Review: Depth Public Relations and Public Relations and Sustainable Citizenship

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Depth Public Relations: After the Masquerade
By Johanna Fawkes
Routledge, 2023, 208 pages

Public Relations and Sustainable Citizenship: Representing the Unrepresented
By Debashish Munshi and Priya Kurian
Routledge, 2023, 101 pages

‘Another kind of public relations’

Do unborn future generations ever appear on your stakeholder maps? If not, why not? Because surely, this is the simple question that enables us to connect the climate emergency with questions of social impact and social justice.

This is also the broad focus of these two recent academic publications.

From the UK, Johanna Fawkes has written a manifesto for the evolution of public relations.

Building on her astute reading of public relations scholarship to date and drawing on her interest in Jungian psychology, she proposes a new approach she calls ‘depth communication’.

Like other critical theorists, she prefers to direct her focus away from public relations as a management function towards questions about its contribution to culture and society.

So what is the masquerade? It’s in part about performance, but it also suggests something covert, even malign – for why else wear a mask? She critiques the role public relations has played in promoting over-consumption and also notes the way it can pander to narcissism, a trend accelerated by the use of technology. This leads, she acknowledges, to a rather dystopian view of contemporary culture.

Where to look for solace? Fawkes draws on Carl Jung, as in her previous book on public relations ethics. ‘I suggest that Jung’s inward turn for harmony has something to offer our world of externalities and separation from deeper meanings.’

And this leads to her key question: ‘Can public relations expand [its] capacity to include the dispossessed and disregarded, including the earth and non-human world?’

The depth approach she advocates is one that can see beyond the illusion of performance (beyond ‘the masquerade’). ‘PR people are often intelligence gatherers, boundary scanners, or in a phrase I like, canaries in the coal mine’ she writes. ‘My sense is that deep resilience requires abandoning the desire to fix problems – a defining characteristic of most PR practitioners – and discovering the values which confer or generate purpose.’

In conclusion, and as a challenge to my opening question, she argues that while ‘a humanist turn in PR is to be welcomed, the times actually require us to move beyond the human.’

This made me think of lessons we might learn from hunter-gatherer societies – who after all have represented the greatest length of the human experience on this planet. Fawkes gets there before me: ‘Working in rural Australia also deepened my connection to the natural world, which is so wild and strange to a European eye.’

‘This is a moment to recognize another kind of public relations. One that represents the unrepresented, one that challenges power implicit in the hierarchy of publics, one that builds solidarity by collaborating with a range of voices, one that puts the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants ahead of elite interests.’

Moving on from a European perspective, Debashish Munshi and Priya Kurian are both professors at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Their book was first published in 2021, but has just appeared as a slim and affordable paperback.

Like Fawkes, their starting point is a critique of public relations. ‘Is the ‘public’ in public relations really public?’ they ask. What about the unrepresented? What about so-called subaltern voices, as distinct from elite voices – the perspective of the dispossessed alongside the familiar narratives of the colonisers?

Quoting their own earlier work, the authors define sustainable citizenship as ‘an idea of active citizenship with an ethical commitment to long-term holistic sustainability grounded in social justice that explicitly recognises and addresses power differentials and marginality.’

Their book is divided into chapters called ‘Air’, ‘Water’, ‘Land’ as ‘the three realms of the planet where public relations can (and does) play out as sustainable citizenship.’

If this sounds a bit too ‘woke’ for most practitioners, concerned as they must be with keeping bosses and clients happy, then consider this. The environment, social and governance (ESG) agenda was not created by critical scholars but by hard-nosed investors. So which questions pertaining to the environment, social impact and inclusion can you leave off your agenda? Which ones are you unlikely to be asked about by senior executives and directors?

Now perhaps you’ll see the value of asking yourself some tough questions ahead of those that you’ll likely be asked by members of senior management teams and boards. That, I’d argue, is the value for practitioners in being aware of the lines of inquiry of public relations scholars and thinkers.

For what is the point of public relations from an organisational perspective if not to ensure its continued legitimacy by, for example, avoiding potentially existential reputational crises?

This requires looking to the future and assessing risk; it demands asking tough questions. These tough questions may involve challenging prevailing masculine, capitalist and colonial perspectives. It may sound woke, but how else to understand and question the historical power of big oil?

And if that’s too big a challenge, what about questioning our consumption of commercial bottled water, as promoted so successfully by public relations? As Munshi and Kurian wryly note, ‘oil and water do not mix’.

Their themes of air, water and land suggest a growing contest for resources in the context of population growth, climate change and rising nationalism. It’s a powerful framework for risk assessing the coming decades.

They reach a similar conclusion to Fawkes. ‘Public relations is not, or should not, be seen merely as an activity focused on narrow organizational issues, whether corporate or activist ones, orchestrated by actors who strategically deploy communication to manage their own interests or resist others’ interests.’

‘This is a moment to recognize another kind of public relations’, they write in conclusion to their final chapter called Earth. ‘One that represents the unrepresented, one that challenges power implicit in the hierarchy of publics, one that builds solidarity by collaborating with a range of voices, one that puts the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants ahead of elite interests.’