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Andrea Catellani
, 
Thierry Libaert
, 
Jean-Marie Pierlot

II. Les points de vue des professionnels de la communication

Public relations on both sides of the “contradiction”

Toni Muzi Falconi

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  • 1 Euprera’s 2008 Milano Congress was entirely devoted to the institutionalization of the public rela (...)

1There has been a significant intensification, in this last decade, of studies, papers, conferences discussing the role that public relations play in today’s society, while in most economies it increases its level of institutionalization1 within every form of social, private or public organization. This organizational perspective however in no way intends to undermine a societal perspective and, in my opinion, the two are tightly interdependent.

2Social criticism of public relations has grown over time from active citizenship groups, from business as well as cultural communities, and has found a particularly fertile terrain in the media (mainstream and social). The latter is also due to a specific and often perverse animosity of journalists – who live, as professionals, a much more challenging and difficult situation than public relators – who despise relying, as they do today, for more than 80% of the contents2 they develop, on public relations/organizational sources. More recently, it has also grown from the profession’s own scholarly and academic quarters (the critical and the postmodernist schools, particularly).

3To summarise, the principal criticism has to do with the fact that public relations – believed to be implemented mostly by the larger and more powerful organizations (this concerns not only private corporations, but also huge NGO’s as well as big government) to favourably shape the public discourse on general and specific issues relevant for them – profoundly impact the public interest (i.e. the integration of norms and active citizenship expectations), and such impact is rarely achieved through a transparent process (i.e. not readily detectable by stakeholders), nor with always clear and accurate information (i.e. by disseminating misleading or only partial information and positions).

4The apparent paradox, related to the rise in institutionalization of the function within organizations in parallel with the rise of social criticism, has led the more concerned segments of the global public relations community (professional and scholarly) to intensify a debate on what is meant – in the current phase of a global society dealing with prolonged deflation, recession, unrest, unemployment, pollution and distrust – by responsible communication practices of organizations.

5The most visible advocates and participants in this debate, to name the more prominents, include the Global Alliance (an umbrella organizations of 66 professional associations representing some 200 000 professionals, http://www.globalalliancepr.org); Euprera (the European public relations research and education association, http://www.euprera.org); the Institute for Public Relations (a private ‘the research beneath the art’ foundation based in the Usa, funded by large corporations and consultancies, but now active on a global basis, http://www.instituteforpr.org); the annual Bled Symposium community (http://www.bledcom.com)… plus, of course, many individuals which dialogue in collective blogs such as, for example, http://www.prconversations.com.

6The issue of the implications of responsible communication practices is also correlated with the recent and growing trend by organizations to adopt socially responsible or sustainable policies and programs. In the initial phase of the current CSR fad organizational leadership had little, if any, interest in ensuring that organizational communicative behaviours be particularly responsible while public relators, oblivious, unaware and somehow even dismissing of their own impact on society, were too busy ensuring the maximum coverage for the CSR activities of their own employers/clients to realise that their own communication behaviours often followed socially irresponsible patterns. It is however true today that the issue of communicative responsibility has become central as both organizational and communicative behaviours are more and more understood to be closely interrelated, to the point of total overlap or at least integration.

7While it is fair to say that - contrary to every other profession - a mere 10% of public relators in the world belong to professional associations3, and that not more than tentatively 10% of the latter seem to operate through policies and programs indicating some serious concerns for the dismal state of the profession’s reputation, it is also important to underline a significant integration and collaboration amongst scholars and practitioners in many parts of the world (proportionally more so in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America than in North America) to create within their own quarters a wider and more critical perspective of the profession’s impact on the public interest in today’s society.

8Following up on this recent development, many of reputable voices are gathering to bring about more intense and binding relationships between professional associations and the public interest. Self regulation by professional associations has widely proven not to work, mostly because of the lack of sufficient deterrents amongst the nimble number of their members, and because of the excessive focus by associations on protection of their own members rather than that of the public interest. Outright government regulation of the profession, which exists in different countries (i.e. Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Puerto Rico), has also failed, and this mostly because of insufficient monitoring and excessive corporative protection of professional behaviours in the market.

9As social pressures have in the meantime increased, one may detect today in all countries a multiplication of not harmonised regulations related to specific public relations practices (health, financial, political, environment, consumer…), which create unhealthy and unwarranted barriers to entry for a professional practice which is, by definition, global. Some countries, where professional associations actively seek and negotiate with their governments (Switzerland, United Kingdom, Germany..), appear to be proceeding, however slowly, towards a probably more effective hybrid model of self/hetero regulatory framework. The risk is that in failure or excessive slowness of a proactive stance on the part of the more concerned professional segments of the community, social criticism will oblige governments to intervene and directly regulate the profession.

10I will close this brief paper by indicating – from the perspective of a professional who has been practicing now for fifty years as manager, entrepreneur and consultant; and researching and educating for the last fifteen years – the five major challenges I see when we set out minds to practice responsible public relations (not in order of importance or urgency: they are all equally urgent and important).

  • We should actively advocate (and supply adequate organizational processes and professional skills) the transition from the traditional triple to a quadruple bottom line reporting by adding communication practices beyond the economic, social and environmental ones.
  • We should actively advocate (and supply adequate organizational processes and professional skills) the transition to a stakeholder relationship governance policy as a direct responsibility of the Board of Directors4.
  • We should actively advocate (and supply adequate organizational processes and professional skills) the transition from the traditional public relations function as the central communicator-to-publics, to a function that listens, understands, and interprets stakeholder expectancies. In this way the organization’s dominant coalition may improve the quality and the time of implementation of its decisions in a constant dialogue and negotiation with stakeholders, also by supplying adequate organizational processes and professional skills to all members of the organization, so that they may more effectively govern relationship systems with their respective stakeholders5.
  • We should actively advocate (and supply adequate organizational processes and professional skills) an ongoing third party and representative certification of all communication practices of the organization.
  • We should actively advocate (and supply adequate organizational processes and professional skills) the adoption of a generic principles and specific applications paradigm of public relations, whose pillars are the definition and adoption of globally valid principles which are then articulated and implemented differently, according to the equally important public relations infrastructures of each territory6.

11These are five definitely daunting challenges, but I am confident that our more recent professional body of knowledge has developed sufficient evidence and rationalisation to at least convince (in the Latin sense of vincere-cum) the more concerned professional community that it is not only urgent but also possible to ensure that public relations be perceived by society as a tool for social bridging rather than organizational buffering.

Notes

1 Euprera’s 2008 Milano Congress was entirely devoted to the institutionalization of the public relations function with contributions from all regions of the world. See http://www.euprera2008.com

2 See UK’s Cardiff University latest research: http://www.prconversations.com/wpcontent/uploads/2009/01/quality_independence_british_journalism.pdf

3 Read this author’s 2005 paper “How big is pr? And why does it matter”: http://www.instituteforpr.org/research_single/how_big_is_public_relations/

4 See the very recent fundamental King 3 Report from South Africa (http://www.iodsa.co.za). Particularly relevant in this perspective is Chapter 8.

5 See a draft paper of this author: http://www.prconversations.com/?p=552

6 See previous note.

Auteur

Senior Counsel at Methodos spa, Milan

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2010

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