Public Relations: Concepts, Practice and Critique
by Jacquie L’Etang
290 pages, Sage Publications, 2008
Exploring Public Relations
by Ralph Tench and Liz Yeomans
666 pages, FT Prentice Hall, 2nd ed 2009
Two public relations textbooks plug a gap in the literature by reviewing the relationship between public relations and celebrity culture.
In Jacquie L’Etang’s well-received textbook, chapter 10 is devoted to Public Relations in ‘Promotional Culture’ and ‘in Everyday Life’.
‘Much of the PR role in celebrity circles is focused on promotion, publicity and media relations, and public relations has received some of its bad press from this association’ she writes. Yet ‘according to public relations scholarly conventions, publicity is a small part of public relations’.
That explains the problem of celebrity endorsement as a dissertation topic: it has not been viewed as a respectable academic subject by lecturers.
‘Some PR academics seem uncomfortable with students’ interests in celebrity and its connection to public relations… Why is this? Perhaps because celebrity is seen as hype from which academic public relations tries to distance itself.’
L’Etang, perhaps the most prominent of UK public relations academics, is best placed to attempt a rehabilitation. She even names a list of celebrities within the PR world: Max Clifford, Matthew Freud, Lynne Franks, Julia Hobsbawm and Anne Gregory. (Note how, in Hobsbawm and Gregory, she includes the UK’s two public relations professors, so perhaps she’s also attempting a rehabilitation of the public relations academic). Mark Borkowski is absent from her list, though he’s done most to provide a media face for the role of public relations in celebrity, especially following the publication of The Fame Formula, his book on Hollywood PR and the celebrity industry.
L’Etang also guides students to key texts in this area including Graeme Turner’s Understanding Celebrity, published in 2004.
Exploring public relations – and celebrity
The second edition of Exploring Public Relations includes a new chapter on Celebrity and public relations written by Elliot Pill.
There’s space in this chapter to link the rise of the celebrity to the emergence of mass media in the middle of the nineteenth century; to cite Bernays’s use of socialites to promote cigarettes; and to discuss Boorstin’s criticism of the fabrication of celebrities in place of true heroes.
Pill rightly argues that ‘celebrity culture is not new; it has just been taken to new heights with changing media consumption.’
Following L’Etang, he also challenges the perception that celebrity PR is the ‘Cinderella specialist area of the PR service portfolio’. Indeed, he cites the work of Rein et al to show that public relations is the dominant communication discipline contributing to celebrity. (It’s no coincidence that the rise of celebrity coincides with the rise of PR.)
He ascribes the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement to ‘credibility’, and goes on to discuss ‘attention’. Celebrities attract attention and this is the most vital ingredient of success in a world saturated with media and commercial messages.
These chapters on celebrity and public relations in two mainstream textbooks will provide a good starting point for students wanting to study the phenomenon in more detail – and should answer any lingering suspicion of the subject from their tutors.