PR needs criticism... constructive criticism

In summary: 
  • A new text book for public relations students by UTS's Professor Jim Macnamara argues the profession in Australia is overly American in approach, struggling to come to grips with social media, under-researched, and lacks critical thinking and analysis needed to improve ethics and its societal impact
  • He says the field deserves serious and critical study given its importance to public communication and influence in the media

Public relations is a fast-growing field in Australia and Asia Pacific, but it is overly American in approach, struggling to come to grips with social media, under-researched, and lacks critical thinking and analysis needed to improve ethics and its societal impact.

This is the argument presented – not in an attack on public relations – but in a new text book for students studying PR written by a prominent professor in the field and former practitioner.

UTS Professor Jim Macnamara undertook research in 2010 involving a content analysis of 14 widely used text books on public relations which he said revealed four major gaps in knowledge and focus in the field. This research, combined with Professor Macnamara's 30-year career working in journalism, public relations and media research before becoming an academic, prompted him to write the book.

Professor Macnamara said a new book on PR was necessary as it seeks to fill the four major gaps he identified by:

  1. Closely examining the use of social media by companies and organisations which provide opportunities for two-way interactive engagement with their stakeholders, rather than traditional one-way information transmission through advertising and promotion. He says many organisations are struggling to come to grips with social media and the loss of control over messages in the Web 2.0 environment;
  2. Moving away from predominant American-centric theories and models that do not necessarily fit with Australian, New Zealand and Asian values and attitudes to conceptualise PR within local social, political, cultural and historical contexts;
  3. Emphasising and integrating research as a key part of public relations to understand and listen to audiences as well as evaluate the results of campaigns – a widely under-developed aspect of PR; and
  4. Applying critical thinking and analysis to identify more ethical and socially beneficial ways of practising public relations.
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Professor Macnamara said it was common for journalists and commentators to generalise all public relations negatively, labelling it 'spin' or other derogatory terms. However, he said it is important to recognise that charities, NGOs, local community groups, and activist organisations such as Greenpeace use and need public relations to build awareness of their causes and cultivate public support.

"Public relations is simply public communication by organisations. The public needs and demands information about what companies, organisations and governments are doing. Provided it is conducted ethically, public relations is a legitimate part of free speech and fosters diversity of viewpoints and dialogue in society," Professor Macnamara said.

Professor Macnamara also has undertaken research that shows public relations has a major impact on the media, responsible for between 30 and 70 per cent of media content.

"Some media continue to deny using PR material and leads, but research shows the impact of PR on the media is extensive. It is therefore important that public relations is studied seriously and critically.

"When questions arise about ethics, inequities in power and influence, lack of transparency, or negative societal impact, academics and professional institutes have a role to play in reforming practices," Professor Macnamara said.

He said his book, Public Relations: Theories, Practices, Critiques, was written to provide critical analysis as well as describe how public relations is practised.

Jim Macnamara is Professor of Public Communication and Deputy Dean of the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Public Relations: Theories, Practices, Critiques is published by Pearson Australia.

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