Global Public Relations

Global Public Relations – Spanning borders, spanning cultures
by Alan Freitag and Ashli Quesinberry Stokes
310 pages, Routledge, 2009

We can know the history of public relations from documents and narrative accounts. In truth, we tend to get a US perspective featuring familiar names like PT Barnum, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. We also get an optimistic view in which past malpractices tend to be replaced by a more ethical and sophisticated present-day practice.

A decade into the twenty-first century, it’s increasingly fashionable to challenge this US-centric view. But what picture is emerging of the future of public relations?

Alan Freitag is a sympathetic guide, a US academic who in the preface to this book recalls challenging the assumption that global public relations necessarily involves exporting the American way of doing PR. What if PR practitioners from other countries started competing on American soil, in the same way as Japanese or German cars and office technology? His question at a conference in the mid 1990s was greeted with laughter, so ridiculous did it seem at the time.

That was the era of the End of History, the time after the end of the Cold War when the US was the unchallenged global superpower. Now, the rise of China and shocks to capital markets suggest this was a short-lived period.

This book is structured in three parts. First, a review of the common ground (what is public relations and what it’s not; the development of the practice and some major theories and methods). This is followed in part two by a look at cultural dimensions and media systems. Part three is a region by region review of the factors shaping the development of the industry.

This includes a good outsider’s account of Britain (or, as the country is correctly named here, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), though I raised my eyebrows at the assertion that ‘the British respect authority and rank’. I had thought there was much evidence to suggest that the age of deference is very much over. Perhaps this is a minor example of the danger of generalising that the book warns us about.

But there’s a startling omission here. Why no chapter on the United States? If the authors are consistent with the view stated in the preface, then they should have recognised the likelihood that readers from other countries might benefit from a dispassionate academic explanation of the factors shaping the practice of PR in the United States.

Here are two questions I would like to have seen addressed. Why, in a land that prizes free expression and has such a proud tradition of a free press, has it been so long since the press achieved anything like the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation? Have all institutions been beyond criticism and above investigation in the decades since Watergate?

My other question surrounds America’s brand of free market capitalism. The market is so prized, the private over the public sphere, that it seems to me that public relations has played second fiddle to sales and marketing in this promotional culture more than anywhere else in the world. Contrast this with a European country with its larger public sector and stronger emphasis on corporate social responsibility. Could this US promotional culture have hampered the independent development of public relations at the same time that US academics like James Grunig were giving it, in theory, such a distinctive role?

Others will note that not all countries gain much space here, but the authors are academics who are more interested in the principles than the details of the practice.

Theirs is an important review of the literature on global PR at a time when the future is looking uncertain. But it’s likely that the international dimension will be more, not less, important through this century and a sound understanding of history is a good way to confront the paradoxes of the present day.

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