The Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations
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The Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations

Jacquie L'Etang, David McKie, Nancy Snow, Jordi Xifra, Jacquie L'Etang, David McKie, Nancy Snow, Jordi Xifra

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations

Jacquie L'Etang, David McKie, Nancy Snow, Jordi Xifra, Jacquie L'Etang, David McKie, Nancy Snow, Jordi Xifra

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Critical theory has a long history, but a relatively recent intersection with public relations. This ground-breaking collection engages with commonalities and differences in the traditions, whilst encouraging plural perspectives in the contemporary public relations field.

Compiled by a high-profile and widely respected team of academics and bringing together other key scholars from this field and beyond, this unique international collection marks a major stage in the evolution of critical public relations. It will increasingly influence how critical theory informs public relations and communication.

The collection takes stock of the emergence of critical public relations alongside diverse theoretical traditions, critiques and actions, methodologies and future implications. This makes it an essential reference for public relations researchers, educators and students around a world that is becoming more critical in the face of growing inequality and environmental challenges. The volume is also of interest to scholars in advertising, branding, communication, consumer studies, cultural studies, marketing, media studies, political communication and sociology.

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Part I Origins and overviews

Jacquie L'Etang, David McKie, Nancy Snow and Jordi Xifra


Jacquie L'Etang, David McKie, Nancy Snow and Jordi Xifra
DOI: 10.4324/9781315852492-2
In our call for chapters for this Handbook of Critical Public Relations, we set the context as follows: “Critical theory has a long and fluctuating history – critical public relations is relatively recent. In the editors’ view a critical mass has been reached and this handbook is a way to mark it.” With our colours nailed to the mast for the Handbook as a potential tipping point, it is now up to you, the readers, and your responses over time, to decide if that has been achieved. In the same paragraph, we asked for “connections to – and differences from – critical theory, the current state of play of critical public relations across different areas, and its possible future directions”. While no book could be comprehensive, we think the Handbook addresses these.
In the call, our “overall aim” was “to take stock of how, and where, critical public relations has emerged, its connections to – and differences from – critical theory, the current state of play of critical public relations across different areas, and its possible future directions”. Although the book's final content and shape was more the result of vigorous debate among the editors than a comfortable consensus, we hope these chapters address each of those aspects, and that they do so in diverse ways. Certainly, the editorial call also welcomed “committed, argumentative, contentious, controversial” chapters. In equating The Future of Excellence (Toth, 2006) with the future of public relations, many authors in that collection assumed that the Excellence project was a terminal destination for the field. This Handbook set out to be more of a way-station, assisting diverse travellers in journeys towards a more egalitarian world. We feel confident that, while this is the first Handbook of Critical Public Relations, it will not be the last. The call for chapters concluded by inviting interested parties to “please let us know anything else you feel we have wrongly omitted” and, even though this book is finished, that invitation remains. We look forward to partnering with others taking critical PR forward and know that will involve critiquing our chapters, our choices, our content and our editing.
This Handbook of Critical Public Relations was, in its genesis, abbreviated to CPR in our communications with each other. Mainly for convenience, the abbreviation had an edge of black humour because CPR also stands for Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation and it is not easy to reinvigorate a socially critical movement at this point in time. We lag behind in the Critical Handbook publishing stakes since Alvesson, Bridgman and Willmott's (2009) The Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies was published eight years before the first real Handbook of Public Relations (Heath, 2001). Yet in other ways it is hard to believe, if not a minor miracle, that CPR has not only appeared in print but has done so before the publication of a Handbook of Critical Marketing. This is despite marketing's substantially larger publication opportunities.
In contrast to the near miracle view of publication, it is also hard to believe that the field has taken so long to get to this stage. This is evidenced by the longer history, the number of authors, and the sheer range and volume of publications in critical management studies (see Linstead, this volume) – and critical marketing – (see Bourne, this volume; Brownlie, Hewer & Tadajewski (2013); Brownlie, Saren, Wensely & Whittington (1999); and Saren, Maclaren, Goulding, Elliott, Shanker & Caterall (2007)). Nevertheless, let us celebrate reaching this stage: 40 authors from around the world with 32 chapters covering a diverse range of themes as the world around us continues to change. One of the most relevant shifts has been in connotations of the word “critical” itself. Influenced by the growth of TripAdviser and other popular online reviews, Tancer's (2014) book title claims that, through social media, Everyone's a Critic in the contemporary world.
In the less anonymous academic PR world, the move to “own” the label “critical” has not, to date, been a popular one. Given the early struggles of critical PR scholars (see personal reflections below), we were surprised by the range of authors actively wanting to write chapters for a critical PR handbook. Partly, on reflection, we attributed this to the low bar for the term “critical” in the field. Almost anyone who disapproved, even mildly, of “the symmetrists” (Brown, 2006, p. 207), could see themselves as being “critical” in PR terms. Certainly, the demand from self-confessed non-critical authors (e.g., Macnamara, this volume; Willis, this volume) while unexpected, was strong and led us to include such chapters as adding value to the area. To those who did not make the cut, we apologise for the lack of justification for exclusion, and for the absence of further guidance. We underestimated how long the process would take and were simply running out of time from early in the project. As a result, we made the decision to spend what time we had on the work of the accepted authors, confident that there will be future Handbooks of Critical Public Relations.
One thing we did avoid was creating a kind of critical PR 101 to allow students to access summaries of main issues and main points, akin in part to Chris Hackley's (2009) Marketing: A Critical Introduction. This is not to dismiss such approaches. In fact, there exists a place for one in public relations because so few PR textbooks allocate much, if any, space to critical perspectives. Moreover, Hackley's (2009) introduction provides a useful synthesis of critical marketing that allows for comparisons with CPR. In this summary, marketing needs critical marketing because of:
  • a perceived lack of real intellectual engagement with other disciplines
  • complicity in environmental issues such as waste and destruction of resources
  • intellectual shallowness, emphasising naïve instrumentalism over critical reflexivity
  • a lack of moderation and a tendency to universalise North American neo-liberal values
  • an overemphasis on quantitative modelling in a positive-empiricist social science.
However, while agreeing with these points – and indeed many of the chapters that follow engage with them – what we had in mind was a range of broader and deeper individual reflections that an introduction can encompass. The chapters were not to bear the weight of one author speaking for, or attempting to synthesise, the whole of critical PR – especially a critical PR that is on the move. But even more than the contents are the movements of the people behind them, so we co-opt Burrell's (2009) afterword to the Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies: “Handbooks of whatever kind are built on trust, and therefore, we should be grateful that the authors and editors have worked together thus far to make such an en masse movement around Critical Management Studies possible” (p. 560). We extend that trust to the most important other stakeholders – our readers – in advance, and hope that, like Burrell's (2009) “runaway object” (p. 560) of CMS, the runaway object of CPR attracts more followers and more actions towards greater equality, freedom, and transparency. On the last of these we draw from our earlier writings to justify our ongoing practice:
Oscar Wilde is reputed to have answered the standard customs officer question about anything to declare by stating “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Authors in public relations tend to imply that they have nothing to declare but their objectivity. This book doesn't. Instead, it is more informed than most by L'Etang's (2008) insight that “the position of the researcher is central to the nature of the story-telling and that requires more reflexivity than is common or conventional in much academic writing” (p. 324).
From different standpoints, the feminist view that the personal is the political overlaps with the quantum physicist's view that there is no objective researcher. Barad (2007) is one of the rare theorists to hold a professorial position in both feminism and physics. She draws from quantum physics to confirm “how observations and ‘agencies of observation’ cannot be independent” (Barad, 2007, p. 31). We make no claim to (impossible) objectivity, and, accordingly, each editor offers a brief personal account of the shaping of themselves as “agencies of observation” (ibid., p. 31) with baggage from upbringing, education and life experiences that may bear on their contributions to this project.

Jacquie L'Etang: memories, experiences, reflections on becoming a critical PR academic

It may now be hard to believe just how difficult it was to articulate critical perspectives about public relations in the UK and Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some topics appeared to be off-limits. For example, as a lowly master's student in 1988 I was advised that my proposed dissertation on “PR and propaganda” was not suitable as it would “open a can of worms”. The choice to tackle critical work in a field may be driven by a combination of curiosity and challenge, but at this time it was not an easy path. This was risky work.
Coming from a humanities background (BA American & English History and MA Commonwealth History), I simply remember being shocked that an academic discipline could be quite as narrowly focused as public relations was at this time, when it seemed there were so many interesting alternative ways of exploring the concept. My early interests (inspired by an applied philosophy MPhil on social justice) focused on CSR, ethics and propaganda. Little did I realise that this would entail challenging a paradigm and what this implied in terms of emotional cost (and possibly career development).
The pressures at this time came not only from the prevailing culture and values of established public relations academics, but also from more conventional peers (many of whom were former practitioners and possibly struggling with their own identity crises); from some senior practitioners and representatives of professional bodies who clearly regarded the articulation of critical perspectives as disloyal; and from some students. At the same time, some journalists, having spent a number of years criticising journalism and media degrees, found in public relations qualifications a new subject for ridicule. Only a few months into my first academic job I made the mistake of allowing a journalist to accompany myself and students on a field trip to the Glasgow School of Art – a double-page spread followed, in which was articulated the view that no academics could be trusted to speak plainly and the worst type of all was the public relations academic. I was not too disappointed when that newspaper went out of business.
The first article I published (in 1989) aroused the ire of one practitioner who wrote a long letter of complaint to my senior colleague. The publication of Critical Perspectives in Public Relations (1996) resulted in letters of complaint to the University Principal. While some opposition was quite overt, there were also other, more subtle pressures, for example, being taken to one side by an established US academic and reminded that “we should all be working together and on the same side”. On another occasion it was suggested that edited volumes “should cover the field” and that even critical volumes should include a token from the instrumentalists. Other incidents were more public, such as the occasion at the plenary session of a conference where a senior figure informed the whole audience that none of my students would ever work in public relations. Essentially, there was no space or place for public relations scholarship outside the mainstream. It was useful experience in being “Othered”.
Working in a mainstream functional marketing department was also a challenge (among other things I was advised that if I was interested in communications I should give up public relations and try and get a psychology lectureship – something for which I was uniquely unqualified), and after several years a move to a media department provided a more supportive environment. Nevertheless, the experience of working in two very different academic disciplines (marketing and media studies) brought home the distinctiveness of a critical public relations approach that seeks to explore the wider societal implications of this practice without necessarily starting from a point of ideological opposition and overt hostility. Necessarily, in the wider...

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