My sister is seven years younger than I am. I did everything first: first kiss, first car, first day at university, and so on. Originally she wanted to follow in my footsteps but, over time, she was ready to do things her own way.
I can only imagine what it’s like to have a large family with multiple siblings who live under one roof but are in varying stages of life, all achieving their own milestones and seeking their own identities while sharing personal and geographic space.
How does this relate to public relations? American public relations is older than European public relations. America started doing it first (in the modern sense, anyway: public relations has been around for thousands of years).
I realize that my sibling metaphor could be misinterpreted, as if I were insinuating that Europe is the younger sibling wishing she could tag along with Big Sis America. That is not my intent and would be both highly arrogant and outrightly false. Yet as German public relations lecturer Rudiger Theilmann acknowledged: “America is still the big brother [to Europe]” in the public relations sphere.
Here is how the US and European styles of public relations can be compared to the relationship that my sister and I have:
- I started experiencing major life events before my sister; the US started to utilize conventional public relations practices before Europe did.
- My sister saw how I handled various milestones and learned from my actions; Europe learned from the US and is adapting its unique public relations techniques.
- My sister realized her own autonomy and was happy to make her own way; Europe realized that it did not need to follow American public relations paradigms and is now attempting to define and defend its own strategies toward public relations, in hopes of gaining its individuality.
Europe could also be seen as the family with multiple siblings. Europe consists of 53 countries, 27 of which are in the EU, and dozens of languages and subsequent dialects are spoken in each nation. They all share one continent, yet are at various stages of economic development and contain a vast array of cultures and ethnicities. Arguably, although the US is technically one nation, there are also many different cultures and regional differences within it. The distinction is that the US is a younger nation comprised of immigrants. The EU includes only just over half of all European countries, and is comprised of distinct, settled ethnic populations that have been there hundreds or even thousands of years.
These different cultures possess various conceptions of what public relations is. Vercic et al point out that Germany’s term for public relations, “Offentlichkeitsarbeit”, literally means “public works” and is explained as “working in public, with the public and for the public.” The authors claim that this conception of public relations is in opposition to the mainstream (US) conception, which is concerned with the “management of relationships between an organization and its publics.”
Essentially, the argument is that the German definition, “public work,” implies that in Germany the goal is to connect with and serve the public. In the US, the goal of public relations is to please the corporation, and does so by disseminating information to the public on the corporation’s behalf, and then connecting with the public with the corporation’s goals in mind.
Germany is certainly not the only European country that has unique public relations perspectives and techniques. Over the years a deep need for autonomy has emerged in European public relations, as is evidenced by the 2002 Bled Manifesto. The Bled Manifesto is a document that every public relations student should read, especially if he or she has an interest in international public relations.
The manifesto was presented in July, 2002, at 9th International Public Relations Research Symposium in Bled, Slovenia, and is written as a call to action for European public relations practitioners to cast off the shackles of American dominance and come into its own. Even the name evokes images of revolution, the word “manifesto” conjuring images of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
It is worth noting that the Manifesto was written in English, and while English is technically one of the languages in the European Union, it can be safely assumed that the Manifesto was meant to be read by an American audience. The document states that “public relations” as a term is rarely used in Europe, but terms such as “communication management,” “corporate communication,” or “integrated communication” are more commonly used (although there is some debate among European practitioners about these as well). So what?
What’s in a name? A lot. If European countries were to settle for using an American term to define the field, doing so would imply that they are prescribing to the American way of conducting public relations.
The manifesto states, in very clear language, that “as long as the U.S. English language, the U.S. practice and the U.S. theory are the sole sources of conceptual work, the field of public relations will be short of global inclusiveness and validity it needs to become a true academic discipline and a profession.” Like my sister, the Bled Manifesto clearly shows how Europe is ready to come into its own.
The US, as an older sibling, has clearly contributed significantly to the way that public relations is conducted in Europe today. But it is also clear that, like my sister, Europe is ready to make its own mark.
Just because the US played a significant role in the way that public relations has developed in Europe does not mean that it will continue to do so. Instead of sibling rivalry, the US should recognize that Europe is its own entity with an array of cultures and nations.