PR and the Visual: Post-event round-up

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.

As a post-script, LCC has written this lovely blog post while The Crowd & I’s Charlotte Winslett, has created this great Storify…

Prof. Dean Kruckeberg Guest Lecture Review

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’.