The Network for Public Relations and Society welcomed Professor Dean Kruckeberg from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to London College of Communication, University of the Arts London on 15th May 2014.
Dean’s lecture, titled ‘Community-Building for Organizations Managing Change Using New Media’, offered a somewhat radical reading of community based on American nineteenth-century ecologist, Aldo Leopold, and proposed how public relations (PR) should adopt his theoretical framework to respond to the major, internet-led transformations that are happening across global societies.
Dean starts by offering a potted history of communication and communication infrastructure and the evolution of communities from geographical and social groupings to professional communities and into increasingly private spheres.
But, Dean argues, we now find ourselves in a much more revolutionary period driven by the internet. These are fundamental changes spanning political, social and economic fields. Brief examples are discussed:
- Social factors – the shift from face-to-face to electronic interaction (but did this happen in early C19th with the telegraph or more recently with internet?)
- Cultural factors – the rise of globalism and multiculturalism and associated tensions
- Political factors – Dean cites the “tremendous importance” of power structures being flattened and new political power emerging from from unstructured and unseen sources creating major social changes and uncertainty
- Economic factors – the internet offers us lots of information which is cheap to send and receive (and process, Id add).
So where, asks Dean, does PR begin to engage with these transformations?
His first argument is that we need to start with theories that encompass society and also look to frameworks drawn from the natural sciences. The idea of drawing on sociology or social theory is good but a field already being explored. The introduction of the natural sciences, however, is a new direction (as far as I know) and allows some interesting new routes to explore.
Looking to the natural sciences, then, Dean argues that social communities are truly ‘biotic communities’ – spaces where humans and nature (co)exist.
This argument is drawn particularly from Aldo Leopold’s work which focused on the “relationship of people to land”. Leopold believed there were no distinctions between humans and other elements of nature: human society is encompassed within the environmental ecosystem. Humans are part of the wider biotic community.
I would suggest this is, still, a fairly radical proposition. Although Dean argues from a natural science position some of the logical extensions of Leopold’s argument would surely bring us up against some of the core tenets of anarcho-primitavism – humans and nature living within “knowing, self-conscious communities”- or perhaps fit within Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic ontology or Latour’s networks of nature-human symmetry. This notion of an underlying flat ontology of society is even directly evoked by Leopold when he asserts: the “pyramid of life is low and squat”.
Again, echoing some of the wider concerns of Latour et al Leopold places the issues of technology and ethics at the heart of building sustainable communities. Science and technology, says Leopold, “should lead to wisdom” – that is, technology can a good thing in that it leads to an increased capacity for carrying human life, but if not used wisely and ethically will also cause problems which could destroy nature. As a result, “an ecological conscience is therefore the ethics of community life”.
This raised a tension for me: if Dean is arguing for the use of contemporary technology to facilitate the building of sustainable biotic communities as per Leopold’s vision, how do we square this with the ever increasing carbon consumption of the server farms integral to our cloud-based society?
The carbon footprint of social media aside, Dean argues that Leopold’s vision of building biotic communities through technology and based on ecologically sound ethics becomes a goal for PR. Moreover, if PR can establish this approach as a normative model to communications as community building, then PR can “restore and maintain the sense of community that has been lost in contemporary society.” No small claim!
Dean’s final argument returns us to the radical end of social theory. The current internet-emabled world makes the case for achieving a normative theory of community building more compelling: “public relations must embrace a holistic ecological community worldview as well as an “ecological conscience.””
That is, animals don’t vote and flowers are not considered traditional stakeholders, but they are all part of the biotic community. Taking this into account, Dean asserts that fundamental change is needed for the PR industry to adapt. PR practitioners must become ‘ecologists’ who can build and manage a holistic, biotic community of human and nonhuman ‘stakeholders’.