An intellectual, but subtly practical, argument continues within the communications field – that which claims that, essentially, publics are not the same as markets and have to be treated in a different manner than that used by the marketeer. This argument is has been epitomized by such communications scholars as Richard Varey and Phillip Kitchen. Although predated by Grunig (cited in Varey, 1997, p.94), boldly stating that ‘marketing deals with markets and public relations with publics,’ Richard Varey’s argument, found in Public Relations: Principle and Practice, edited by Kitchen, claiming a definitive difference between “publics” and “markets”, sounds a note of clarity amidst much nebulous thought concerning the relationship between public relations and marketing. Much of this relational theory accumulates around Marketing Public Relations (MPR) and Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC), areas in which public relations and marketing are effectively fused but yet continues to remain a subject of heated debate (Kitchen & Papasolomou, 2005, p. 150).
However, Varey’s argument is also premised upon several apparently concrete factors or characteristics which clearly delineate “publics” from “markets”, notably those of creational, chronological, structural, technical and organizational, as well as impinging upon the relationship between marketing and public relations. By taking a holistic view of each and then delving into the details of their characteristics, it is intended to explore the nature of publics and markets and examine the credibility of Varey’s argument.
A brief review of glossary terms of publics provides several subtly differing definitions of publics, one of which neatly sums the predominant sentiment:
“Public relations terminology describing groups of people which can readily be identified as having some special relevance to a business or other organization, eg customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and the local community generally.” (Hart & Stapleton, 1987)
Definitions of markets are much less frequent, although explanation of marketing as an activity is plentiful. Even Hart & Stapleton’s effort in defining a market, is somewhat bland:
“Group of persons and/or organization identified through a common need and with resources to satisfy that need.” (Hart & Stapleton, 1987)
Relational definitions shed clearer light on what these entities are and, more notably, are not. A key concept emerges pointing out that publics are groups of people that an organization is not directly trying to sell products to, and hence termed, in the marketing arena, as secondary target groups. Yet, such publics are seen as influencing opinions about such an organization (De Pelsmacher et al, 2001, p. 247).
Throughout the research of definitions, wider reputation and understanding of an organization surfaces as an objective aimed at publics, and thereby the role of public relations. As Varey himself observes, much of the effort of marketing, aimed at markets, consisting of advertising, publicity and persuasion through selling activities, is inappropriate for building and maintaining positive relationships between an organization and those publics affected by decisions or behaviour of that organization (Varey, 1997, p. 97). Here, the core of the deeper identity of a public arises, in that publics have an interest in the behaviour of an organization. Eighty years ago, Dewey recognized this in his seminal book, The Public and its Problems, defining a public as a group of individuals who together are affected by a particular action or idea (Cutlip et al, 1985, p.185).
This points to a fundamental difference between markets and publics; organizations directly choose their markets whereas publics are perceived to arise on their own in reaction to an organization’s activities. Yet considerable debate exists around the creation and existential nature of publics (Tench & Yeomans, 2006, p. 620) and much literature views publics through an organizational lens. Whether one takes the strategic perspective, seeing publics as message consumers, or dialogic view, with publics playing a major part in communication exchange, it is largely predicated by the fact that publics are effectively a construct of the organization’s making, if indirectly (Leitch & Neilson, 2001, p.128). Regardless, there is substance behind the theory that active publics are created and maintained through a large degree of their own self awareness, albeit centred upon an issue raised by an external agency, namely an organization. Dewey claimed that each issue, problem or interest creates its own public in which people face a similar indeterminate situation, recognize what is indeterminate in that situation and organize to do something about it (Dewey 1927 cited in Baskin et al, 1997, p.119). Similarly Grunig states that ‘publics create themselves … whenever organizations make decisions that affect a group of people adversely’ (cited in Varey, 1997, p.94).
It is worth pondering this further. The study of the emergence of publics is immersed, somewhat controversially, in Stakeholder theory. Freeman’s definition of stakeholders as “any individual or group who can affect, or is affected by, the achievement of the firm’s objectives” (1984) encompasses shareholders, employees, suppliers, customers and the communities in which the organization operates. Indeed, this is strikingly close to that definition supplied by Hart and Stapleton above. In fact stakeholder mapping presented by Johnson et al (2006, p.181) in the form of a power/interest matrix, bears remarkable resemblance to Grunig’s representation of a public’s problem/constraint recognition matrix (Varey, 1997, p. 95). Likewise, Cornelissen’s (2004, p. 62) breakdown of stakeholders in seven different types is reminiscent of Grunig & Hunt’s (1984, p. 145) identification of non-public, latent, aware and active publics. These examples beg the question of what is the relationship between stakeholders, publics and markets.
To apply the marketing technique of segmentation to Freeman’s explanation above, one impartial analysis could represent shareholders, employees and suppliers as ‘positive stakeholders’, in that they have a positive stake in the organization and a vested interest in its success. In the free-market economy, customers or markets do not have a vested interest in the success of a company and in fact could support rival competition, defining them as ‘ambivalent stakeholders’. And communities or publics, reacting to a problem, can be seen as opposing an organization’s actions, thereby viewed as ‘negative shareholders’. Although this allows another example of differentiation between publics and
markets, it also ushers in criticism against stakeholder theory. Legal status, contractual agreements, varying degrees of vested interest, differing needs and corporate governance all indicate the extreme variation of stakeholders, almost precluding the idea of one amorphous block. The fact that different stakeholders, including markets and publics, are predominantly defined by how they affect, or are affected by, an organization presents a challenge to the coherence of stakeholder theory.
However, the examination of how markets and publics affect, or are affected by, an organization can be illustrative. Markets are created, or affected, through the identification of a segment of population for which a product is or could be in demand (Grunig cited in Varey, 1997, p.94). With commercial exchange being a primary driver, markets are actively sought. An organization’s influence over a market may be severely tempered by competitive forces, yet communication is largely one-way and short term. As such, markets, as major stakeholders, are frequently identified in accordance with their relationship to the organization, as a central raison d’etre. Much theory suggests that publics tend to be created, or affected, in response to the activities of an organization, largely as a counter to those activities (although occasionally in support of them). In this, publics are mostly not actively sought but the circumstances which may lead to their formation, dependent upon their perceived power, interest, problem and constraint recognitions, may be actively avoided. Effective management of organization-public relations is largely two-way and long term. In this, publics are often identified according to their relationship to communication, messaging and dialogue (Rawlins, 2006, p.1)
The creation of markets and publics leads us further into examining their structures. Markets, as a manufacture of an organization, may be structured to suit the needs of the organization and its objectives. Thus, they are defined by the organization. Via marketing audience demographics or age-based segmentation, markets may be approached, or affected, via various means of advertising, promotion or persuasion to suit each segment’s characteristics. Normatively, publics are formed largely outside the purview of the organization it affects, their structures dependent upon many extra-organizational factors such as politics, activism, the media, the existence and influence of opinion leaders, inherent knowledge, ethics and the depth of civil society. Publics are self-identifying, rallying around a cause, often seen as grass-roots groupings. However, that is not to say that less ethically-minded public relations practices cannot ‘generate’ publics to support an organization’s objectives, through ‘astro-turfing’ (Stauber and Rampton, 2004, p. 79) Further, NGO’s may be seen as adept at formulating, or at the very least encouraging the growth of, publics, proving that organizations are perfectly capable of generating publics. At a tactical level, however, it is noteworthy that the individual constituents, interest-groups, sub-groups defined in any manner of ways, of publics, and markets are not mutually exclusive. One may belong to any number of defined publics or markets at the same time and may also be a positive stakeholder.
From a technical perspective, Grunig and Hunt’s Linkage Model (Grunig and Hunt, 1984, p. 141), developed from Milton Esman’s work of 1972, also provides insight into the defining characteristics of publics and markets. By relating organizational linkages to stakeholder groupings, Grunig’s spontaneous public, akin to Dewey’s problem-identifying public, can be aligned with stakeholders connected through diffuse linkages. Enabling linkages and normative linkages relate to control or regulatory bodies and groups with common interests, or publics. Similarly, functional linkages represent input from employees and suppliers, also publics. However, functional linkages providing output to retailers, distributors and consumers are representative of links to the market. (Rawlins, 2006, p. 4) As such, the enabling capacity, providing a ‘licence to operate’, and functional requirements, indicate a further difference between publics and markets.
The chronological approach to examining publics and markets takes two forms, from a practical application viewpoint and also from an examination of contemporary history. The former is typified by the notion that ‘good public relations lays the groundwork, creates the platform for successful marketing communications’ (De Pelsmacher et al, 2001, p. 248). This implies that the successful affectation of a viable market relies on the effective engagement with, addresses the identified problems of and maintenance of reputation in the eyes of, a public. Publics are ever present within the working environment of an organization, albeit frequently latent, although with the potential to turn devastatingly active, and ignorance of them prior to market identification and creation is likely to precursor failure. Kitchen and Papasolomou (1999, p. 345) make the claim that ‘unsophisticated acceptance of market dominance ignores the volatile and hostile environment in which organizations function’. Further they state that subsuming public relations into marketing communications ‘ also ignores the fact that non-marketing problems cannot be solved by marketing management and techniques.’ Further elaborating the linear process, they later (2005, p.142) state that:
“A company’s marketing activities involve a communications process aimed at achieving desired exchange outcomes with target markets. However, in order to achieve this, the company needs to have trust and understanding with various publics that constitute the various markets.”
A certain tension between markets and publics, signifying differentiation, can also be seen as steadily developing over recent history. Seitel (1992, cited in Kitchen and Papasolomou, 1999, p. 345) remarks that although traditionally marketing personnel have seen public relations as an ancillary part of the marketing mix, primarily providing the promotion aspect of the 4 P’s (place, price, product, promotion), changes have come about because of the developing nature of publics. Consumer protests, especially over value and safety, product recalls, social needs, civic responsibilities and increased media scrutiny have all placed a greater importance upon the indirect effect of publics upon the maintenance of a market.
To elucidate more from the public-market relationship in exploring the separate terms, it is helpful to also look at the practices associated with them, namely public relations and marketing. The definition of marketing as ‘the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying consumer requirements profitably’ vibrantly states two key elements of markets and the primary objectives of marketing personnel: consumers and profit. Within the corporate context, public relations practitioners, as reputation and relationship managers, may indirectly target the former and contribute to the realization of the latter, but only as a by product. (Theaker, 2004, p. 5) Further, the commercial focus of markets and marketing should not deflect from the fact that many publics are not necessarily influenced by strictly commercial issues and many public relations practitioners operate without recourse to any vagaries of a related market. Special interest groups, political parties, religious organizations, charities and the public sector are examples whereby the concept of markets, as defined above, rarely feature but publics remain paramount.
The problem-centric notion of publics also tends to visualize a reactive stance whilst the organization’s perceived role in market-creation indicates a proactive one. However, whilst marketing may be relatively positively targeted in its conduct, modern public relations, in its guise as reputation and relationship management, also envelopes proactivity at the core of its practice. Reactive crisis and issues management, suggestive of firefighting those problems connected with publics, are only a part of effective public relations practice.
From the standpoint that, in corporate circumstances, marketing deals with markets and public relations with publics (Grunig cited in Varey, 1997, p.95), analysis at several levels can provide delineations between publics and markets (Coombes et al, 1954, cited in Kitchen and Papasolomou, 2005, p. 150). Yet, as indicated above, contemporary history has presented shifts in the relations between marketing and public relations. Amidst much debate, there has been recognized a move in marketing thought towards public relations concepts, resulting in notions of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) and Marketing Public Relations (MPR). Examples of this centripetal activity are illustrative in Duncan’s (cited by Hutton, 2001, p. 211) definition of IMC as “the process of strategically or influencing all messages used to build and nourish relationships with customers and other stakeholders”, suggesting an increasing emphasis on understanding and dialogue with entities not necessarily connected to the profit mechanism. Kotler’s vision on ‘total’ or ‘mega- marketing’ further encapsulates the increasing comprehension that successful marketing relies upon relationships with markets and publics equally, remarkably evident in his idea of marketing ‘consciousness’ (Hutton, 2001, p.212). This shift is inclined towards the full understanding of the same strategic objectives to which both publics and markets contribute, albeit that publics and markets may remain differentiated by how they contribute to those objectives.
However, the literature and various theories taken collectively reveal the underlying confusion of the identification of publics, due to definitional disparities. Whilst, Dewey, Grunig, Repper and others position a public around problems and issues, typified by Grunig’s Situational Theory of Publics (1983), and forcing engagement and communication with publics into the realm of issue, or even crisis, management, a cold hard examination of various accepted definitions of public relations reveals a less adversarial basis for a public, upon which goodwill, mutual understanding, support and relationship management in a much more steady state condition are focused. The former appears to base its definition upon conflict-resolution in which the public is to be assuaged, whereas the latter suggests conflict-avoidance to mutual benefit through dialogic engagement. Indeed, following Grunig’s identification of publics, even the most unperturbed and lethargic of latent publics, inattentive and inactive on all issues, remain publics, somewhat contradicting the primary problem-centric definition of publics, which appears to espouse that if there’s no problem, then there’s no public!
The varying perspectives of theory tend to allow a merging of publics and markets. It can be argued that both are entities upon which the future of an enterprise depends. Both can be seen to have needs which can be satisfied by an organization. The current debates of the exact natures of public relations, marketing, IMC and MPR are all indicative of the synonymity of the concepts of publics and markets.
All publics, even the ‘general public’, have the potential to be, or may be considered as permanent, stakeholders. Sociologically and
economically, publics form the environment in which markets can be created and sustained by an organization. The nature of publics’ relationship with an organization will dictate the conditions of that environment. Publics are not necessarily problem-centred and constant engagement with all publics, be they latent or active, is vital for the effective influence of an organization upon the environment within which it and its markets, exist.
Varey’s argument is that markets and publics are different and must be treated differently. However, at the constituent level markets and publics are made of the one and the same ingredients; individual or groups of human beings. At this level, a clear physical division between them is unsustainable, publics constituting markets and vice versa: However, it is the very manner of their treatment, or how they affect, or are affected by, an organization, which makes them fundamentally different, not an inherent code or structure. From an organizational view, it is what is intended to elicit from them that differentiates them; understanding from publics and commercial transaction from markets. To subtly diverge from Varey’s argument, it is the fact that they are treated differently, to different if complementary ends, that differentiates publics and markets and from this key separation all other defining factors of difference between them are borne.
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In his introduction to a 2003 edition of George Orwell’s 1984, Thomas Pynchon wrote: ‘Every day, public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed “spin”, as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry go round’. Pynchon himself is an extremely publicity-averse character, suggesting his attitude towards the media, public relations and corporate marketing is hardly going to be warm. However, his comments regarding spin do not exist in a philosophical wilderness; many others, from academic to layman, support his sentiment. As the title of Ewen’s seminal book “PR! A Social History of Spin” (1996) demonstrates, in the minds of many, the practice of public relations remains interwoven with the idea of spin.
Spin, in its communicative context, is a relatively new term for an ancient aspect of human interaction. The notion of presenting oneself, an idea or a product, in the best possible light, through Machiavellian methods, is as old as history, demonstrated in all from the mundane, as in inter-personal courtship, through to that affecting society as a whole, as in political propaganda. Its modern incantation represents ‘a lack of substance, interpretation parading as fact, image creation at the expense of tangible evidence’ (Pitcher, 2003, p. 5).
When attached to public relations, this notion is given special pejorative attention, with connotations of media manipulation, downright lies, ‘sexing up’, deception and economy of truth. It also appears as a mainstay of propaganda, aimed at promoting a doctrine, a core subject of Orwell’s 1984. Indeed 1984, inspired by the societal and political structure of the Soviet Union, presents a world dominated by propaganda, taken by Pynchon to be exercised in contemporary public relations. There are many examples, such as Alistair Campbell’s ‘Dodgy Dossier’ of 2003 over Iraqi military capabilities and multiple alleged cases of corporate ‘Greenwash’ involving companies such as Shell and Monsanto, which may support Pynchon’s statement and organizations such as Spinwatch and the media themselves are highly aware of spin’s reality.
Public relations undoubtedly suffers being tarnished by the obvious reality of spin, but the real case for such spin deeply manipulating public opinion in modern liberal democracies is undermined by two factors; the nature of contemporary public relations and the complexity of the construction of public opinion. In tackling the question precisely, the former will be examined in detail, with reference to the latter. The methodology will be to examine theoretical aspects of public relations, examining the scope for spin, and then cover the realities of modern public relations in relation to spin within the contemporary communications context applicable to liberal democracies.
The work of Edward Bernays, evocative of a degree of social control via communications, gives credence to many claims that public relations has always welcomed the art of spin in its practice (Ewen, 1996). However, the late twentieth century has seen the embrace of the Grunigian paradigm, enveloped within systems theory, which now seems to pervade modern public relations teaching and theory, representing the mix of methods found in modern public relations. Of the one-way communicative models, Press Agentry or Publicity are susceptible to untruths in order to gain profile, whereas Public Information is largely factual within a liberal democracy, if possibly selectively so. It is of note that, as Kitchen and Papasolomou (1999, p.343) claim, in the US public relations is largely seen as publicity, possibly revealing an increased susceptibility to spin. Two-way asymmetrical methods specialise in examining ways in which publics may be persuaded to conform to an idea or product. It is here that spin may be identified as a means, after risk analysis. Two-way symmetrical methods aim to bring the opinions or attitudes of publics and an organization closer together. Of these approaches, the first three present scope for spin, whereas highly normative two-way symmetrical methods present themselves as less so. However, this last method has come in for criticism as being utopian, with claims that public relations are “necessarily partisan and intrinsically undemocratic”. (L’Etang 1996, cited in Grunig, 2001, p. 16). The implication here is that such partisanship may usher in the idea of spin to achieve that party’s objectives, regardless of method employed However, it can be argued that the principle of two-way symmetrical approaches methodologically reduces the ability or reasons to spin.
Other inter-related theories appear to present less scope for spin, alluding to principles of two-way symmetrical communication. Rhetoric, seen by Gregory (2002) as the dominant practice of public relations, in which truth is said to remain after debate (Moloney, 2004, p. 39), appears to possess less propensity to spin, with the credibility of a source being at its heart. Indeed, Heath (2001, p.32) claims that advocacy is key to rhetoric and that a legitimate battle of persuasive argument, allowing active multi-party participation and scrutiny of communicative messages, creates an environment not conducive to spin. However, the art of such persuasive communication is, in its modern sense, often accused of presenting style over substance, although not necessarily spin.
Relationship management takes a view of complex but mutually supportive relationship networks, in which organizations and publics tend towards ‘co-orientation’ (Cutlip et al, 1999). This theory relies upon two-way communications but is instinctively appreciative of mutual obligations and debts and relies on a significant degree of openness. This approach does not encourage spin, as deep and complex relationships cannot survive under its shadow.
As in most studies of social science, critical perspectives are rightly given space to challenge the dominant paradigms. Postmodernists regard two-way symmetric communications as unrealistic and utopian in an ever complex and fast-moving environment in which meta-narratives have little chance to gain a deep hold on society. The Frankfurt School, especially Jurgen Habermas, have expounded on various critical theories. Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ concept is worthy of mention, claiming the chattering tea-houses of middle-class, bourgeois western societies create their own communicative arena, the ‘public sphere’, which in the twentieth century came under threat from political and economic forces, imposing order on the mob via propaganda and spin (Habermas, 1992). However, Habermas’s theory has been reviewed in light of the rise of information and communication technology (ICT) which has the potential to re-energise, to a degree, the ‘public sphere’ within chatrooms and blogs, an aspect to which we will return later.
The main theories have been skated over for evidence of the possibility or propensity for spin. Although the full expanse of the Grunigian paradigm may be somewhat unrealistic, Grunig’s assessment of public relations generally practicing varying degrees of both one-way and two-way communication is widely accepted. By and large, to use the systems theory paradigm as a template, the one-way transmission systems are possibly laid open to abuse by spin. By comparison, forms of two-way symmetrical communication, with their emphasis on dialogue, relationship-building and debate appear much more resistant to spin. Thus, the claim that public relations is no more that potentially spin-ridden one-way communication, evident in Orwell’s 1984, is theoretically flawed, with modern public relations in liberal democracies operating within theories encouraging spin-resistant approaches, with a scope theoretically exceeding that indicated by the term spin.
That is the theory. But reality and practices need scrutiny.
There has been a recognizable shift by practitioners to re-align themselves away from the methods of one-way and asymmetric methods, especially that of press agentry, to provide distance from the smear of spin (Wood, 2006, p. 540). In essence this has produced a migration into the territory of dialogue, relationship-building and debate. However, that reality does not mean spin has been totally expunged in practice. For example, whilst rhetoric in ideal circumstances may be seen as spin-free, the harsh, cold reality of communicative inequality or power, in which other parties are not resourced or availed of information, make the debate in which truth should prevail rather one-sided (Moloney, 2006, p. 39). As such, rhetoric can in practice be susceptible to spin. Similarly, the soft-sounding term ‘relationship management’ does not necessarily guarantee truthful exchange, free of spin. The partisanship issue is founded in reality, in which business and politics are generally zero-sum games and whereby benefits are not equitably shared.
As Milton Friedman allegedly claimed, ‘the business of business is business’ and although this may be somewhat brittle a statement, the sentiment is indicative of the advantage or profit that organizations will always seek, some falling for spin under the approach that the ends justify the means. This equally applies in the area of government lobbying, in which leverage may sometimes be applied via unethical practices, including patronage, favours and spin.
The predominant systems theory itself, as already indicated, proves to be a case of communicative idealism when presented with reality. As Moloney (2006, p.168) states:
“PR teachers and students glide over the statement that three parts of the Grunigian typology are pathologies of the fourth and not much practised part (two-way symmetrical). By dint of exposure and repetition, the ‘ought’ of the fourth has become the ‘is’ of the other three.”
However, it is the literature of academics, lectures of teachers and studies of public relations students which present the critical aspect of public relations and its relationship with spin – ethics. As normative as theories of public relations may be, it is the study and encouragement of ethics within the study and practice of public relations which indicate its growing aversion to the practice of spin. The teaching of ethical decision-making processes, such as the Potter Box model and the Navron model, are demonstrative of public relations taking its responsibilities as an ethical practice seriously. Self-regulatory codes of practice, such as that upheld by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Global Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations upheld by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, encourage ethical practice. Indeed, the academic development in this area has resulted in ethical theories of public relations. Responsible advocacy charges practitioners with loyalty to those they represent but also to stakeholders at large and enlightened self-interest follows that an ethical approach will result in success. The rhetorical or adversarial approach may embrace ethics through the idea that practitioners act as barristers in an arena of conflicting messages and, unsurprisingly, proponents of two-way symmetrical communications view this as a valid ethical approach.
Another case of relationship-building, or more accurately a widening of the pool of publics to include those not of immediate value to organizations, has been the increasing emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a public relations function. A degree of ethical practice may underpin CSR and in practical terms CSR appears to be a good example of a shift away from asymmetry to less-spin prone dialogue, relationship-building and debate. However, the real effects remain difficult to measure and the motivations for CSR itself present several paradoxes when seen under an ethical spotlight. This has meant that although the practices of CSR may seem less susceptible to spin, the entire concept is sometimes seen as a larger conspiratorial spin agenda (Frankental, 2001, pp. 18-23).
The import of these theories in practice is their mere consideration and instruction. Under codes of conduct and ethical considerations, public relations practice generally, and especially in the field of dialogue, relationship-building and debate, is embracing the notion of spin being utterly unacceptable. But are public relations practitioners practicing what they preach?
Literature is replete with examples of spin, from the ‘Spinocchio’ of New Labour (Franklin, 2004, p.55) to the plethora of corporate cases identified by Stauber and Rampton (2004). Lower profile, non-newsworthy cases of public relations practitioners conducting genuine dialogue, relationship-building and debate are less immediately apparent. This fact itself contributes to the sentiment evident in Pychon’s statement. However, there is evidence to counter Pychon, presented in the way in which many organizations operate in a largely open and honest manner with regard to their publics. Good examples are that of Toyota, apparent through its 2010 Global Vision and its guiding principles (Toyota, 2007) and, surprisingly, Shell. In the latter’s case, despite accusations of ‘greenwash’, it revolutionised its communication practices to forge dialogue and engagement after the Brent Spa case of 1995, which resulted in Shell being voted ‘Britain’s Most Admired Company in 2001 by Management Today (Barry, 2005, p. 14). Further, in the area of crisis communications, where organizations are at most under pressure to pump out spin, there is significant evidence that openness, dialogue and clarity are often the preferred option. One seminal case, used as an example of how to conduct crisis communications, is that of the Tylenol crisis of 1982. More recently, the response of Mattel to a product recall crisis, regardless of criticism of the practicalities of its crisis communications, exemplified an openness which some have seen as most welcome (Kosky, 2007, p.15).
Thus, although stark evidence of public relations practices avoiding spin is hard to come by – after all, there is not a ‘good PR practice watch’ website – they can be found and anecdotal evidence is available, even amongst a spin-aware audience.
Orwell based his predictions on a period of suppression for the social ‘public sphere’, rife with the ideas of Bernays and typified by social systems such as Nazism and Communism. Pynchon’s statement takes little account of contemporary tectonic shifts of the communicative context within which spin, and by inference, public relations functions. To understand the contemporary relationship between spin and public relations, and the manner in which public opinion is formed, this context must also be considered.
Pychon’s statement claims a power of spin, a notion that proactive, targeted communications or public relations can fully form a generally accepted narrative or world-view, which may be over-rated in today’s communicative environment. Just as the modern social ‘public sphere’ of the information age is providing publics with a plethora of communicative links, dialogue, relationship-building and debate is becoming common between publics about organizations, as opposed to with organizations. History is no longer necessarily written by the victors, lies are quickly exposed or met with widely–communicated counter-claims, and amnesia is refused as information sourcing becomes widespread. Hence, on the one hand, the environment in which public relations practitioners could, if desired, conduct spin operations to form public opinion appears to be much less amenable to spin itself. On the other hand, a typical postmodernist reproach could be that communicative anarchy, awash with spin from all, is a more realistic environment. That philosophical debate is beyond the scope of this paper and for the purposes of our examination, we shall assume that ICT can lead to a greater openness and democratization of society if it provides unlimited access to information and equal participation in cultural discourse.
However, whilst access and equality may dampen official spin, the human being is ingenious, and although this environment has changed in one way, in another it has enabled another entry point for the historically spin-susceptible one-way communicators. With the fragmentation of media outlets in the face of pressure from ICT, the journalistic vanguards against spin are much depleted and non-existent amongst the new entrants (Street, 2001, p. 149). While the environment is fragmented yet almost real-time, the thirst for information, copy and access has brought about the PR-isation of the media, be it official or amateur (Moloney, 2004, p. 152). This developing relationship between the media, traditional or new, and public relations appears to be shifting power to the latter and nurturing a relationship in which spin may be encouraged.
Yet, even in the face of possible PR-isation, corporate scandals such as WorldCom and Enron, which were perceived to be awash with spin, and the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ have resulted in publics becoming much more spin-aware as well as media-savvy. In response, apart from ethical considerations, public relations practitioners are increasingly seeing the practical futility of spin, or at least the disastrous consequences of failed spin, and embracing clarity and explanation in its place (Collis, 2004, p.64).
Increased interdependence, pluralism and individualism, along with globalization have also changed the social environment, far removing it from the propaganda-rich world postulated by Orwell. The modern social environment is such that persuasion, spin and propaganda, or even more benign public relations practice, has limited capabilities. Such an example is cited by Moloney (2004, p. 67) in which published opinion, generated by agents of communication, in Denmark’s Euro referendum of 2000, was very different from actual public opinion, the opinion of a spin-aware, interdependent, pluralistic and individualist public. This instance, and similar repeated frequently and widely, flies in the face of Pynchon’s gloomy assessment. In the eyes of an ever more spin-savvy public, as Pitcher notes, the profile of spin itself, and the development of spin-culture, has damaged the reputation of those who wield it (Pitcher, 2003, p. 248).
In summary, spin is an inherent aspect of the human condition, from facing a job interview to conducting a government public information programme. Spin will remain in the public relations arsenal. However, the communications environment in which spin may exist is much changed from the time of Orwell’s writing, making successful spin, on balance, more difficult, and official spin in general more recognisable. Further evidence in practical conduct of public relations shows that it is not the limit of public relations. The Grunigian paradigm, although utopian, is a far cry from the practices of Bernays, and is actively encouraged within the public relations industry. Out of this typology, the practices of dialogue, relationship-building and debate are seen as increasingly predominant forces within public relations. Alongside this, ethics are becoming a mainstay of education and practice of public relations. The ideas behind these practices and ethics, spurning spin, are pervading contemporary definitions of public relations. The most popular definitions, nominally those of the World Assembly of PR Associations, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and CIPR all include at their cores, sentiments of interaction, mutual understanding, public interest and relationship-building.
As can be seen above, in practice, theory and definition, the scope of contemporary public relations far exceeds, even shuns, the dark art of spin. But spin remains and due to the very nature and frailties of human nature and its practice of communications, will not go away.
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FRANKENTAL, P. “Corporate Social Responsibility – A PR Invention?” in Corporate Communications: An International Journal, MCB UP, 2001
GREGORY, A. To Spin or Not to Spin: The Ethics of Public Relations, Lecture to the AGM of the Institute of Public Relations, 3 May 2002
GRUNIG, J.E. “Two-Way Symmetrical Public Relations: Past, Present and Future” in HEATH, R.L. Handbook of Public Relations, Sage, 2001
HABERMAS, J. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Polity Press, 1992
HEATH, R.L. “A Rhetorical Enactment Rationale for Public Relations: The Good Organization Communicating Well” in HEATH, R.L. Handbook of Public Relations, Sage, 2001
KITCHEN, P. J. and PAPASOLOMOU, I. “Marketing Public Relations” in KITCHEN, P. (Ed) Marketing Communications: Principles and Practice, Thomson, 1999
KOSKY, H. “Only the Fittest will Survive” in Digital Essays, PR Week, December 2007
MOLONEY, K. Rethinking Public Relations (2nd Ed), Routledge, 2006
PITCHER, G. The Death of Spin, Wiley, 2003
STAUBER, J. and RAMPTON, S. Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (UK Ed), Constable & Robinson, 2004.
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WOOD, E. “Corporate Communications” in TENCH, R and YEOMANS, L. Exploring Public Relations, Pearson, 2006
In a recent post, Mountainrunner poses the following question:
Which of the below completes this sentence: Public Diplomacy…
- is the same as Public Relations. (PD=PR)
- involves more than the practice of Public Relations. (PD>PR)
- is contained within a larger practice of Public Relations. (PD<PR)
CB3 comments that it’s a question of perspective. As taught by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK, where Grunig’s assessment of PR is an aspiration, PR (or more commonly termed ‘communications’) is defined roughly as using communication (one-way publicity, press agentry and public information and two way assymmetric amd symmetrical communication) to support an organization’s objectives, at the strategic to the tactical levels. It is, or aspires to be, much more than presenting and promoting a cause, but also understanding, persuading and influencing. In terms of ethos and objectives, this points to a high degree of similiarity between PR and PD, although the specific mechanics and publics may vary, and the underlying motives may differ – i.e. a foreign policy goal versus an economic one.
Academic work by Grunig, Signitzer & Coombs, Gilboa, Wang and Yun all indicate a convergence of the practices over the last two decades, although the academic study of the interconnections between international relations and PR leaves much to be desired.
However, it is noteworthy that placing some form of firewall or hierarchy between the two practices can be counterproductive – there are many lessons to be learned in both PD and PR which may enhance the performance of both. And although PR often gets a bad press (especially in the US*), there are many PR practitioners who would be able to serve the needs of PD very well, certainly in the operational and tactical areas.
So, in apiration and ethos at least, PD=PR.
For a more detailed response see CB3’s previous musings.
* Note: However, the nefarious activities of McBride and Draper in ‘smeargate’ are certainly helping to tar the communications practice here in the UK as well. Indeed, CB3’s comments in no way suggests that the PR industry in the UK is in any way better, cleaner etc than in the US.