CHALLENGES TO CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE TESS FISHER PR in the new millennium
Introduction: Four major challenges to contemporary PR practice. Public Relations has changed substantially in its short life. PR’s Australian history only dates back to the 1930s, and in that time the role of practitioners has continued to change as technology has evolved. This has resulted in PR practitioners in contemporary practice having to deal with new issues, as well as those unsolved challenges faced by the earlier generation of PR agents.
PR in the new millennium Introduction: Four major challenges to contemporary PR practice. Two of the major ongoing issues that PR practitioners have had to deal with both now and in the past are: Ethics Evaluation Two challenges that have arisen as a result of technological advances include: Globalisation New media
PUBLIC RELATIONS INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD HAVE THEIR OWN CODES OF ETHICS, THEIR OWN ADVISORY BOARDS AND THEIR OWN STANDARDS TO WHICH THEY ENCOURAGE PRACTITIONERS TO ADHERE. BUT HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THESE CODES IN ENSURING GENUINELY ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR? Ethics
Ethics: Codes and Standards The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) has a section on its website dedicated to ethics. It states that “strong ethical standards play a critical role in establishing trust and confidence in any professional discipline and Public Relations is no exception.” PRIA has an individual code of ethics – to which all its members must make a written commitment – and a consultancy code of practice that covers topics such as fees, income and client relations. PRIA also has a complaints procedure for any breaches to its codes and standards.
Ethics: Codes and standards PRIA states its code and standards “govern members ethical and professional practice”. However, literature shows that codes and standards may not be the most reliable way to govern ethical standards. Harrison and Galloway (2005) argue that ethics codes are not often helpful in the day-to-day working lives of PR practitioners. They argue that agent-based approaches – focusing on individual character and motivation – provide “greater clarification of ethics issues.”
Ethics: Action-based ethics The concept of action-based ethics is best illustrated by the codes of ethics and ethical standards mentioned earlier. Harrison and Galloway (2005) state action-based ethics is often based on the assumption that practitioners faced with clear rules will choose to operate ethically. But it is clear that this is not the case – public relations has the reputation of “spin” for a reason: unethical practices have occurred despite the presence of a code. PR literature and comment also argues that a code of ethics is too simple a framework for practitioners faced with complex ethical dilemmas. Added to this is the fact that codes often call for practitioners to act in both the client’s interest and the public interest. As Harrison and Galloway (2005) note “the ambiguous expectation integral to public relations ethics codes...means codes can offer little practicable guidance in specific situations”. They argue that codes “leave interpretation dilemmas firmly in the practitioner’s lap.”
Ethics: Agent-based ethics In contrast to action-based ethics is agent-based ethics: often known by the simple term ‘virtue’. Harrison and Galloway (2005) argue that a person striving for virtuous outcomes will naturally undertake ethical behaviour. Using Aristotle’s teachings, Harrison and Galloway cite that virtue is not based on an action, but on “the feelings an individual or agent associated with this action”. In short, virtuous people will feel good about performing a virtuous action. Non-virtuous people may do a good deed, but they will find it unpleasant or painful. Harrison and Galloway state that virtuous behaviour best occurs when the individual is not concerned with others’ opinions. This is illustrated by a PR practitioner telling a client what the need to hear, not what they want to hear. Agent-based ethics connects with Grunig’s two-way symmetrical theory. Agent based ethics would see relationships formed for their own sake – not as a means for one party getting what they want. Mutually beneficial relationships then react to each other, for the benefit of both parties. Elmer (2006) also highlights agent-based ethics in his paper on globalisation, citing the Aristotelian approach offers “an insight into where corporate social responsibility and trust resides – with responsible individuals, rather than with corporations”.
Action-based ethics Agent-based ethics Interpretation of an ethics code is left to the practitioner Focuses on whether a particular action is ethical. Based on “external rewards” – money, status, power. Resultant action is determined by a practitioner’s strength of character, or virtue. Focuses on the individual practitioner’s character and motivations. Based on “internal rewards” – contributing to and enhancing the community’s health or the internal good of an organisation. Ethics: Action versus Agent
Ethics: Questions to consider In recognising the murkiness of ethical dilemmas, Harrison and Galloway suggest practitioners ask themselves the following questions: 1. What is it I am doing for its own sake that makes actions such as ‘editing the truth’ or creating dishonest impressions self-defeating? 2. What is it that public relations practitioners do of which we can be (or are) proud?
EVALUATING WHAT PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTITIONERS DO AND HOW THEY DO IT HAS BEEN A LONG-STANDING ISSUE WITHIN THE INDUSTRY. THE FACT EVALUATION CONTINUES TO BE HEAVILY DEBATED AND STUDIED SUGGESTS IT REMAINS A MAJOR CHALLENGE IN CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE. Evaluation
Evaluation: Left by the wayside Evaluation methods are varied and wide-ranging, with Xavier, Mehta and Gregory (2006) noting that this results in practitioners failing to make use of, or even understand, the diverse methods available. Research shows that this widespread unclear notion of effective evaluation means practitioners are more likely to talk about evaluation than do it (cited in Xavier, Mehta and Gregory 2006). Xavier, Mehta and Gregory go on to highlight that “such a constrained view of evaluation restricts the potential of public relations to demonstrate its value across the management sphere.”
Evaluation: Worldwide issues Research cited by Xavier, Mehta and Gregory (2006) highlighted that: No one country practices evaluation more than another Successful PR campaigns were evaluated in a range of ways – with many using informal or qualitative methods (journalist feedback, discussions with stakeholders). PR industry bodies throughout the world “have demonstrated their concern” over a lack of evaluation, with the UK body, for example, devising a toolkit that promotes undertaking research before devising a PR program for a client, and then ensuring ongoing research as the program progresses.
Study A: 100 senior PR practitioners in the USA Study B: 1040 practitioners in 25 countries 51 per cent attempt to measure tangible benefits and PR performance. Some respondents showed an understanding of the need for and value of PR. But many admitted they still lacked knowledge of evidence-gathering techniques to demonstrate the value of campaigns and their contribution to the organisation. Practitioners measure outputs more than outcomes. Media evaluation remains a major force in outcome evaluation, even though a significant number of practitioners recognised its limited effectiveness. Cost, lack of expertise and questionable value of results were cited as the main barriers to measurement. 70 per cent of respondents believed they will undertake more measurement actions in the future. Evaluation: International trends
Evaluation: An Australian study Xavier, Mehta and Gregory’s (2006) own research showed: 50 per cent of respondents said they “evaluate most public relations programs”. Evaluation can be undertaken in three ways: using other people’s ‘good practice’ processes (52.9%), devising one’s own methods (41.4%), using professional services (5.7%). 43% evaluate their programs at output level (measuring what messages are distributed) while 28% evaluate their programs at outcome level (measuring the effect of the message - strongly advocated in literature as the best method of evaluation). In contrast to the above result, 66% said they tried to measure the overall contribution of PR to their organisation or client. The most popular evaluation tools included: reputational impact, return on investment and relationship quality. The main barriers to evaluation were cited as lack of time, money and knowledge.
Evaluation: Language barrier Watson (2005) also provides another reason for why practitioners may have difficulty evaluating their work: language. Watson again highlights the confusion over what PR evaluation actually is – citing a view that (A) the failure of practitioners to undertake evaluation, and (B) the failure of practitioners to use the “language of accountability favoured by management” has resulted in a view at management level that public relations lacks credibility. Consequently, Watson focuses his research on whether the term Return on Investment (ROI) is useful in evaluating public relations. Following his research Watson rejects the phrase, suggesting: There is little demand for, or recognition of, the phrase by employers or customers. The continued support by some in the PR sector for the term is evidence of “low confidence amongst PR practitioners to explain and promote their strategies and methods of operation...”
Evaluation: So what now? Evaluation remains ones of the most debated and researched topics in public relations – indicating its continuing challenges to contemporary practice. While Watson (2005) highlights the language barrier to evaluating PR, Xavier, Mehta and Gregory (2006) state that little has been accomplished over the years in bridging the gap between practitioners’ intention and actions when it comes to measuring the outcomes of their work. Xavier, Mehta and Gregory (2006) also state that practitioners need to understand “the contribution of public relations at the societal, organisational, program and individual level” to effectively evaluate the outcomes of their PR campaigns. An understanding of the theory behind effective communications – Grunig’s two way symmetrical model, for example – may assist in practitioners’ understanding of how their work contributes to an organisation and its publics, and therefore how to measure that contribution.
GLOBALISATION HAS BEEN A BLESSING FOR MANY PROFESSIONS AND INDUSTRIES – OPENING THE DOORS TO A WIDER CUSTOMER BASE AND CREATING A RASH OF NEW BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS BUT HAS PUBLIC RELATIONS EMBRACED GLOBALISATION OR HAS ITS DEVELOPMENT STALLED? Globalisation
Globalisation – theory and practice Globalisation is based on the premise that geographical boundaries are continuing to shrink – leading to the world becoming a more connected place. However, Elmer (2007) argues that public relations theory is not keeping pace with the challenges faced by globalisation – “PR’s development along narrow, normative lines has produced a discipline that is inadequate for the needs of either a globalised economy or a global community”. Elmer goes on to argue that there is a gulf between public relations theory and practice – making the transition in practice difficult for those studying theory. Elmer suggests this gulf contributes to the ambiguity surrounding public relations – the murkiness surrounding what practitioners do, how and why.
Pros of theory in a globalised economy Cons of theory in a globalised economy Works well to cater for the needs of a segmented market Does not account for cultural and political aspects of society Dismisses the complexities of different cultures Globalisation – theory
Globalisation – looking back to move forward Elmer (2006) suggests that, in light of the current gap between theory and practice, public relations theorists now need to look to the past to better understand PR in the future – he cites an early description by Bernays that links PR to psychological and psychotherapeutic models to highlight that there is a “strong sense of universalism, the idea that a collective unconscious or shared root of suffering or desire exists and affects human beings”. He argues that public relations in a global context should be based on common humanity and not solely on management. “The globalised environment requires understandings that are not merely instrumental and economically driven, but which maintain an appropriate engagement with culture and with politics; public relations has become too narrow, it must focus its attention beyond management.” (Elmer 2006, p. 366).
Globalisation – Questions to consider Elmer suggests there are two interlinked questions PR practitioners or students should ask when considering globalisation and current theory: 1. Is public relations only a management role? 2. Does PR have a cultural role?
THE WORLD WIDE WEB HAS BECOME AN INTEGRAL TOOL TO PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTITIONERS. HOWEVER, THE WEB ALSO PROVIDES CHALLENGES TO PRACTITIONERS, AS THEY LEARN JUST HOW TO USE IT EFFECTIVELY, AS THEY ATTEMPT TO KEEP UP WITH THE TECHNOLOGICAL RACE AND AS THEY COPE WITH THE POWER PROVIDED TO THEM BY THE WEB. New media
New Media – Its effects Cost of communicating has dropped (Elmer 2006) Speed of transmission has increased (Elmer 2006) Reaction times and planning cycles of businesses have sped up (Elmer 2006)
New Media – Forcing change Sallot, Porter and Acosta-Alzuru (2004) state the web has become “completely integrated in every role practiced in public relations”. The web is changing the role of PR practitioners and adding an extra dimension to the manager-technician dichotomy (Sallot, Porter and Acosta-Alzuru, 2004). As the internet continues to evolve, new opportunities are identified by practitioners. Seltzer and Mitrook (2007) note that weblogs allow organisations “to establish dialogic relationships with their publics” and, when coupled with traditional websites, can advance two-way symmetric communication.
New Media – Why it is challenging The web allows organisations to communicate directly and effectively with their publics and gives more power to Grunig’s model of two-way symmetric public relations. Sallot, Porter and Acosta-Alzuru (2004) state that the web’s freedom gives PR practitioners “powerful decision making roles within organisations”. Seltzer and Mitrook (2007) also highlight that the slightly more recent concept of weblogs allow more effective two-way communication than traditional websites. The above research articles highlight: The internet’s rapid evolution requires constant research by practitioners While traditional websites are thought to provide more open communication measures than traditional media, even more effective communication lines are continuing to evolve and gain popularity The internet provides practitioners with unprecedented levels of power
New Media - Power The internet provides PR practitioners with the power to: Quickly and effectively undertake widespread research Target and communicate directly with their publics Efficiently conduct media relations Evaluate their campaigns more effectively Quickly manage issues as they arise, anywhere in the world Generate extra revenue by undertaking web-related jobs Act without the traditional discriminatory aspects of age, gender or tenure Shape the online world, through website design and content provision. Sallot, Porter and Acosta-Alzuru (2004) This increase in power assists practitioners in their work but also results in increased responsibility – to paraphrase the Spiderman comic. The increase in PR power thanks to new media is therefore directly linked to the ethics considerations mentioned earlier in this presentation.
PR in the new millennium Conclusion: Old challenges mesh with new as the public relations industry continues to evolve. The ongoing evolution of public relations, coupled with the existing confusion over its definition, continues to present new challenges to contemporary practice. The challenges now being faced by practitioners include a mix of old and new issues, with the major ones including: ethics, evaluation, globalisation and new media. These four challenges are becoming increasingly linked – evaluation is changing thanks to new media; the emergence of new media has created new ethical questions; globalisation brings with it ethical considerations related to culture and politics... PR practitioners therefore need to remain conversant in the developments of these four topics to ensure they stay abreast of the ongoing challenges being faced by the industry.
References Elmer, P. 2007, ‘Unmanaging public relations: Reclaiming complex practice in pursuit of global context’, Public Relations Review, vol. 33, pp 360-367. Harrison, K., Galloway, C. 2005, ‘Public relations ethics: A simpler (but not simplistic) approach to the complexities’, PRism, vol 3, no. 1. Public Relations Institute of Australia, About Us: Ethics, PRIA, viewed May 4, 2008, Sallot, L.M., Porter, L.V., Acosta-Alzuru, C. 2004, ‘Practitioners’ web use and perceptions of their own roles and power: a qualitative study’, Public Relations Review, vol. 30, pp 269-278. Seltzer, T., Mitrook, M.A. 2007, ‘The dialogic potential of weblogs in relationship building’, Public Relations Review, vol. 33, pp 227-229. Waters, M. 2001, Globalization, 2 nd ed, Routledge, New York, USA. Watson, T. 2005, ‘ROI or evidence-based PR: The language of public relations evaluation’, PRism, vol 3, no. 1. Xavier, R., Mehta, M., Gregory, A. ‘Evaluation in use: The practitioner view of effective evaluation’, PRism, vol 4, no. 2.