Public Relations, Activism, and Social Change

Deakin University Associate Professor Kristin Demetrious, author of Public Relations, Activism, and Social Change, discusses the future of public communication and public relations.
This interview was originally posted at www.routledge.com

What prompted you to write this book?

‘Spin’ is one of the most lamented aspects of modern society: the exaggeration, the puffery, the blinding obfuscation and the trickery of words. Sometimes it’s like a mouth full of fairy floss, sweet and sickly, other times it can be brutal, ugly and searing. Journalists hate it, the public is bewildered and angry about it – but no one really can say what on earth it is with any certainty or how to arrest the debasement of public debate. What we do know it that it is socially divisive, politically offensive and needs to change.
I really felt compelled to try and find a new perspective within communication to help out, particularly with the impending social and environmental impacts of the changing climate. I was around in the 1970s and it seems to me that a lot of progressive thinking was also around at that time – for example environmentalism etc.,– but somehow many of these voices and perspectives were lost – and perhaps if we had changed direction in the 1970s and followed through with that thinking, we might have mitigated some of the effects of climate change. So I wanted to add to the conversation in finding a way forward – I understand a lot of the critiques of public relations and think they have been very valuable but we can’t just stand back and criticize; I wanted to put forward an alternative. In doing so I risk being seen as an idealist, because a lot of people will necessarily say that to be an effective communicator in our society you have to play hard and use every trick in the book. But I wanted to really analyse the differences between styles of communication, because unless we know what it is we are dealing with and can define it, I don’t believe we can embrace purposeful change.
In your book, you investigate several case studies of successful activists. Is there a particular case study that stands out to you as the most evocative of this book’s message?

I guess the Otway Ranges Environment Network (OREN) case study is one that I feel faced a raft of additional challenges of a long campaign, and various changes of government, as well some different positions within the activist movements more generally. They also copped some fairly extreme behaviour from the logging/timber industry. I feel a strong attachment to this part of the world – it is an amazing forest area that has incredibly high conservation values, ancient remnants of myrtle beech forest from Gondwana (when the earth was a super continent), and just so beautiful. For years I used to watch the logging trucks go trundling through Geelong with their cargo of logs from the pine plantations that had replaced a lot of the native forest in this area, and it made me feel really bereft to think that it was being desecrated for products like toilet paper and tissues. So when this activist group, started to speak to the broader community in this measured, clear and objective way that was so steady and respectful and just kept chugging along with all these different types of communication methods and they just didn’t let up – in fact their voice just kept getting stronger and stronger – it was awesome.

You argue for a new set of social relations: public communication. What is public communication, and how does it differ from public relations?

This is an interesting question because there is a plurality of views about this. Public relations is a set of social relations that is ideologically invested with a particular view about the role of business in society. On the whole, it is very pro-business and it is supported by a number of institutions that promote it as the only way to think about professional communication – so these are PRSA in America, in Australia PRIA, NZ PRINZ and so on. These institutions set boundaries around who can call themselves a ‘PR practitioner’ and the like. So I don’t believe PR ‘existed’ before the institutions that regulate and privilege its authority. Public communication, on the other hand, doesn’t have institutional authority and therefore is not ideologically invested in the same way. I have described communication that I saw being practiced by activist groups. I saw a mode of communication not only motivated by social change but by a values based agenda, and one that typically sought to build capacities in the public and to deepen public debate about contested political issues. So I think one of the key differences between public relations and public communication is the purpose of the communication. For example, PR seeks to control the public in the hope they will become more yielding and passive whilst public communication seeks to wake them up, empower and create citizens that think and act.
What do you think the future of public relations looks like? How does public communication fit in to this future?

I actually don’t think there will be a black and white dichotomy between public relations and public communication, there will probably be infusions of the two. I think we are already seeing this in online activism, which some people are labelling ‘slacktivism’ because it doesn’t demand much of individuals and is becoming a bit slick, but on the other hand has had some huge successes by educating people about different issues, such as saving a coral reef or alerting people to the ramifications of fracking for coal seam gas (a fraught issue which is really uniting people globally at the moment). Describing this mode of ‘public communication’ that I saw working in other activist debates may help orient an approach to these sorts of issues and shape the way communication develops and is practiced and received in ways that have positive social outcomes as well as being effective.
What are some of the key take-away points you want readers to know?

I really want readers to know how PR works and doesn’t work, and the possibility of an alternative. I want readers to watch activism as a site of social significance and to realise that some really brutal things have happened under the banner of public relations; and whether they were intended or not, they did happen, and that we shouldn’t let public relations, such as the type used to cover up the dangers of asbestos in the 1970s, happen again. I hope that my critical and cultural analysis of what went wrong helps us learn from that. At the same time I want readers to believe that we can aspire to a higher level debate. It is despairing to watch bad decisions being promoted and debate shut down –so I want to help to understand how to generate the quality public opinion that really does progress ideas, and helps interrogate difficult issues. I want readers to come away with heightened media literacy and a sense of possibility.

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