Deconstructing Public Relations

Originally posted at my blog , while working on the book.

In his book Deconstructing Public Relations, Thomas Mickey  emphasizes the need for a critical look at what we assume to be accepted and unquestioned ways of functioning of PR in the society. He proposes cultural studies as an approach to critical theory for PR.

I have read this book to see if deconstruction as a method could be of any use for my research. Although I agree that critical theory on PR needs to be confrontational and eventually may help to raise social consciousness, I’m afraid that it is not enough to explore the practice of PR by deconstructing its public appearances only.

We are less conscious, perhaps, he says, of the degree to which we take for granted a set of PR values that in reality are not absolute, but instead are culturally structured. Furthermore, PR is usually searching for problem-solving views, and does not seem interested in a self-reflective approach that might criticize it. (p3)

His literature review of critical theory in public relations points out that there is a pressing need for more work in this area. He also quotes McDonald (1995) who examined an extensive amount of pr research and concluded that critical research is practically nonexistent. This is an area that PR researchers need to address.

Mickey proposes cultural studies as an approach to critical theory for PR. It’s not sufficient to discuss the issue of ethics, often raised by PR practitioners:

A critical theory for PR ought to give us more than hints on how to improve a campaign or make it more acceptable to the public. Critical theory raises questions about the values and ideology of the public relations text and thus about public relations practice itself. (p14)

In cultural studies, texts are considered a form of oppression. They represent a reality that codifies the power of a few over others in culture. Cultural studies seeks to examine the making of meaning and the coding of value for a society, Mickey explains. He quotes Toth and Heath (1992) to state that critical theory in public relations ought to be confrontational. It’s not simply about examining popular culture, but also to highlight the oppression through cultural forms and even propose policy change to address that inequity. Harms and Kellner (1991) asserted that studying public relations from a critical theory perspective is to raise the social consciousness of forms of oppression. Ewen (1997) sought to criticize pr because of the threat to democracy that this practice had provided since the start of the twentieth century.

There is a need to be aware of how our choices of word and image validate power and meaning for the culture, Mickey concludes in his chapter on the Cultural Studies Approach. 

Cultural studies is both a theory and a method to explore a text produced by the culture in terms of its political meaning for the culture. Each text represents an articulation of power. It is important that we know who has power in the culture and who has not. Such understanding may open the door for social action and policy change, and thus greater democratization of society, all of which could be the goals for critical studies and deconstruction. (p.15)

Deconstructing means to see ideas that rest under the surface of the material we have produced – to peel away the layers that are in front of us but often hidden until we look. This is especially important for public relations, because its reason for being is to promote a client, an organization, a product, or a service. The question of ‘why’ may not enter the arena of discussion when planning public relations activities. 

The PR professional does the job because he/she assumes the value of PR; but precisely because we assume its benefit to society is reason enough for raising questions about the material practice of public relations.(Micky, 2003,p1)

It is not only the PR materials, the adds, the campaigns or the happenings that we need to analyse.

Of course they represent a particular view that is constructed with self-interest at heart. And when successful their representation often becomes part of the culture’s thinking and being: We think this is the way it is when it is really one person’s or one organization’s view.

Of course PR is managed communication to impact a particular public about a product or service.

Bourdieu (1991) proposed to look at language as a way of establishing power and capital in a particular culture. The language is part of the habitus of that time and period. Although many others have had similar ideas, Bourdieu developed the concept that the language used in society reinforces what is powerful in that society. (p.22)

Habermas (1991) called for critical theory to examine PR practice because the public sphere that formerly emerged from society is now being produced by PR personal. Ideas in the public forum are being generated by PR practitioners for the private good of their organizations.

I would like take it one step further. I intend to examine PR practise beyond the field of language. I want to have a look at who those PR practitioners are, deconstruct their background, their former careers, and where they got their ideas from. Deconstruct their methods of information gathering, of planning and of strategizing and see what that tells us about where the power is in a society, and how that power is reinforced.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic order. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Ewen, S. (1997) PR!: A social history of spin. New York, Basic Books.

Habermas, J. (1991) The public sphere. In C. Mukerji & M. Schudson (Eds), Rethinking popular culture: Contemporary perspectives in cultural studies (pp. 398-404). Berkeley: University of California Press. Quoted in Mickey (2003) p.83

Harms, J., & Kelnner, D. (1991). Critical theory and advertising. Current perspectives in Social Theory, 11, p. 41-67

McDonald, B. (1995, Nov) Public Relations agenda. Presentation given at the Speech Communication Association annual meeting, San Antonio, TX.

Mickey, Thomas J. (2003), Deconstructing Public Relations, Public Relations Criticism, Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Toth, E. & Heath, R. (Eds.) (1992) Rhetorical and Critical approaches to public relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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