Last month the Network for Public Relations and Society hosted a one-day, international conference, Public Relations and the Visual: Exploring Identity, Space and Performance. The result was a great day of stimulating and challenging keynotes, discussion and workshops that started to shift thinking on PR towards some of the experiential ways the discipline impacts on the world around us.
The day opened with keynotes from Executive Creative Director at Brand Union, Glenn Tutssel and the Independent newspapers’ assistant and media editor, Ian Burrell, who highlighted PR’s lack of positive figureheads.
The morning session, ably chaired by the University of Bournemouth’s Dr Kevin Moloney, explored issues of identity within the PR profession and among PR practitioners. Murdoch University’s Dr Kate Fitch discussed representations of PR in popular culture, focusing on the way the industry is manifested in the US series True Blood. Echoing some of Kate’s interpretations of the discipline, De Montfort University’s Liz Bridgen offers a case for reading PR as ‘dirty work’ based on an analysis of the literature documenting how comparative ‘dirty’ industries are socially contracted.
The University of Wolverhampton’s Sarah Williams presented her own ethnographic study of the gaps between what PR professionals claim as ‘professional’ practice versus how they perform their role. The differences are striking and arguably highlight tensions within the ‘professionalism project’. Linked to this, but taking a much more critical perspective, the University of Leeds’ Dr Lee Edwards, outlined the ways in which the ‘PR competencies’ at work int he contemporary industry create bias against industry members from lower socioeconomic and BME groups.
The session was closed by an insightful presentation by Jon Priestly, London Director at consultancy Wolfstar, who outlined the way in which PR practice needs to focus on the visual aspects of communications to reflect the increasing demand for creative content.
After lunch the University of Cambridge’s Dr Scott Anthony chaired an intense session that broadly explored the spatial and experiential dimensions of contemporary PR. Beginning with case studies that had brought the built and spatial environment into PR campaigns. Unity’s Gerry Hopkinson discussed how they had created an physical ‘trolling’ experience using a London underpass while Edelman’s Gavin Spicer talked about their campaign for console game Halo 4 which saw them convert a corner of Liechtenstein into an immersive environment that brought the game to life.
Next Dr Noureddine Miladi from Qatar University gave a fascinating interpretation of how town squares and walls had been enrolled into strategic communication by pro-democracy activsts during the Arab Spring. Continuing this theme, Elon University’s Dr Jessalynn Strauss, presented an insightful paper on how the built environment, in the form of Las Vegas’ Mob Museum, forms a central pillar of the city’s PR activity to boost economic regeneration and tell a specific narrative of its history. Looking more g=broadly at the physical environment, Lund University’s Philip Young discussed the analogous ways in which PR and critical cartogrpahy can be read. Both are projects that seek to interpret and posit specific, often strategic, accounts of the world. What can PR learn from map-making, Philip asked.
Following on from the spatial environment LCC’s Dr Ian Horton gave an account of the under-studied role illustration and comic books have played in PR – particularly public engagement around social issues – while the University of Hertfordshire’s Nick Lovegrove presented his work on using design to critique BP’s use of corporate communications during the Deepwater Horizon crisis.
Where next? Well, there many fruitful discussions during the post-event drinks and it was broadly agreed that the visual and spatial dimensions of PR – especially given their greater material intrusion into the fabric of society – were largely understudied. General resolve was taken to continue pushing this agenda with specific actions to introduce such themes into the wider PR academic discourse mapped out.
Watch this space, as they say.