PR – a persuasive industry? Spin, public relations, and the shaping of the modern media
by Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy
204 pages, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
‘The right to persuade is inseperable from democracy and the working of a free market’
It sometimes seems there are only three categories of books on PR. Highly critical books written by outsiders; highly critical books written by public relations academics; and uncritical ‘how to’ books written by practitioners.
It that’s right, then Morris and Goldsworthy have created their own category. For this is a simple, balanced introduction to the business of public relations – but not a simplistic account. It’s more concerned with public relations as a business than as an academic discipline – though this book doesn’t tell you how to practise PR. It won’t please the critics, most academics nor the professional bodies – but perhaps this is no bad thing. What the authors and their publisher have produced is an intelligent guidebook to public relations, rather than another textbook.
So who should read it? At the outset, it appears to be written directly for students on undergraduate PR degree courses, because its starting point is the surprising positive take this mostly young and mostly female group have on their chosen subject. But its focus on the complexities of the industry will quickly lose many of these inexperienced readers.
The next groups it’s potentially written for could be bright graduates from older universities seeking an entry into the business (while lacking a PR degree). This book will help them prepare for job interviews and help focus their minds on what it is they’re proposing to do.
The final group who will benefit from the book might be the more curious and ambitious practitioners, those who are seeking a CIPR professional qualification. This group might be dismayed by the criticisms of the professional body and of the authors’ justifiable assertion that public relations should be ‘professional, but never a profession.’ But they will benefit from a refreshingly readable insight into some of the debates being conducted amongst academics and intelligent practitioners.
To give a flavour of this (or flavor, see below), here are some of the book’s more controversial insights. To show they’re not writing an academic book, the authors leave their discussion of the definitions of PR until midway through. When they get there, they’re keen to debunk the academic squemishness over the concept of persuasion or about the close connection between public relations and media relations. They define the subject in this way:
PR is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives. It works primarily through the use of media relations and other forms of third party endorsement.
Practitioners will scarcely bat an eyelid at this apparent statement of the obvious – but this definition is a challenge to academic theory and to the attempts of professional bodies to elevate the discipline in the direction of reputation management. But they have a point: ‘Our emphasis on media relations is important because it is the one persuasive technique which is the unchallenged preserve of PR’.
This emphasis on persuasion means the authors acknowledge the close similarity between public relations and propaganda: ‘Our contention is that there are no real moral distinctions: both practices are essentially amoral, capable of serving any cause’. Once again, an unconventional – but sensible – assessment.
Their challenge to the professionalisation debate is that public relations is a business, and subject to market disciplines. While academics like to compare PR with traditional professions like the law and medicine, surely its closer cousin is management, or management consultancy? There are professional aspects to these practices, but a closed shop based on a prescribed body of knowledge would be inappropriate and inefficient.
The chapter on internal communications is lightweight, probably because given the authors’ definiton of PR cited above, this area of practice barely counts since there’s little use of media relations, and little need for third party endorsement. But it could also be that the authors (or certainly Trevor Morris) have an exaggerated view of the importance of PR consultancies, whereas most internal communications is conceived and conducted by in-house teams.
It’s a brief and breezy account, but some further gaps and problems must be noted. In a book that is unashamed of PR’s persuasive intent, why so little discussion of the related disciplines of marketing and branding? We needed some analysis of PR’s role (growing or otherwise) within the broader industry of persuasion. The authors do note the distinction between consumer PR and corporate PR, but don’t go on to discuss this in any detail. Nor do they make more than passing mention of the changing media landscape (and the growth of social media).
But they tackle the critics of PR well:
The reality is that PR is not as powerful as – paradoxically – both its advocates and detractors like to assert. The notion, popular among some critics, of an omnipotent PR industry, is one that provokes private smiles among senior PR people.
Finally, in a book written by two PR lecturers from the UK, based so heavily on UK examples (two often-mentioned role models are Lords Bell and Chadlington, for example), why the decision to use US spelling? Clearly, the market for PR is larger in the United States, but success in the US does not come easily. A book that emaphasises the amateur spirit (the authors feel there’s something of the dilettante in all successful practitioners) is more likely to appeal to British than to American readers.
Sadly, the proofing and formatting are a disappointment in a short book priced at £25. ‘Subeditors become an costly luxury’ we’re told on page 24. Clearly this is now the case at Palgrave Macmillan.