected the reputation of the profession and its waning influence as perception managers. The misconception about what Public Relations is, may be attributed to the disconnection between the academia and the industry. The assumption is that the rhetoric of the classroom detracts very significantly from the realities on the field.
This may be true, but not in the absolute. Therefore, such has been that both academics and professionals have worked at cross purposes having been fixated on the flawed assumption that theory is different from practice. This cannot be contested really, but fundamentally they are mutually exclusive. The significance of what makes any practice inventive and innovative is that it is driven by time-tested and empiricallyproven theory-based evidence. Hence, the argument that is being advanced is that there is the need for a synergy between the academia who ply their trade, mainly, in teaching, research and community service through theory-building and testing and the public relations practitioners who are in the trenches to forge a common bond that would give well-intentioned meaning to the profession through an accurate analysis of trends, prediction of their consequences, informed counselling of organizational leaders and implementation of sound programmes of action which will serve both the organization’s and the public interest.
The lack of interaction between PR educators and their professional counterparts in Nigeria obviously has grave consequences on the availability of empirical evidence that could serve as body of knowledge for training and documentation purposes. This sentiment was also expressed by Krishnamurthy Sriramesh and Dejan Verčič when they acknowledged the significant growth in public relations scholarship and its evolution “toward establishing itself as a strong discipline.” However, they decried the lopsidedness of this knowledge because the focus of theory building has been confined predominantly to the United States and a few Western European countries. Consequently, there is a scarcity of empirical evidence about Public Relations practices in other regions of the world.
The dearth of such body of knowledge from other parts of the world implies that Western PR models, case studies would constitute teaching modules and theories that emerged from their realities would serve as templates for understanding trends and local realities which most often are largely different.
PUBLIC RELATIONS: A FIELD MORE OFTEN CHARACTERIZED BY WHAT IT DOES THAN WHAT IT IS.
The evolution of Public Relations overtime lends it to amorphous interpretations of its expected functions. This, most definitely, has implications on how the profession is practiced and at the same time perceived. Alison Theaker corroborates this position when she argues that the difficulty in defining what Public Relations is, is not surprisingly attributed to its history that is full of confusion. The dialectics in defining PR which has been attributed to the uncertainties in its history instructively attests to these points of views being amalgamated in the use of communication to forge sustained relationship based on mutual understanding.
The understanding that the fundamental essence of public relations regardless of its various definitions is the establishment of mutual understanding between an organization and its publics reflects Lenin’s “doctrine of the unity of opposites”which is the basis of dialectics. If indeed, Public Relations, as Bruning and Ledingham, note is a “field more often characterized by what it does than what it is,” then it is apposite to consider some contemporary definitions of Public Relations in order to gain some useful insights into what PR people “do.” It is important to reiterate that the evaluation of these definitions is in “term of their utility rather than in terms of their correctness”. And it is to the end that the primary function of the operational dynamics of PR in placed in critical perspective, particularly within the context of this discourse.
Clarke L. Caywood writing under the title “Twenty-First Century Public Relations: The Strategic Stages of Integrated Communication” defines public relations as the “profitable integration of an organization’s new and continuing relationships with stakeholders including customers by managing all communications contacts with the organization that create and protect the brand and reputation of the organization.” For Caywood, the elemental responsibility of PR is managing relationship with an organization’s stakeholders through effective communication.
Accordingly, the value addition of this sacred mandate is predicated on the peculiar challenges of the 21st century which requires the competence of the PR professional as a member of the “Dominant Coalition” and Boundary Spanner” for his/her organization or clients.
He elucidates further: …Public Relations will lead business and other complex organizations. Its leadership will be defined by the Public Relations professionals’ ability to integrate at several levels of business and society and create more integrated management processes. The value of integration as a Public Relations contribution emerges from the self-defined role of Public Relations building “relations” or integration relationships between an organization and its publics.
Another definition of PR that explicates the especial role of Public Relations as relationship management is by David R. Drobis and John W. Tysse. According to them, PR is the “management function that, through communication build or maintain quality relationship with those groups of people who can influence the future.” The interesting twist added to the relational dimension of the PR practice is that the management of organization-publics relationship is carried out in anticipation of the future.
This implies that the PR professional ought to be forward-looking in his/her dealings with stakeholders. From the two definitions discussed above and several others such as Institute of Public Relations (IPR), the Mexican Statement, Roger Haywood, Frank Jefkins, Sam Black, Adekunle Salu, Herbert Lloyd, etc. the pertinence of relationship management as being the nucleus of Public Relations is never in question. However, the activities of “journalist in residence” whose understanding of public relations is primarily to generate favourable publicity based on the “credibility attached to information that has been examined by reporters (through) third party endorsement by the media” has continuously undermine the “management of reciprocal relationships between and organization and its public—the rationale for Public Relations.
PR practice in its current form cannot rise above the pedantry and pedestrian perception of strategists who “gave way to kids who cranked out press releases no one noticed”. Perhaps the uninspiring practice of the profession may have prompted Robert Philips to write a book entitled Trust Me, PR is Dead where he argues with some profound insights of an ‘insider’ that we’ve been blasted with spin that has left us cynical and disengaged. PR is dead because neither the clients nor the market believes a word it generates. Philips’ conclusion, which was made without any ambiguity, according to Margaret Hafferman is ascribed to the fact that the “PR talent pool is shallow. Corroborating this position, Margaret Hafferman points out that thus: The industry deploys no reliable measurement and glories in its lack of accountability. In the aftermath of the banking-economic-democratic crisis, trust has been destroyed, not least by the PR agencies hired to restore it.
Hiring these flacks today is tantamount to hoping your drug dealer will help you kick the habits; it was PR nonsense that destroyed trust in business in the first place. Robert Philips may have written from his experience as President and CEO, EMEA of Edelman, one of the world’s leading Public Relations firm from where he resigned based on reasons articulated in the book. Most definitely, Philips is entitled to the opinions expressed in the book after all they represent his lived experience which could be incontestable. This notwithstanding, to conclude without equivocation that “PR is Dead” is highly contestable.
Also Anders Gronstedt posits that the Public Relations profession is “under intense pressure to justify its existence and demonstrate accountability.” He contends that unlike those in sales, accounting or manufacturing departments, PR/corporate communication executives “do not have the hard data to demonstrate their value to the corporation.” Hence, they lack the influence to help “make the decisions that have a real impact on the organization.” It is unarguable that Public Relations is inundated with reputational challenges which always calls to question its capabilities to deliver on its promises.
Scholars and practitioners are of the opinion that as a result of the practice undergoing continuing changes that is occasioned by perspective, role, and the lack of an agreed-on approach for evaluating Public Relations activities, the profession operates at a deficit of trust level. Perhaps it is against this background that Margaret Hafferman agreeing with Philips that “visible, demonstrable and measurable change is the only way to win back trust.” It is true that gaining back the trust of clients is crucial in the re-imagination of PR practice. However, what is more important is the due acknowledgement and recognition of the “continuing changes” that Public Relations is undergoing in order to be able to devise appropriate interventions.
What defines the change that PR is undergoing? According to Botan, “Public Relations is in an ongoing state of change branching out from a single applied focus driven by the knowledge needs of practitioners into two major branches the applied branch and a new theory based research and scholarship branch” which include “symmetrical/systems, the rhetorical/critical, the feminist, and the social scientific” and “a dominant applied model, based on a journalistic heritage and business model.
STRATEGIC PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTICE: INTEGRATING THEORY WITH PRACTICE
If indeed, PR is a field that continues to seek a theoretical framework to guide its practical application and the “knowledge needs of practitioners can only be satisfied through the application of new theory based research and scholarship, it is unarguable that such skills and expertise can only be harnessed in the academia. Therefore, how much of collaboration exists between public relations professionals in Nigeria and Public Relations educators in the country that could bring about the much expected re-engineering of the profession? The appropriateness of the convergence of theory and practice has been explored by scholars of diverse disciplinary persuasions. For instance Reginald Watts in a paper entitled “What is the role of Public Relations theory?” explores the future of the profession which according to him, rests within a theoretical diaspora, whereby Public Relations can enter a new era of effectiveness.
Watts argues with an intense persuasion that the contemporary practitioner should evolve with the times by demonstrating requisite understanding that reflects current thinking and challenges conventional way of doing things—a critically imagined practice. In his words: Public Relations needs to mobilize elements from the great body of academic work that already exists and translate that work with methodologies suitable for practitioners use. Unless PR comes to terms with the dearth of knowledge concerning how people take meaning from the channels by which we communicate our work will not be advanced.
The conclusion reached by Watts instructively foregrounds the pertinence of a close fit between theory and practice. This relational dialectic was also reiterated by Don W. Stacks and Michael D. Salwen in their article with the title “Integrating Theory and Research: Starting with Questions” in which they warned thus: Conclusions obtained by purely rational processes are, so far as reality is concerned, entirely empty. It is because he recognized this, especially because he impressed it upon the scientific world, that Galileo became the father of modern physics and in fact of the whole modern natural science. This perhaps, or more fundamental reasons, may have been the greatest undoing of PR over the years when strategies have been formulated based on a blind reliance on common sense as against the need to be vigorous and persistent in systematically capturing and analyzing information from key stakeholders and in keeping the organization informed and focused on the stakeholders’ needs. This situation may have prompted Robert Philips to question what he once believed as real by subjecting everything to “scrutiny, doubt and reinvention.
The integration of theory (the rationale we extend to understand the world around us and research ways to test or make sense of that rationale from either quantitative or qualitative approachesmorph into a seamless “process by which knowledge is acquired, corrected and integrated into the totality of verifiable knowledge” . As it has been reiterated earlier in the discourse, the practice of Public Relations is constantly evolving, and this imposes challenge to the practitioners to also keep evolving in order to be in constant touch with reality. It is equally important to emphasize that given the intellectual bent of the profession which advertently employs theoretical insights to drive its practice, the time is now for a more engagement between the Nigerian academia and its PR professionals.
Nigeria parades an array of astute Public Relations professionals who can own their grounds anywhere in the world. Their feats have been demonstrated in innovative campaigns and strategies which have won the admirations of their peers from other parts of the globe. However, there has been a huge gap between the industry and the academia which has underwhelmed the optimal performance of the industry. Elsewhere in the world, especially Europe and North America and very recently Asia, the interaction between the academia and the industry has not only enhanced Public Relations practice, such relationships have burgeoned into theory building enterprise which have become best practice approach to strategic Public Relations.
Some of these collaboration which resulted in publications are: the Excellence Study which was jointly carried out by academics and practitioners under the leadership of James Grunig was funded through a grant from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation.
Some the studies include: Manager’s Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (David M. Dozier, James E. Grunig, and Larissa A. Grunig, 1995), Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (James E. Grunig, David M. Dozier, William P. Ehlin, Larissa A. Grunig, Fred C. Repper, and Jon White, 1992), Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organisation: A Study of Communication Management in Three Countries (Larissa A. Grunig, James E. Grunig, and David M. Dozier), Public Relations as Relationship Management: A Relational Approach to the Study of Public Relations (Stephen D. Bruning and John A. Ledingham, 2000), The Global Public Relations Handbook: Theory, Research, and Practice (Krishnamurthy Sriramesh and Dejan Verčič, 2003), International Public Relations: A Comparative Analysis (Hugh M. Culbertson and Ni Chen, 1996), The Handbook of Strategic Public Relations and Integrated Communications (Edited by Clark L. Caywood, 1997), etc.
It is pertinent to note that the absence of the academia-industry relationships in Nigeria deprives Public Relations scholars the benefit of contributing to global conversation on the profession, thus making them “silent listeners.” More importantly is the over reliance on Western points of views in teaching materials on the subject. If such collaborations had existed, Nigerian scholars would have documented local realities using the time-tested principles of the practice, which also would lead to continuing refinement of Public Relations systems and processes. The industry remains a laboratory for academics to incubate, test and refine strategies based on emerging trends which can only be discovered through scientific inquiry. It is only through such collaborations that public relations would be more strategic such that the kind of influence that a physician, lawyer and clergy have with their “clients,” the professional would command as well.