Public Relations: Rules, Gamesmanship and the Professional Project: Why Academics Must Confront the Realities of Practice

Camilla Nothhaft, Howard Nothhaft, Sara von Platen, Philip Young

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingPaper in conference proceedingpeer-review


‘Some textbooks treat PR as though it is a branch of moral philosophy. Such an approach leaves most PR practitioners bemused and is of limited practical use.’ (Morris & Goldsworthy 2012, 41) The grand narrative of the public relations-field in the 20th and 21st century arguably is that of professionalization. The story presented by professional associations and academics alike tells of a practice that, in the course of the 20th century, groped its way out of the darkness of unethical, undemocratic manipulative tactics into the light of a mature understanding, where strict adherence to values such as transparency, honesty, integrity etc. is recognized as the only viable long-term strategy. Professional associations, such as the PRSA in the U.S., the CIPR in the U.K., the DPRG in Germany or Sveriges Kommunikatörer in Sweden, assure us that professional behaviour in PR is not only desirable? but is the key to success. Almost without exception academic framings of PR, theories, first and foremost through Excellence Theory, argues along the same lines and such are reproduced, in spirit or letter, in the majority of academic textbooks. Now on the 20th BledCom conference, we may assume the teenage years of academic reflection about public relations are over. It is time to ask whether “doing it by the book” – be it textbook, guidebook or whitebook – really is the key to success in public relations? The core proposition of this paper is that it is not - or at least not in the straightforward way commonly suggested. We argue that the officially sanctioned discourse about public relations and its resonance in academic textbooks is to a degree disconnected from the realities of the practice, and perhaps deliberately so. Thus we challenge the way professional associations present the link between professionalism and success as self-evident. While the connection, in principle, might hold for, say, dentists or pilots, we see reasons to believe that it does not hold for PR practitioners. We develop our reasons by pursuing the three indirect lines of investigation: First, our paper contrasts the official expositions of ‘what PR does’ with recent non-fiction insider accounts or authorized media portraits of senior practitioners. The controversy that followed in the wake of e.g. Tim Burt’s Dark Art, for example, demonstrated that the onus is on the defenders of the professionalism-equals-success paradigm to prove that the (unethical? Unprofessional?) practices mentioned are both rare or exceptional and are in fact negatively connected with success. Persistent attempts to brand outstandingly successful practitioners as black sheep are becoming less and less convincing.Second, we contrast the "official" versions of PR practice with fictional representations of PR that appear in popular culture. For this study we have taken examples from novels written by UK writers, some of whom who are or have been PR practitioners themselves (Graham Lancaster, David Michie, Michael Shea etc). To be effective, fictional representations must resonate with the framings used by their audiences (who may not have actual experience of PR practice); thus we can argue that fictional accounts can more closely reflect the true nature of PR practice than the idealised picture painted by professional associations. (Furthermore, it may be the case that fictitional accounts are influenced, even inspired, by practitioner biographies, such as Alastair Campbell’s diaries or Max Clifford’s third person autobiography, Read All About It). The third part provides a game-theoretical argument. We believe the only valid argument put forward by professional associations centres on a supposed long term strategy: PR practitioners might be tempted to cut corners, professional associations seem to argue, but they are ultimately dissuaded from doing so because of possible reputational damage such behaviours might bring. We point out that this argument, when modelled from a game-theoretical and population-ecological perspective, holds water only under certain circumstances. We wish to discuss what the circumstances are and seriously question whether they are prevalent in current PR practice. Our contribution constitutes first and foremost an exploration of the professionalism-success-divide. The reason to pursue the matter leads back to academia, however. Our suspicion is that many of the problems PR academics face – such as limited acceptance by practitioners, continuous doubts about the value of ‘studying PR’ – are due to our inability, or unwillingness, to face up to the divide. It will be recognised then that this paper is not a condemnation of PR practitioners, rather it is a plea for PR academics to stop writing between the lines to locate their discussions with greater candour and a more robust appreciation of real world behaviours. We must come to the point where students no longer have to read between the lines to learn how the real job is done in the real world.
Original languageSwedish
Title of host publicationTrust and the New Realities
Subtitle of host publicationProceedings of the 20th International Public Relations Research Symposium BledCom
EditorsDejan Vercic, Ana Tkalac Verčič, Krishnamurthy Sriramesh, Jon White
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2013 Jun 14
EventBledCom - Slovenien, Bled, Slovenia
Duration: 2013 Jun 142013 Jun 15



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