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Public Relations and Globalization

Public Relations’ response to globalization has prompted criticism from both scholars

and practitioners alike. By asserting its Western-centric principles of scholarship and its

corporate simplification of an organization’s publics, the field of PR has not adapted a global

perspective in view of the complex globalized process. This essay discusses these two main

concerns in public relations in response to globalization, while also shining a light on some

alternative, more global perspectives on both.

It is first worth highlighting the PR field’s state in relation to the globalized process.

Globalization as a term could be illustrated by using Appadurai’s (1990) concept of the

scapes, whereby ideological, financial, technological, media-related, and human resources are

exchanged in the increasingly interconnected global state, crossing defined national borders

and creating/impacting complex flows (or scapes) of influence and power (Dutta & Pal, 2008,

pp.165-168). Globalization is not a recent phenomenon; it has existed ever since people

crossed borders to trade, spread awareness about religion and colonize, among other things.

However, it is evident that due to several recent developments such as the establishment of

the UN after WWII, the elimination of trade barriers and the advancement of the Internet, the

globalized process has intensified into a compression of space and time of immediate

developments and heightened interdependence in social and professional relationships

worldwide. The public relations field effects and is affected by such relationships; yet, its

main role in this affair has been to homogenize its Western-centric origins over both its

practice and education/scholarship on a global scale. On the one hand, its theoretical

frameworks come from a set of generic principles that are based on interviews and surveys

with British, American and Canadian practitioners and stem from certain corporate ideals. On

the other, its operations rely on such notions as understanding environmental variables, for

instance, the notion of ‘publics’, which are treated as definite exemplars that a given

organization can measure and evaluate to further its goals and objectives (Bardhan et al,

2011; Sriramesh, 2009). These two main concerns create implications for the public relations

field in its response to globalization.

For one thing, public relations scholarship and its education around the world is

mainly based on US/UK studies and examples of practice, where in turn any advances to a

more global public relations is hindered if non-western perspectives aren’t considered.

Sriramesh (2009) contends that while public relations as a field of study has grew

substantially since the 70s, most of its theorizing is ethnocentric and lacks empirical data

from outside North American and British borders. This fact leads to the more serious concern

of public relations education around the world, where most textbooks come from the US and

UK, and contain little to no examples relevant to other countries. Also, translations of these

textbooks to other languages may impede the transfer of knowledge. Whereas the replication

of such knowledge is beneficial to understanding how western models apply in non-western

situations, there is still a need to find and define unique global perspectives due to the

globalized process of PR as a field of study and as a practice among practitioners from the

west and beyond (Sriramesh, 2009, pp. 7-9). To illustrate such a lack of global perspective, a

2005 study in relevance to PR wanted to determine how many U.S. journalism and mass

communication programs provided their students an international non-western history course

in the span of their academic years. It was found that among the 76 accredited programs, only

5 had a specific course dedicated to non-western history. The main aim of the study was to

point out how the lack of such a course does not aid students in broadening their educational

outcomes in fields that are very much concerned with cultural and global connections

(Creedon & Al-Khaja, 2005). Similarly, a more recent study on public relations practitioners

in Singapore and Perth found that while practitioners felt that inter-cultural and global

understanding is integral, there is a strong need to re-examine the Western ideologies that

underlie their field in the more globalized world today (Fitch, 2012).

In relation to re-examining the Western theoretical frameworks in public relations, the

corporate business model that dominates most discourses has received criticism when

compared to alternative models, such as PR’s societal functions (Dutta & Pal, 2008) -

illustrated in such examples as the Kaupapa Māori (Tilley & Love, 2010). Most PR discourse

centers on the field’s role in the management function of an organization or furthering the

idea that with certain strategies and tactics, practitioners could maximize the organization’s

bottom line - consolidated in such studies as the Excellence Project by Grunig (1992). This

approach has two evident setbacks. One, practitioners are presumably basing their work on a

set of normative and absolute ‘rules’ that are considered effective and can only be evaluated

in terms of generated capital. Two, public relations as a field is limited to the first setback and

cannot explore alternative examples of effectiveness that go beyond profit-making and

meeting bottom line demands. The second setback, however, has been examined and other

models of practice have been shown to expand PR in a major role in community

empowerment (Dutta & Pal, 2008, pp. 162-163). For example, the Kaupapa Māori are a set

of protocols developed by Māori scholars to aid in research on their culture and society.

When considered in the context of a communication model, these protocols take the two-way

symmetrical approach – which practitioners seem to view as belonging more to theory than

practice - a step further by reforming the understanding of power and relationships, chiefly

that of an organization and the public. Here, publics are seen as an entity of their own, and

not a reactive responder to what an organization puts forth. They are their own

representatives (of their culture, values, opinions, voices), rather than be part of a discussion

dominated by an organization’s research tactics – for instance defining issues and who is

concerned (Tilley & Love, 2010).

Indeed, the concept of the publics, particularly, has undergone scrutiny, in light of the

complex globalized process. In the collective role of ‘boundary spanning’, practitioners foster

and maintain a bridge between an organization and its environment by relationships – for

example, with the organization’s publics - through key identifiers, such as culture. Most

practice and scholarship in public relations situate that identifying the publics’ culture is key

to successful relationships and is done so by employing certain definitions and constituents of

culture, largely from the work of Holfstede (1997) and his dimensions (Rittenhofer &

Valentini, 2015). However, the notion of a nationally bound, geographically located culture

with predictable, enduring customs and behaviors has deteriorated in today’s globalized

process – a process that includes a symptomatic prevalence of diasporic communities

worldwide (Dutta & Pal, 2008; Bardhan et all, 2011, pp. 8-11), and the increased

interconnectivity of people through the impact of new media on cultural identity. Discussed

briefly, this impact involves a 24/7 compression of space and time, new ways of representing

the world, and an overall challenge to traditional aspects of culture, such as face-to-face

interaction and historical contexts of developments in people’s non-virtual societies (Chen,

2012). Therefore, practitioners that place culture in spatial and temporal bounds not only

work with outdated conceptualizations, but re-enforce Western hegemony in a ‘reductive act

of ‘otherization’’ (as quoted Rittenhofer & Valentini, 2015, p. 9).

In an alternative approach to the concept of ‘publics’, Rittenhofer & Valentini (2015)

provide an example of Dutch communications company DDB Signbank. Extending

Appadurai’s notion of the scapes and the intertwined nature of flows of resources (mentioned

above), the term ‘publics’ with predefined indictors (i.e. culture) is discarded. Instead, people

are understood based on their practices or conducts at different times and spaces interacting

with the scapes in various modes of fluidity, or to put it more simply, understanding human

“routes” rather than their “roots”, which are often arbitrary categories. DDB Signbank is

presented as an example to this approach. For instance, they state that part of their

methodology is the understanding of certain patterns in various local sites around the world

to outline themes of behavior beyond defined borders and cultures. They assert that people

are becoming more intelligent and more selective in the type and/or truthfulness of the

sharing of information, whether virtually or not. In this way, practitioners and scholars

analyze how communication organizes instead of organizing communication (Rittenhofer &

Valentini, 2015, pp. 11-14).

To conclude, the field of public relations should aim at acquiring more empirical data

from non-western countries and implanting global examples of practices and scholarship into

its education. It should also extend its corporate attitudes to become essential to community

empowerment, such as in the Kaupapa Māori protocols. Furthermore, definable

environmental variables, such as the concept of ‘publics’, should be scrutinized. Under these

circumstances, public relations as a field not only adapts to the globalized process, but also

affects it with an expanded, global outlook.


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