The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: Public relations

The Inaugural Media Operations and Public Affairs Symposium
9-10 June 2010
Venue: Defence Academy of United Kingdom
“Winning the communications war: new thinking and new practice ”

The battle for ideas, hearts and minds is back in centre stage in twenty first century military operations. Experience in engaging the local populace in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that well-executed public communications are critical to shaping operational and strategic outcomes. As a result, ad-hoc approaches to military PR are giving way to deliberate strategies developed using innovative planning approaches and supported by analysis and effects monitoring techniques. New cross-disciplinary thinking is emerging from both academia and government, focused on coordinating and maximising the power of messaging in counter- insurgency, anti-terrorism and global security. A revolution in military communications is underway, transforming the way governments and militaries communicate. Against this backdrop the Defence Academy is presenting the inaugural Media Operations and Public Affairs Symposium. A networking forum for stakeholders from across the communications spectrum, this new symposium is designed to showcase cutting edge thinking alongside innovative tools and techniques.

"Go on then, persuade me!"

"After I've watched 'Mother-in-law was also once the Daughter-in-law' and then voted for 'Afghan Star', you've possibly got a minute or two of my attention so, go on then, persuade me!"

Over two days, the tactical, operational and strategic aspects of communication will be explored: Identifying best practice in recent Media Operations; developing supporting theory for the emerging discipline of Strategic Communications; examining new approaches to both Media Operations and Strategic Communications and application to current conflicts. The current operational context in Afghanistan is of special interest and raises a number of questions which the symposium will explore, for example: How can strategic communication objectives be pursued whilst working in a media environment with shortened time horizons and intense tactical engagement? How can two way models of communication be adopted and accommodated within the new information environment? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of competing media and information strategies in Afghanistan? What is the role of local media in Afghanistan?

For further details Contact Caroline Dawson on:
T: +44(0) 1793 785268

or visit the website

Ben Goldacre of the Guardian, has a major beef with the poor standard of science reporting in the media.  And who can blame him?

You read the newspapers, you listen to the radio, you watch television and scientists and researchers are claiming this, that and the other, to the extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the public to decide what is absolute fact and what is more debatable.

Perusing the media we can see that exercise makes you fat, coffee makes you see dead people, and Facebook causes cancer, the list is endless – what are we, the public, to make of these  apparently scientific facts?  The swine flu issue is now under close examination – with claims that lobbying by pharmaceutical companies managed to increase the hype and perceived danger, for their own advantage.  Lobbying by industries is seen as a legitimate function but what are the implications for the reporting of scientific fact? And if that wasn’t enough, the reporting of scientific evidence surrounding climate change is a highly contentious area, not least exemplified by Channel 4’s Great Global Warming Swindle and more recently by the data leaked from University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.  With two such entrenched camps in the debate, how balanced is the media in its scientific reporting?

During the Darwin Lecture Series, CB3 met Ben and asked him to justify his anger at scientific reporting in the media.

The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice,  Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election. 

Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests.  It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe.  The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000).  The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.

Libel Laws - keeping these guys busy.

The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public.  Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US.  Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.  As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public.  Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.

The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months.   Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.

These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.

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).

A nice picture of a market.

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

Ambivalent stakeholders ... ?

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.

This lot can also be ...

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

... this lot, quite easily.

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.


BASKIN, O., ARONOFF, C. and LATTIMORE, D. Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice (4th Ed), Brown and Benchmark, 1997

CORNELISSEN, J. Corporate Communications: Theory and Practice, Sage, 2004

CUTLIP, S., CENTER, A. and BROOM, G. Effective Public Relations (6th Ed), Prentice Hall, 1985

DE PELSMACHER, P., GEUENS, M. and VAN DEN BURGH, J. Marketing Communications, Pearson Education Ltd, 2001

DEWEY, J. The Public and its Problems, Swallow, 1927

FREEMAN, R.E. Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, Pitman, 1984

GRUNIG, J. E. “Communication Behaviors and Attitudes Of Environmental Publics: Two Studies”  in Journalism Monographs. 81. pp. 1-47, 1983

GRUNIG, J. and HUNT, T. Managing Public Relations, Thomson, 1984

HART, N. and STAPLETON, J. Glossary of Marketing Terms (3rd Ed), Heinemann Professional Publishing Ltd, 1987

HUTTON, J. “Defining the Relationship Between Public Relations and Marketing” in HEATH, R. Handbook of Public Relations, Sage, 2001

JOHNSON, G., SCHOLES, K. and WHITTINGTON, R.  Exploring Corporate Strategy (7th Ed), Prentice Hall, 2006

KITCHEN, P. J. and PAPASOLOMOU, I. “Marketing Public Relations” in KITCHEN, P. (Ed) Marketing Communications: Principles and Practice, Thomson, 1999

KITCHEN, P. and PAPASOLOMOU, I. “Marketing Public Relations: Conceptual Legitimacy or Window Dressing” in KITCHEN, P., DE PELSMACHER, P., EAGLE, L. and SCHULTZ, D. A Reader in Marketing Communications, Routledge, 2005

LEITCH, S. and NEILSON, D. “Bringing Publics into Public Relations: New Theoretical Frameworks for Practice” in HEATH, R. Handbook of Public Relations, Sage, 2001

PICKTON, D. and BRODERICK, A.  Integrated Marketing Communications (2nd Ed),  Pearson Education Ltd, 2005

RAWLINS, B.L., Prioritizing Stakeholders for Public Relations, Institute for Public Relations, 2006

STAUBER, J. and RAMPTON, S. Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (UK Ed), Constable & Robinson, 2004.

TENCH, R and YEOMANS, L. “What Next? Future Issues for Public Relations” in TENCH, R and YEOMANS, L. Exploring Public Relations, Pearson, 2006

THEAKER, A. The Public Relations Handbook (2nd Ed), Routledge, 2004

VAREY, R. “Public Relations: The External Publics Context” in KITCHEN, P. (Ed)  Public Relations: Principles and Practice, Thomson, 1997

Without doubt the information age has brought with the idea of ‘real’ dialogical communication, in which the global extent of networked society has blossomed.  A quick history lesson in from the classrooms of public relations adequately plots the transition from the hypodermic method of communication aimed at a centralised model of society, through to the two-step flow approach focussed on a decentralised society and finally into the contemporary networked communication process of a distributed system.

Hypodermic to networked models

Amongst the vast majority of communication practitioners, and beyond, this shift is explained and celebrated by new/now/digital/social media.  So far so good – nothing earthshattering and novel yet.  But does modern day ‘messaging’ cater for this environment?

The very idea of a message – something transmitted to an audience, the very fact one ‘sends’ messages infers indeed a one-way transaction.  But as we’re constantly informed by the social media gurus the new world is all about the ‘conversation’, dialogue, two-way communication, the community etc.  The notion of a message, purveyed hypodermically, is anathema to the new protocols and ethos of the information environment.   It grates against the sensitivities of the community involved.

Getting into a conversation not just getting a message out

One example is thst conducted by the Obama campaign forged around a slogan of ‘Yes, we can!’.  Throughout Obama’s campaign, in every media interview he gave, he embodied a sense that his ideas, his objectives, his desires, via the words and phrases he used were those of a larger community, not of a single man or entity, such as a future administration.  Less of the message, more of the idea.  His engagements with traditional media translated very well into the cyber domain, took place as part of a conversation and the techniques used, subtle as they were, allowed traditional media to converge with the needs of new, social media.

Does traditional media training cater for this change in the environment?

The output of a modern media interview is now one that is part of a wider conversation, one that is placed on the web immediately, directly or indirectly, inviting immediate comment and, if required, a response.  It’s not a one-off maneouvre.  But much media training relies on the interview being such a singularity – get your message out, full stop.

Much would be gained by interviewees being aware and being trained to treat their interviews as not just a transmission mechanism for their message but as part of a conversation.  This requires knowledge and understanding of that conversation, what it is centred around, how it is conducted, its tone and style.  Once again basic presentation is important – hands out of pockets, body language, dress code etc – but the timbre, wording, structure and emphasis are subtly altered, to align with the nature of contemporary information exchange and the format of the medium.

The media interviews of old for TV, radio or print are still relevant and require specific techniques.  But more frequently these interviews form part of a wider format of communication, relying less on the message and more on the conversation.

The bloody summer in Afghanistan and elections in Iran have recently brought communications within the foreign policy arena back into the spotlight, showing public relations and strategic communication to be close,if sometimes misunderstood, relatives.

Establishing a radio station to persuade locals not to support pirates; justifying heavy combat operations while trying to convince homeless villagers to support your side; convincing an enemy that his cause is doomed; maintaining domestic public support for an unpopular and difficult foreign policy; encouraging populations to embrace ideas conflicting with their traditional culture; supporting repressed publics in their pursuit of freedom.

These are examples of a field of communications which rarely grace the pages of PR and communications magazines, but which feature heavily in the daily news intake of big and disparate publics, and have the potential to influence the very future of global geopolitics.

This field of foreign policy communication is known within the practising community as ‘strategic communication’.

Outside the field there are terms well recognised by PR practitioners, even laymen – propaganda, nation-branding, psychological operations – terms that give a taster, but rarely provide the full flavour, of a complex communication arena. Likewise, there are fragments which can cumulatively paint the environment of strategic communication – the child soldier laden with ammunition and an AK47; sparkling white United Nation aid convoys trailing through arid, burnt scrubland; a battered but prized radio spouting the scratchy tones of the BBC World Service. These images might evoke emotive responses but they do little to explain strategic communication.

The precise definition of strategic communication is debatable, but put simply, it is the use of communication, in all its guises, to support and achieve foreign policy objectives.

Due to the variety of subject areas, from climate change to assuaging warring factions’, the variety of factors – including Non Governmental Organisations, states, terrorist groups, diasporas and global institutions; and the variety of publics, from the hi-tech media savvy Iranian teenager to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd, the field, operating globally by definition, rightly deserves the label ‘strategic’. To unravel the concept, it’s worthwhile examining a simple but effective model, breaking it into four constituent pillars, some of which PR practitioners will be very familiar with.

From the media-savvy Iranian teenager ...

From the media-savvy Iranian teenager ...

First pillar: Public diplomacy

Firstly, public diplomacy seeks, through the exchange of people and ideas, to build lasting relationships and understanding of a nation’s culture, values and policies.

A term coined in the 1960s, public diplomacy gained recognition as a tool of foreign policy during the Cold War. After a hiatus during the 1990s, the aftermath of 9/11 has brought the practice back to the fore in many foreign policy establishments, making it a hot topic, including in United States diplomatic circles.

Second pillar: International broadcasting services

In close alignment with public diplomacy, the second pillar comprises international broadcasting services – BBC World, Voice of America, China’s CCTV-9 and France 24 to name a few. These governmentfunded services transmit news, information, public affairs programs and entertainment to global audiences in a variety of ways.

The influence of such services is often misjudged as being little more than of fleeting interest to bored businessmen in international hotels. But they can also be very powerful, especially if the significant penetration of BBC Pashto in Afghanistan is anything to go by.

Third pillar: Media relations

Media relations or operations are used by Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence to depict communication activities intended primarily to inform and influence domestic media and, therefore, home audiences.

... to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd.

... to the illiterate Sudanese goatherd.

In today’s information environment, this is a quaint idea, given that there is almost complete convergence between media available to domestic and foreign audiences.

Such convergence provides severe headaches for strategic communicators, often trying to provide one message to domestic publics but another to a foreign audience or even an adversary. As a result, the international, regional and local media feature more and more in the media relations strategy.

Fourth pillar: Influence activity

Increasingly touted as ‘influence activity’, the fourth pillar of military information operations focuses on influencing the will of an enemy, but more increasingly of a host nation’s population, capturing their ‘hearts and minds’.

It is categorised as an integrating strategy, as opposed to a capability, and the tools available for such come from a wide spectrum. Actions to influence the will traditionally make use of psychological operations (psyops), electronic warfare (EW), operational security (OPSEC), computer network operations (CNO), kinetic targeting and deception. However, ‘force presence, posture and profile’ along with media operations are also considered in the mix.

Of these information operations, Psyops probably has the highest profile, often linked to propaganda. The field stretches from ‘white’ psyops – placing stories, features, pamphlets, internet sites and the like where the source, be it the US marines or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is fully visible – through to ‘black’ psyops – in which the same channels may be used but the source is hidden. Notably, both black and white psyops are grounded in ‘credible truth’.

The former, much more commonly used, is not so different from traditional PR, while the latter can open a whole can of worms, as did the covert placing of stories, originating from the US military, in the Iraqi press in 2005.


Deception is much more straightforward. It is the military use of assets to ‘fool’ an adversary through outright lying, if necessary. Operating at the tactical level, through ‘spoofing’ on communication circuits, to the strategic, such as the coalition military preparing to liberate Kuwait in 1991 which made several signals, including through the conventional media, which indicating that the invasion would come from the sea in a massive amphibious landing.

It didn’t. But that example is illustrative of the fact that deception might be formulated through all the information operations channels and more. It is deception, seen as a legitimate strategy, which tarnishes much of military information operations, especially psyops, with the brush of propaganda, spin and lies. However, it must be said that modern militaries are waking up to the fact that the information age is increasingly demanding credibility, and therefore truth, of its participants.

Although still largely outside the dominant management coalition, strategic communication is increasingly seen as a vital component of achieving objectives, through ‘soft power’.

The US is adopting a more ‘diplomatic’ approach, within which communication has a major role, although funding for such an approach is yet to be forthcoming. The idea of communication forming a mainstay of foreign policy interventions has been especially supported by the latest generation of senior military officers, saying in regard to Iraq: “We can no longer kill ourselves out of here,” and the notion that the Afghan campaign should, first and foremost, be an ‘information’ campaign. The US military has looked closely at utilising lessons and practices gleaned from Madison Avenue.

Further, the growing realisation of the power of social media is also creating new, if still clumsy, approaches to strategic communication.

NATO has recently enhanced its online presence; many foreign policy agencies are now Twittering; military personnel are blogging. The phrase ‘digital diplomacy’ is increasingly heard in foreign ministries.

Examples include the Israeli government hiring numerous internet savvy students to blog and Twitter their way to dominance in the online Arab-Israeli debate. Even China’s People’s Liberation Armys is attempting to build its reputation via the internet. Yet, these ideas and actions have yet to be really brought together as a ‘strategic’ capability.

China's military - now online, in English

China's military - now online, in English

Foreign policy strategic communication is complex and challenging but it is no more propaganda than PR is ‘spin’. PR and foreign policy strategic communication are close relatives, almost twins, but they operate in very different contexts. A failure in one can see a hard earned corporate reputation in tatters, and billions wiped off share prices. A failure in the other might result in severe hardship, suffering and even death to many. One may face sophisticated and vocal activists with widespread support. The other may face insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades.

Yet this doesn’t detract from the fact that these relatives are so close, and even more importantly, could learn from each other.

This article appears in the Sept/Oct 2009 edition of Profile magazine

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).

The Dodgy Dossier - spun and sexed up

The Dodgy Dossier - spun and sexed up

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.

Plato had a few things to say about rhetoric

Plato had a few things to say about rhetoric

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.

Friedman - business is business is business

Friedman - business is business is business

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).

Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility

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).

This lot are getting spin aware

This lot are getting spin aware

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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