EUPRERA CONFERENCE PAPER 2013
A “practice turn” for global public relations: an alternative
approach Iris Rittenhofer and Chiara Valentini
Department of Business Communication, School of Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to review recent literature on global public relations in order to scrutinize how contemporary transformations are conceptualized in the field, and what this means for the understanding of public. Design/methodology/approach – The authors offer a critical analysis and discussion of recent publications in order to explore the nexus of “public”, “culture” and “global”, questioning whether the increased interest in a specific understanding of culture actually contributes to the field’s ability to deal with complex and transforming publics in a meaningful manner. Findings – The majority of global public relations literature applies redundant understandings of globalization. It attaches prime importance to the concept of culture and contributes little to the understanding of transforming publics. Few scholars acknowledge the limitations of using “culture” for the definition of publics in global contexts. Alternative approaches to understanding “publics” in global public relations research and practice are hardly offered. Research limitations/implications – The findings imply that global public relations research would benefit from abandoning monolithic social science categories and from working transdisciplinary in order to refine its understanding of contemporary societal and social transformations and their implications for the understanding of public and relationship building. Practical implications – The discussion indicates that public relations practitioners could benefit from reorienting their understanding of publics in globalizing societies in order to build and nourish mutually beneficial relationships. The authors apply the insight into contemporary business practices to offer public relations practitioners a starting point for reorientation. Originality/value – The authors contribute to global public relations scholarship with an alternative approach to the understanding of transforming publics which merges the spatial turn and the practice turn known from wider humanities and social science research, and relevant business practices. Keywords Culture, Globalization, Public relations, Practice turn, Spatial turn, Swarm Paper type Conceptual paper
Introduction Due to recent transformations commonly referred to as internationalization or globalization, there is an increased awareness of the impact of cultural diversity and complexity on public relations (Kent and Taylor, 2011; Xifra and McKie, 2011). This trend is documented in a rise in the number of scholarly publications on the field of global public relations. The purpose of our paper is to review recent literature on global public relations to scrutinize how recent transformations are conceptualized in the field, and what this means for the conceptualization of public. We note that public relations scholars have intensified their interest in “culture” to extend the discussion on the cross-national validity of public relations theories (Xifra and McKie, 2011; Hodges, 2012; Sriramesh, 2012). Discussing culture is considered “vital to every PR concept, strategy, skill” (Sriramesh, 2012, p. 11). Culture is perceived as a “power” that
Journal of Communication Management Vol. 19 No. 1, 2015 pp. 2-19 ©EmeraldGroup Publishing Limited 1363-254X DOI 10.1108/JCOM-11-2013-0084
Received 24 November 2013 Revised 20 November 2014 1 December 2014 Accepted 1 December 2014
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at: www.emeraldinsight.com/1363-254X.htm
“influences how, organizations enact relationships with domestic and international publics” (Kent and Taylor, 2011, p. 51). From an intercultural communication standpoint (Bardhan, 2011) an understanding of culture offers “one way to implement the dialogic model” (Kent and Taylor, 2011, p. 55).
While we applaud the endeavour, we are critical of the way in which the reviewed public relations scholarship has approached global public relations so far. Few scholarly works (see, e.g. Gregory and Halff, 2013; Halff and Gregory, 2014; Sha, 2009) position public relations theory within diversity. Key terms conceptualizing the drivers of globalizing processes such as “interdependence”, “complexity” or “disembedding” are hardly applied. In the twenty-first century, it seems that the main task of public relations professionals is to reduce ambiguity in society in order to search for certainties (Gregory and Halff, 2013). In light of the transformations and increased complexity brought on by globalization, we ask whether culture as conceptualized by public relations is up to the job of handling communications and relational initiatives with diversified publics. We further question whether the increased interest in a specific understanding of culture – as we elaborate below – by public relations scholars actually contributes to the field’s ability to deal with transforming publics in a meaningful manner. “Transforming” refers to a new quality of publics; they increasingly loosen their ties to place.
In this paper, we apply an overall process understanding of “globalization” as uneven and multidirectional flows (Appadurai, 1990; Scholte, 2000; Beck, 2002) and of “global” as emerging new qualities of social dynamics. This understanding provides our point of departure for a discussion of recent publications. We offer a critical analysis in order to explore the nexus of “culture” and “global” in public relations (e.g. Curtin and Gaither, 2007; Bardhan and Weaver, 2011; Courtwright et al., 2011; Holtzhausen, 2011; Carayol and Frame, 2012; Corella and Herrera, 2012; Debeljak, 2012; Dutta, 2012; Hodges, 2012; Kent and Taylor, 2011; L’Etang, 2012; Nastasia, 2012; Sriramesh and Verčič, 2012; Sterne, 2012). Consistent with an understanding of public relations as an interdisciplinary field of research and practice (Sriramesh, 2012), we approach this critical review with interdisciplinary research minds and a combined expertise in public relations, globalization studies, culture studies, intercultural communication and international management. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to deploy insights and conceptualizations from different disciplines so as to better understand the complexity of today’s globalizing societies.
For this pursuit, we will start by discussing what the concepts of “globalization”, “internationalization”, “culture” and “intercultural communication” refer to, how they have been used to identify publics in public relations scholarship, and the limitations of these conceptual understandings in light of globalizing processes. This initial discussion is followed by a review and critical exploration of mainstream paradigms and approaches in global public relations. We conclude that while social contexts are treated as transforming, publics are treated as stable, unambiguous extensions of places. We contribute to public relations with an alternative approach to conceptualizing transforming publics. Finally, we outline paths for future research of “global” in public relations that might be capable of acknowledging the increasing societal complexity of identifying publics.
Critique of key concepts in global public relations Based on our literature review, four main concepts are considered at the core of the field of global public relations. In the following section we review the main understanding and perspectives about the concepts of “globalization”, “internationalization”, “culture”
Global public relations
and “intercultural communication” and the implications of such perspectives for defining publics.
Globalization and internationalization Key concepts of global public relations literature are the term “global” and the related terms “globalization” and “internationalization”. In the last three decades, the interest in these concepts has grown as a consequence of an increase in cross-border public relations activities. A rising number of public relations practitioners work transculturally across the globe (Bardhan, 2011, p. 91). “[T]he challenges to public relations increase exponentially as cultural differences between organizations and publics become more pronounced” (Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 184). Prompted by an increasing demand by professionals for more useful models for handling public relations in different regions of the world, public relations scholarship has begun to reconsider its theories and models, which were primarily conceptualized in a western context. Related publications have emerged in the last 15 years titled “international public relations” or “global public relations”. Yet, there has been only limited discussion and reflection on what actually distinguishes the terms “international” and “global” when applied to public relations. Initially, the term international public relations was used to refer to studies of public relations practices of international organizations and multinational companies (Wakefield, 2007). Recently, scholars use the terms “global” and “globalization” interchangeably with the terms “international” (Debeljak, 2012; Sriramesh and Verčič, 2012; Kent and Taylor, 2011; Curtin and Gaither, 2007), cross-national (cf. Botan, 1992; Sriramesh and Verčič, 2001) and “intercultural” (Xifra and McKie, 2011) to refer to in-depth country knowledge, interactions and knowledge transactions between countries, or country groups such as “the west” and “the global south” (Dutta, 2012). This offers at best partial understandings of contemporary transformations.
It appears that many public relations scholars apply “global” but do not define it (Bardhan, 2011; Kent and Taylor, 2011; Corella and Herrera, 2012; L’Etang, 2012; Sriramesh, 2012; Dutta, 2012; Xifra and McKie, 2011). Some scholars offer understandings of the “global” that carry clear notions of “nested hierarchies” running from the local to the national, the regional and the international to the top scale of “global” (Sassen, 2006, p. 61). The “global public sphere” (Dutta, 2012) is exceeding a “cross-cultural dimension” (Sriramesh, 2012). The “global” is used to cover either public relations itself (Allen and Dozier, 2012), organizations (Xifra and McKie, 2011), their environment (Debeljak, 2012; Xifra and McKie, 2011), or worldwide, uniformly applied (Debeljak, 2012, p. 43) west centric (Dutta, 2012) ideas. Sometimes, globalization is considered to be the context itself (Weaver, 2011).
Clear terminological distinctions are available in the wider social science disciplines: useful is Scholte’s (2000) thought that the term “global” should be used to denote a new quality of complex and emerging social phenomena. This is not captured by the term internationalization, which identifies increased interaction and interdependence between people from different countries. A place-based understanding of distinct publics, however, fails to offer insights into “increased social fluidity” (Xifra and McKie, 2011): This includes phenomena such as “publics [that] can form globally and can act unpredictably and seemingly chaotically” (Kruckeberg and Vujnovic, 2010, p. 124), and has implications for “building, maintaining and changing relationships” (Xifra and McKie, 2011). We apply Beck’s (2002, p. 25) definition; fluidity refers to that “neither boundaries nor relations mark the difference between one place and another. Instead, sometimes boundaries come and go, while relations transform themselves without fracture”.
Few scholars (Bardhan, 2011; Holtzhausen, 2011) do not reduce “global” to an understanding of scalar hierarchies or internationalization. Rather, they explicitly acknowledge new qualities in current transformations which go across commonly perceived divides. These new qualities include: the deterritorialization of culture by global flux, which may be denoted “transculture” (Bardhan, 2011), the evaporation of borders between foreign and domestic (Debeljak, 2012, p. 43), the creation of “First Worlds in the ThirdWorld and ThirdWorlds in the First World” (Parameswaran, 2008, pp. 116-117), global complexities arising from fluidity and multidirectional tensions (Bardhan, 2011; Gregory and Halff, 2013), and the emergence of publics that “live and work across many real and perceived boundaries” (L’Etang, 2012, p. 50).
Culture In the field of global public relations, the concept of the “culture of a country” plays a key role for defining foreign publics. The phrase “culturally diverse” publics (Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 182) refers to multiple stakeseekers and stakeholders (Kent and Taylor, 2011, p. 50), understood variously as different country or regional cultures, or as country-cultural subgroups (Hodges, 2012, p. 104) often broadly defined by race, ethnicity (Kent and Taylor, 2011), gender, profession or sexual orientation (Sha, 2009), as natives or indigenous people (L’Etang, 2012; Hodges, 2012), or by class (Kent and Taylor, 2011). Each “public” is assumed to embody a distinct way of communicating and/or reacting to public relations.
Most studies posit that culture affects the response of “public” to public relations initiatives, and that it also affects an excellence in public relations. Likewise in their use of the concept “global”, few global public relations scholars define the concept of culture (e.g. Kent and Taylor, 2011; Sriramesh, 2012; Debeljak, 2012; Allen and Dozier, 2012), and when they do, the terminology is indeed very fuzzy. Even fewer public relations scholars argue for their choice of culture definition (e.g. Allen and Dozier, 2012, pp. 183-184), contrast several culture definitions (e.g. Hodges, 2012) or acknowledge that culture is a multifaceted concept (Kent and Taylor, 2011, p. 50), despite the fact that in related disciplines, for example, management and marketing, the usefulness of the “country of culture” approach has been repudiated (cf. Søderberg and Holden, 2002; Holden, 2004). Global public relations’ establishes the notion of the imaginary communities of nation (Anderson, 1991) as a stable orientation point for publics’ reaction to organizational behaviour. Accordingly, public relations practitioners are required to have cultural expertise, a presumed essential ability to “anticipate” any given group of publics “most likely reaction to organizational behaviour” (Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 184). Here, “publics” refers to groups in which the public relations practitioner and/or organizations are not a member, or to groups which are represented neither by professionals nor within organizations. The public relations professional is a “boundary spanner” (Allen and Dozier, 2012) capable of identifying, bridging and negotiating “cultural” divides to build relationships between an environment and the organization. It appears that “culture” in public relations is often applied to define a difference of interests, and further, as emerging from a simple binary opposition: country of origin of the organization versus country culture of public groups.
We see this as an extension of the logic of the Excellence Project, in which symmetry is required between the cultural variety inside and outside the organization and in which public relations applies the same rationale to reflect the diversity of their key publics (Allen and Dozier, 2012; Kent and Taylor, 2011). Yet, the universally applied logic of “culture” as key container of publics in different places around the world is
Global public relations
reductive, as it suggests cross-national resemblance and comparability of those units and their interrelations. The “culture-of-origin” logic collides with the fact that contemporary economic globalization will not result in the homogenization of “diverse living worlds” (Debeljak, 2012, p. 42). Paraphrasing Beck (2002), we propose that key questions of public relations, can no longer be contextualized nationally or locally.
This is illustrative of a further problem in public relations scholarship: few scholars critically note the missing distinction between state/society and nation/culture. Holtzhausen (2011, p. 152) is the single scholar who critically observes that what is called “culture” is, rather, political power in disguise. “Culture” helps neither public relations professionals nor the organizations they work for to identify contemporary challenges or opportunities in publics’ behaviour. The field is intrigued by the apparent, the self-evident and the given, yet it is afraid of the emergence of unpredictable and postnational publics. The concept of “culture” is applied because it adds the illusion of fixity and homogeneity; it promises either predictability or alerts to the lack of same. The concept of culture difference is often used as an excuse to explain unwanted disturbances, or as a means through which success in public relations can be achieved.
The predominance of prescriptive culture concepts Kent and Taylor (2011, p. 53) offer a reason for the field’s preference for deterministic and prescriptive culture approaches. Public relations is usually associated with a management process, and this association is steered by a quantitative managerial and business focus on measurement. Measurement was formerly seen as a key requirement for classifying and assessing global public relations initiatives. Hofstede’s (1997) quantitative study became influential in the 1980s, when national cultures became an issue and management and marketing increasingly focused on international relations (Holden, 2004). This offers an explanation for the field’s preference for Hofstede’s (1997) study over other scholars who dimension cultures, such as Sriramesh and Verčič (2003) or Lewis (1996). Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is still widely considered to be a valuable tool for public relations practice, “conducive of building and maintaining relations strategies” in different national contexts (Weaver, 2011, p. 257).
Those place-bound understandings of culture have become a convenient paradigm for public relations, since they are consistent with similar normative approaches in organizational management (Sha, 2009). Grunig’s (1992) “Excellence Project” is considered a further driver for public relations focus on prescriptive and predictive approaches (see, for e.g. Kent and Taylor, 2011; L’Etang, 2012). Few global public relations scholars challenge this understanding of culture as something that the members of a community have or belong to. Weaver (2011, p. 257), for instance, argues that several public relations scholars, who draw on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to explain public relations practice in different national contexts, fail to pay sufficient attention to diversity in many complex contexts within increasingly multicultural societies. This criticism, however, neither challenges the notion of territorial boundaries for defining publics, nor captures transnational and transborder formations of publics.
All in all, most public relations scholars seem to “turn to culture” only when they seek explanations for public relations management and effectiveness in diverse contexts. Paraphrasing Beck (2002), public relations scholarship is misled in applying old categories to understand new phenomena. Those relatively static conceptualizations not only do tell publics who they are – they also suggest to them that they remain the same. The limited usefulness of the concept of culture itself for navigating complex and transforming environments is not challenged in public relations scholarship.
Only a few public relations scholars (e.g. Debeljak, 2012) have acknowledged that economic globalization does not result in cultural homogenization. We take inspiration from anthropologist Mathews (2002) who offers the concept of the “cultural supermarket” to deal with the “people impact” of recent economic transformations. The “cultural supermarket” refers to the diverse information and identities made available by, respectively, state and globalizing markets. It offers a useful alternative to the understanding of culture as “the life of the people at a particular place” (e.g. Tomlinson, 1999a; Beck, 2002). For public relations, this implies that it may be important to take into consideration the interface of market influences, state laws and authorities’ administrations of relevant locales, and to ask how people individually navigate changing, competing state and market influences, and relatedly “overwhelming amounts of conflicting information” (Vujnovic and Kruckeberg, 2011, p. 220), however, without misreading or reducing this behaviour to “culture”.
Below, we further develop the notion that for public relations it may be more important to study the “routes” of transborder public formations (and thus to make sense of how publics negotiate competing influences) than to study “roots” (and by this means to identify traditional social science categories as the core of respective publics).
Intercultural communication as global communication The “culture-of-origin” approach to understanding publics’ behaviour also affects the way in which communication is conceptualized and constructed in global public relations. Notably, recent literature indicates that the concept of intercultural communication is imbued in the understanding of public relations management and effectiveness in diverse contexts. As Sha (2009, p. 62) observes, “intercultural” is a useful framework to structure public relations efforts in diverse societies. Yet, as with culture, the concept of intercultural communication (Sha, 2009) is ambiguously utilized. In public relations scholarship, there is a tendency to apply the terms intra-national (Sha, 2009), international and intercultural (Kent and Taylor, 2011) communication synonymously. Overall, the use of intercultural communication in public relations is meant to reduce ambiguity and to communicate with an organization’s “diverse publics” (L’Etang, 2012). Two tasks are defined for those public relations professionals who are competent in intercultural communication. One is to abandon uniform approaches to culture (L’Etang, 2012) and to tackle intra-societal (Sha, 2009) or intra-national (Bardhan, 2011) diversity by understanding the cultural background of diverse target groups within societies (Sha, 2009; L’Etang, 2012). The second is to predict “communicative behaviour” (Sha, 2009).
Public relations scholarship suggests three ways in which cultural congruence between the organization and publics can be assumed: some scholars recommend organizations to mimic the variety of their environment, according to the concept “requisite variety” introduced by Weick (1979) (as referred by Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 199); or propose that practitioners and public groups are nested in the same country of origin (Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 185), or suggest public relations practitioners should take the “in-awareness approach” (Zaharna, 2001) and make themselves familiar with every aspect of a foreign country culture before entering into practice there (as referred in Holtzhausen, 2011, p. 144). This tradition relies on Broom and Dozier’s (1990) orientation model, according to which an “understanding of the other culture, and the tools to effectively measure these relationships in a culturally sensitive way, will provide several additional benefits” (as referred to in Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 188). Clearly these three assumptions about culture have affected global public relations theory.
Global public relations
Critical, however, is the school of intercultural communication as applied to global public relations. This school has remained within the established domain of cultural diversity. Its function is to bridge differences between societal cultures and subcultures and between individual cultures across countries, that is to say, “organizations, media and international stakeholders and publics located in various countries” (Hodges, 2012, p. 101). However, the communication approach to culture is prescriptive and begs the question of deterministic culture understandings, rather than applying constructionist understandings, such as organizations’ perception of publics being different from publics themselves. In its understanding as a communication discipline, public relations scholarship seems to follow old approaches in intercultural communication theory (cf. Martin and Nakayama, 2010). For instance, Kent and Taylor (2011, p. 52) see global public relations as an interpretative communication activity as associated with Samovar and Porter (2003). Bardhan (2011) sees the role of public relations as that of negotiating differences in order to establish and maintain relationships. She proposes third culture building as a model for a transnational public relations theory and practice. The model, however, offers neither a way to sidestep notions of unity and fixity, nor an alternative to root thinking and related functionalist understandings of culture as delimiting unity and defining “framework” (Allen and Dozier, 2012, p. 185) encompassing not only diverse units such as organizations, communities and societies (L’Etang, 2012) but also the profession or occupation of public relations itself (Bardhan, 2011; L’Etang, 2012; Sriramesh and Verčič, 2012).
Few scholars have considered cultural practices and “cultural agency” approaches (Hodges, 2012) where people are not passively determined by, but actively re-shape culture. Influential sociologists as Zygmunt Baumann (cf. Holtzhausen, 2011; Debeljak, 2012; Xifra and McKie, 2011) or Pierre Bourdieu (cf. Hodges, 2012), see culture as constituted by people. Kent and Taylor (2011, p. 52) are among the few scholars who notice some shortcomings of “the one size fits all approach to intercultural communication” in a global context. They critically diversify “culture” and perceive of intercultural public relations as “an interpretative communication activity that requires multiple, often simultaneous, frameworks for creating and changing relationships” (Kent and Taylor, 2011, p. 52).
On the basis of the above summarized issues regarding the conceptualization and use of global, international, culture and intercultural, we turn in the following section to the major paradigms in global public relations, paradigms that are grounded in the above discussed definitions and understandings of culture.
Major paradigms and approaches in global public relations The above discussed conceptualizations suggest that most research in global public relations can be classified into two major paradigms (cf. Nastasia, 2012, pp. 114-116): the functionalist and the organization/ethno centric.
Instrumentalist paradigms In the dominant functionalistic paradigm culture is treated as a resource for differentiating behaviour and communication of publics in diverse countries, and to define differences between organizations and publics (Kent and Taylor, 2011, p. 51). The interpretive/critical paradigm; even though developed as an alternative to the functionalist one, we suggest is still too conservative. The interpretative/ critical paradigm attempts to abandon universalizing approaches (L’Etang, 2012) by studying
groups within societies as culturally distinct (Sha, 2009; Hodges, 2012; Holtzhausen, 2011). This paradigm is primarily concerned with communication – with the organization’s strategic use of discourse to reach specific public groups. In this second paradigm, we find an emerging line of scholarship that brings together diverse communication approaches; however, it is still dominated by instrumental reason.
We see shortcomings in both paradigms, but particularly in the functionalist. Yet, the understanding of global complexity in public relations from this perspective, we argue, is of “additive and linear” nature (Rittenhofer and Nielsen, 2009). It is essentially a “culturist” (Holliday et al., 2004, p. 3) approach to global public relations, as culture is used to reduce publics. Organizational identification, segmentation and classification of publics make individuals or groups the “members” of predefined and a priori categories (West and Fenstermaker, 1995) that are of interest to the organizations prior to analysis of publics and their behaviour and on the grounds of outside perception. This reductive act of “otherization” (Holliday et al., 2004, p. 3) is crucial, since unrecognized assumptions (Muller, 2004) and interpretations of culture (Tomlinson, 2007) may be expected to affect the field of global public relations research as well as relationship building.
Scholarship in public relations has traditionally been organization centric; little is known of the phenomenon of “otherization” from a public perspective. Public relations theories have, in fact, often maintained a strategic focus on organizational interest rather than on their (critical) publics (Debeljak, 2012). Furthermore, these theories fail to acknowledge stakeseekers such as NGOs or activist groups in non-western countries (Dutta, 2012, p. 209); they also have support for an organization’s bottom line as a primary objective (Weaver, 2011, p. 258).
Organization and ethno centric paradigms Global public relations theories are recognized as being less than not sufficiently international – or global – minded in their conceptualizations. Critical scholars identify the dominant models as “children” of US thinking (cf. Gregory and Halff, 2013; Halff and Gregory, 2014; L’Etang, 2012; Sriramesh and Verčič, 2012) and thus as ethnocentrically biased strategic management of communication and relationships (Weaver, 2011; L’Etang, 2012; Hodges, 2012; Nastasia, 2012; Sterne, 2012; Sriramesh, 2012). The dominant public relations theories and conceptualization of culture may be burdened by western thought; however, we suggest that it is more constructive to criticize the dominant public relations paradigm for its simplistic and reductive scientific approaches then to blame the shortcomings on a country of origin.
Besides Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, a further approach is used to look at global public relations based on the generic/specific theory (cf. Grunig, 2006; Wakefield, 2007) that was developed in the 1990s as a follow-up to the Excellence theory (Grunig, 1992). The generic/specific theory postulates that the generic principles that guide excellent public relations in organizations are not valid if they are not profoundly integrated into what some define as “specific applications” and what others prefer to call “public relations infrastructure of a given territory” (Sriramesh and Verčič, 2009). The excellence theory – from which the generic principles were deduced – was embedded in systems theory (Weaver, 2011), which allows for universalization. The principles are applied outside the USA – where they are locally adapted (Holtzhausen, 2011) and strategically adjusted (Bardhan, 2011) – as a tool for international and multinational organizations’ public relations (Holtzhausen, 2011). The utilization of culture difference approaches seems in line with this thinking, in which “culture” offers understandings of publics
Global public relations
that are perceived as different from and physically distant to the global West. However, the generic principles, and relatedly the concepts of functionalist culture and publics, seem less than useful to capture contemporary transformations.
No alternative offered In our view, alternatives to functionalist approaches, such as Hofstede’s cultural dimensions or the generic/specific theory are scarcely developed. Until today, the main scholarly works within public relations show little awareness of how preconception impacts understandings of social conduct, or of how publics’ behaviour transforms and how this in turn re-organizes communication. The bulk of the reviewed literature attempts to meet the challenges faced by the practice of public relations – uneven and multidirectional globalizing processes, together with relatedly transforming social conduct – by applying “culture” as a means of ascribing behaviour to communities such as “publics” and mapping it on to territorial geography.
The predominant approaches to global public relations seem redundant. It is acknowledged across diverse fields that global flows crisscross state boundaries, and that people and organizations are less tied to locations and have complex affiliations, and a multitude of cultural links (e.g. Appadurai, 1990; Mathews, 2002). Global public relations theorizing relies on “a priori social science categories” (Beck, 2002) such as public, nation, culture or identity, as well as dyadic understandings that capture neither the multidirectional quality of globalizing processes (Appadurai, 1990), nor the multidimensional quality of the social (Tomlinson, 1999b). These categories are not applicable to the contemporary societal complexity and postnational transformations commonly denoted as “globalization” (Scholte, 2000); they reduce variety to difference and transformation to fixity and stability.
It appears to us that few public relations scholars (exceptionally, Debeljak, 2012, p. 52) are attentive to the fact that global flows erode the border between the “domestic” and the “foreign” or the “organization” and “public”. A place-based understanding of organizations and publics guided by public relations own interests and related preconceptions, however, disregards the impact both of state and of postnational markets on the multiple and changing relations in which people identify themselves today (Mathews, 2002). It is highly questionable whether it is appropriate for contemporary public relations to define international publics in uni- and bidirectional ways, tucking them into neat prefabricated boxes furnished with social science category labels. This public relations practice makes organizations the catchpenny promise of resemblance and symbiotic relationships with relevant publics, corresponding to prevailing normative approaches that continue to perceive “culture” as an “antecedent for every practice” (Sriramesh, 2012, p. 16) of public relations. But in a time when the quality of relationships is becoming increasingly complex (Heath, 2013) public relations, at best, offers organizations an illusion.
The above arguments raise the question of the usefulness of current global public relations theory in international settings and in the context of global flows. The Excellence theory, the generic/specific theory, the orientation model, requisite variety, dyadic thinking and predominant culture concepts precede the post-Cold War world; they continue to transport the notion of clearly identifiable, distinct worlds (Bruckner, 2013). Uneven andmultidirectional global flows carry notions of asymmetry, and challenge older notions of “theoretical and operational symmetry” (Karlberg, 1996).
Despite the emergence of an interpretive turn and a critical perspective in global public relations scholarship, the mainstream approaches in our view, do not rank among the “cultural turns” (Bachmann-Medick, 2009) acknowledged in the field of
cultural studies. In light of current transformations, the “turn to culture” should be reconsidered. Some scholars explicitly declare public relations’ turn to culture as an emerging “cultural turn” (e.g. Hodges, 2012). In cultural studies, however, several “cultural turns” (Bachmann-Medick, 2009) are recognized. Attempts to break away from a positivist managerial understanding of public relations and related functionalist culture concepts and to contribute to the development of public relations scholarship in transforming societies include: postcolonial (Parameswaran, 2008; Shome and Hedge, 2002; Dutta and Mahuya, 2011), postmodern (Holtzhausen, 2011) transcultural approaches (Bardhan, 2011) or liquid theory (Xifra and McKie, 2011). So far, these “cultural turns” are still only emerging; but they are badly needed in public relations (Holtzhausen, 2011). Still, with the exception of Holtzhausen (2011), these approaches hardly challenge the notion of “culture” as a stable resource for determining public interests or behaviour. Moreover, in cultural studies, several “turns” exist, such as “the reflexive turn”, “the postcolonial turn” or the “spatial turn” (Bachmann-Medick, 2009).
The unidirectional organizational focus in public relations theory, and the related identification of publics which takes its point of departure in organizational interests (Valentini et al., 2012) and benefits, have mislead public relations practitioners to think in terms of ownership indicators. Thus, they speak of: “their” markets (Holden, 2004), “their publics” (Sriramesh and White, 1992; Sha, 2009; Kent and Taylor, 2011; Xifra and McKie, 2011) or the media ownership of publics (Weaver, 2011). We agree with Weaver (2011, p. 215) that public relations need to move beyond this approach in the context of globalization. The notions that organizations “share” publics, that they have overlapping and/or competing interests, of publics’ cross-border connectivity, of multiple or even contradictory public interests or of transcultural or postnational publics have been considered.
An alternative approach to understanding global public relations Today, it is textbook knowledge that successful communication is about not presuming (cf. Holliday et al., 2004). For global public relations, that means abandoning the culture concept when understanding transforming publics, and finding approaches to deal with complexities other than presumed certainties that impose spurious order by simplifying. Gregory and Halff (2013) contend that simplifying is a risk in public relations practice and scholarship. Heath (2013) concludes that public relations need to take “roads not well travelled”. In the following, we propose a future path for public relations’ conceptualizing of social conduct that accommodates the scholarly points stated above. We suggest global public relations to embrace constructionist approaches and to introduce a “spatial turn” and a “practice turn” to global public relations. This will help proposing an alternative to anticipating publics’ reactions.
The practice turn Taking the spatial turn as the interpretative tool for understanding fluid and multidirectional social behaviour, we suggest that public relations research should discard the place-oriented culture concept that maps on to territorial geographies, and replace it with Appadurai’s (1990) space-oriented concept of human-made landscapes. “Scapes” refer to process geographies that map contracting and expanding flows of ideas, media, images, technologies or finance, crisscrossing state, geographical and “discursive” (Elmoudden, 2009) borders. The concept of human-made (rather than place
Global public relations
bound) landscapes offers a valuable alternative to culture approaches to public relations, acknowledging that human conduct is partly deterritorialized, that is not bound to a place. Heath (2013) advocates an approach to public relations that acknowledges the multidimensional, multi-layered, and complex qualities of connectivity. We propose the concept of human-made social landscapes as starting point to this endeavour which changes the way people are seen and conceived in public relations’ research and practice. This concept also challenges the usefulness of the term public. Other scholars have challenged the notion of public; yet, have not elaborated on an alternative view.
Kruckeberg and Vujnovic (2010, p. 124), for instance, question the utility of the concept of public(s) as a viable point of reference for strategic public relations efforts, stating that “it has become meaningless to identify publics”. Hence, we suggest avoiding predefined categories such as “public” or “culture” when reflecting on public relations strategies. To overcome the limits of these concepts in understanding and practicing global public relations, we further propose that the concept of process landscapes should be combined with a “practice turn” in the understanding of human conduct. The turn to the transdisciplinary field of practice theory offers ways to develop non-dyadic “transnational public relations” defined by relationships enacted in, and through, communications that are “more spatially oriented than place-bound” (Bardhan, 2011).
Neither an authoritative version of practice theories, nor a synthesis of its key exponents exists (Warde, 2005, p. 132). However, in international management, practice theory is recognized and developed as a way “to understanding complex problems in a changing world” (Callagher, 2012, p. 2). In this understanding, we argue public relations has much to gain from the field of practice theory, an approach that comprehends non-instrumentalist notions of conduct and makes localized human doings the unit of analysis. This understanding differs from traditional global public relations thinking which too often conceives social conduct as function of the membership in predefined categories, i.e. its belonging to a particular community. Community membership, however, is accomplished by public relations researchers and professionals and used to acknowledge and validate stakeholders. We consider Reckwitz’s (2002) definition of “practice”, a tool that offers an understanding of a new quality of behaviour. Practices “appear at different locales and at different points of time and (are) carried out by different bodies/ minds. Yet, this does not necessarily presuppose interactions” (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 250). Applying Reckwitz’s definition of “practice” in global public relations requires dealing with the notion that organization centric perceptions of interactions are partly redundant. The advantage is that Reckwitz’s theory of human practice offers a necessary way to deal with fluidity and to map multidirectional connectivity: all people on the planet reach into “the narratives and tools by which we manage human experience” (Debeljak, 2012, p. 43), and worldwide accessible commodities and information are used to live in unpredictable, unique ways (Mathews, 2002).
Understanding fluid human practices – The “swarm” metaphor In research as well as in business practice, there already exist examples of companies that study “routes” and deal with what people actually do in their daily lives. One is the global trends network DDB Signbank (Brand Noise, 2005). DDB declares that rather than operating with predefined “group” identifications, they aggregate small signs of social change in urban areas around the globe to identify patterns and themes that
indicate actual or future shifts in behaviours. In contrast to the culture understanding in global public relations, they seem neither to impose a territorialist understanding of culture, nor imply culture “to be all facts of everyday life” (Hodges, 2012, p. 102). Rather, they appear to map emerging patterns in everyday consumer practices in different locales around the globe and identify cross-cutting, deterritorialized formations and independent of boundaries. This methodological choice, according to the DDB Signbank, reflects the complexity that shapes contemporary societies. DDB (2008) explains the new kind of social behaviour. People increasingly refuse to allow others to define what is true; they make their own truths, relying on themselves and on the directly shared information. The social and the virtual are intertwined; this behaviour is not limited to online media use, but comprises all social conduct (i.e. Carpentier et al., 2014). DDB’s (2011) approach is an attempt to deal with an increasing number of people who do not follow an opinion-leader, do not share a single view, do not choose a joint direction nor act as a single body; at the same time, they continue to change course, and become stronger and more intelligent. Similar changes in consumer behaviour have earlier been discussed by Firat and Venkatesh (1995) To visualize the change in social conduct, DDB uses the metaphor of swarms to denote formations of individuals with differing opinions and that can go in multiple directions (Zikmund et al., 2013). Independently of DDB’s approach, scholars in diverse field discuss contemporary public transformations and shifting positions (i.e. Carpentier et al., 2014), their volatile and unpredictable worldwide formations (Vujnovic and Kruckeberg, 2011, p. 220), and – unknowingly of DDB – denote emerging patterns of singularized social conduct by the “swarm” metaphor (Han, 2013).
We contend that the “swarm” metaphor provides an illustrative image of irregular, uneven practice patterns shifting into multiple directions and thus a potential starting point for future global public relations research and practice. Singularized individuals do not behave as fixed groups; it therefore becomes “meaningless to identify ‘publics’ (plural)” and “to distinguish among” diverse groups (Vujnovic and Kruckeberg, 2011, p. 220). Public relations should reconsider its perception of stakeholders and related management of communication. Studying patterns of localized everyday practices and comparing them across different locales offers global public relations a potential point of departure; practitioners and scholars would benefit from understanding “how communication organizes […] rather than the traditional focus on the organization of communication” (Christensen and Cornelissen’s (2011, p. 384). The social landscapes emerging from “swarm” conduct may then be of strategic concern to organizing global public relations.
We suggest future public relations research and practice to acknowledge transforming environments and to focus on understanding publics for what they do rather than for who they are. This will require researchers and professionals to explore them in ways independent of commonly applied monolithic social science categories based on distinctions such as non-public, latent public, aware public and active public, or based on segmentation such as media publics, consumer publics, employee publics, or based on “culture”, or based on commonly perceived divides such as environment/ organization, state/market or societal/digital. To study swarms means identifying and understanding practices, rituals and volatile trends among people, rather than the culture they presumably belong to. From this perspective, future research on global public relations could study how and under which conditions swarm patterns form, develop and dissolve, the influence of swarms on other swarms, or individuals’ opinions and behaviours impact on swarm formations. To accomplish this task, qualitative
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research approaches could be used as they are better suited to capture complexity, practices and transformations. Future public relations research may find inspiration for alternative understandings of the blurring boundaries between the virtual and the social, organization and public, and between stakeholder groups, from the wider communication field (e.g. Stohl, 2014; Carpentier et al., 2014).
Conclusions The scope of this paper was to review recent literature on global public relations to examine how recent transformations are conceptualized in the field, and what this means for the conceptualization of public. Above we identified the limits of recent public relations scholarship on culture in internationalizing contexts by challenging the conceptual premises in global public relations. We took outset in an understanding of “globalization” as uneven and multidirectional flows (Appadurai, 1990; Scholte, 2000; Beck, 2002) and suggested developing a constructionist- oriented rather than positivist oriented point of departure for the future development of global public relations. We proposed that a normative understanding of predefined public groups as contained in a distinct societal “culture” should be replaced by postmodern understandings of enacted and reshaping relationships. In order to capture transformation and complexity, we proposed that public relations scholarship and practice take a “spatial turn” and a “practice turn” and look at the concept of the “swarm”. Accordingly, organization centric, dyadic relationship approaches in global public relations are not applicable and of limited use. In our view, future public relations research should focus on studying practices in postnational environments, applying contemporary scientific philosophies and epistemologies, and should broaden its theoretical foundation by looking at discussions in other fields such as globalization studies, cultural studies, intercultural communication and international management, all of which have already re-conceptualized the relationship between location, people and society.
Sriramesh and Verčič (2009) argue that there is still limited knowledge about what should constitute and what should define global public relations. Our suggested approach in studying global public relations contributes to this call for alternative views in global public relations. Yet, it implies at least three major theoretical and practical changes in studying and approaching global public relations. First, global public relations would no longer be limited to studying globalizing processes only in particular and discrete parts of the world, as those processes reach into all locales. Second, “swarm” conduct makes redundant a number of key notions, such as strategically imposing predefined social science categories to identify “key public(s)”. Public relations could only gain from applying process approaches and think of relating to people’s complex concerns, communications and ways of living, rather than sticking to the illusion of stability of “cultural groups”. This could be facilitated by relating to a posteriori understandings of complex social behaviours, rather than relying on predefined categories. Third, in order to accommodate transforming state-market negotiations and deterritorialized, shifting practice patterns, global public relations would have to abandon the prescriptive managerial logic of measurement and the related striving for predictability. Rather than communicating with strategically defined, distinct publics, global public relations practitioners should develop emergent strategies and localize swarms conduct, intertwine their communication and continuously adapt. The “action strategy” suggested by Allen and Dozier (2012, p. 184) could be developed in this direction. Organizations need to constantly synchronize what they do and what they say with localized shifting practice patterns (which metaphorically are
named “swarm conduct”), and public relations professionals must participate in organizational decision making to influence organizational practice so it becomes indistinguishable from swarms. The perceived dyadic distances between organizations, public relations professionals and publics evaporate in the impactful communication and cross-acting that goes in many directions simultaneously. This, in our view, allows to explore the phenomenon of globalizing processes and swarm behaviours in a more meaningful and realistic manner.
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About the authors Dr Iris Rittenhofer, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Intercultural and Global Business Communication at the Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, Denmark, where she is the Head of a Research Group CRU. Dr Rittenhofer has raised external funds for several research projects and has published widely on topics such as related to cross-cultural management, business and marketing communication, EU policy or global culture export. Dr Iris Rittenhofer is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Chiara Valentini, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Public Relations and Corporate Communication at the Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, Denmark, where she teaches stakeholder relations, public affairs and political communication courses. Dr Valentini has written and co-written over 30 peer-reviewed publications, as well as four books in public relations, social media, public and political communication, crisis communication, and the European Union. She serves as a reviewer of several international peer-review journals and is member of the editorial board of Corporate Communication: an International Journal.
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