Review: Public Relations Theory III

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.

Public Relations Theory III: In the Age of Publics
Edited Carl H. Botan and Erich J. Sommerfeldt
Routledge, 2023, 546 pages

Students are surprised when I suggest there isn’t much public relations theory – as distinct from the very many theories applicable to public relations.

To cite the most obvious example, students and scholars have debated Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) ‘two-way symmetric’ model for four decades. In their attempt to make professional public relations distinct from propaganda, these authors were uncomfortable with persuasion (‘asymmetric’ communication) and considered persuasion (win-lose) a less ethical approach than consensus-seeking (win-win). Within a few years, there was a brilliant riposte to this encapsulated in a chapter heading: ‘Persuasion and Public Relations: Two “Ps” in a Pod’. That chapter, by GR Miller, appeared in the 1989 first edition of Public Relations Theory, then edited by Vince Hazleton and Carl Botan. Public Relations Theory II followed in 2006.

So the three editions of this US textbook have spanned four decades of public relations scholarship, from its nascency in the 1980s to its maturity in the 2000s to the global perspectives of the 2020s. During this time scholarship has evolved from a corporate to a community perspective (in other words, the focus has shifted from the impact of public relations on organisations to its impact on society). Now, with the rise of ESG and sustainability, practitioners and academics are once again talking the same language – at least in theory.

It’s time I reviewed my view of the paucity of public relations theory: this book has 30 chapters and runs to over 500 pages. Are you sitting comfortably?

In choosing to focus on publics, the editors argue they have ‘swung the needle from a somewhat myopic focus on just what the organization wants toward a strong acknowledgement that publics are an independent force in public relations.’

Sommerfeldt and Iannacone ‘suggest that there is perhaps no other word so badly misunderstood in public relations than publics‘, so often treated as synonymous with audiences and stakeholders. They argue that ‘recipients of organizational messages are audiences. Stakeholders are categories of individuals who are impacted [by] or may impact an organization… Publics engage in public communication.’

Section one is called ‘Publics Take Center Stage’, section two ‘New and Revised Theories’, section three focuses on how ‘Race, Gender, and Culture Interact With Theories’, section four looks at ‘Applications of Theory’.

I welcome the contribution of European scholars to this edition: Lee Edwards and Oivind Ihlen on social theory and Howard Nothhaft and Ansgar Zerfass on postdisciplinary public relations in which the authors explore the struggle public relations has faced to be recognised as an academic discipline (which provides context to this month’s PR Academy research report charting the decline of public relations degrees in the UK). They identify six tribes or perspectives each with their own scholars and champions, namely: public relations, integrated marketing communication; corporate communication; strategic communication; organizational communication; and digital communication.

Engagement and network theories including social capital are explored, as are dialogue and crisis communication theory in this unapologetically highbrow book. But if public relations is still seeking respectability as an academic discipline, then works like this are necessary.

Elizabeth Toth revisits feminist theory; Nneka Logan explores critical race theory in public relations; there are chapters giving perspectives on public relations theory in China, Middle East, Europe, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. From this latter chapter we learn that ‘an Ubuntu-based approach to public relations is different from the organization-centric Western approach that emphasizes individual rights and power in the communication process. Ubuntu‘s focus on community is also different from the societal perspective espoused by the European school of thought… As a uniquely African concept, Ubuntu is based on the communal worldview, in which the community comes first, the individual second.’

Alongside expected chapters on media relations and issues management, there’s an intriguing look at character assassination and cancel culture. ‘Cancel culture is an extreme form of character assassination in which efforts are made not only to criticize and stigmatize the target but at the same time to exclude them from public media arenas.’

The purpose of this book is to present current thinking in theory development – and to point out future avenues for theory exploration. Kim Johnston’s chapter on digital engagement is a model of clarity in this regard. She presents her four-step model for digital engagement before asking a series of questions that could be answered through further research.

But be warned. It’s an uncompromisingly academic approach that’s filled with insider jargon. Do you know your OPR and STP? Can you distinguish CAPS from STOPS?  What about OE, PI and OI research? What’s the difference between the SMCC and BMCC models?

The academic peer review process rewards such insider thinking. My humble suggestion would be to find some way to incentivise the pursuit of clarity over complexity within the academy (so that public relations and communication scholars should be rewarded for their, um, mastery of public relations and communication). A simple public communication award might suffice. I’m sure Distinguished Professor Jim Macnamara would approve – and I’d nominate him for an academic-public communication lifetime achievement award.

There’s one surprising omission. We’re given one line biographies of the two editors, but we’re told nothing of the other 59 contributors. Of these, Maureen Taylor places herself into the narrative: she was evidently supervised by one of the editors, and in turn supervised the other, reminding us that most public relations theory was created within living memory – and by a small group of people well known to each other. That may explain why biographies and introductions were deemed unnecessary.

In her concluding comments, Taylor observes the shift from scarcity to ‘a buffet of theories.’ It’s beyond time I updated my view of public relations theory.