chapter  1
18 Pages

Imagining public relations anthropology

ByJacquie L’Etang

This essay explores the potential of ‘public relations anthropology’ to inspire directions of thought and research in public relations that can help us to understand more fully the lives and roles that public relations practitioners enact within contemporary societies. Anthropology can help us to analyse and interpret public relations work and workers within and between cultures and micro-cultures, and it offers a route to exploring public relations practice in the context of people’s daily lives in specific communities and contexts – something which tends not to be addressed in the public relations literature. Why anthropology? One good answer could be that given by George Leigh

Mallory who, when asked, in 1923, why he wanted to climb Everest responded, ‘Because it’s there’. Why anthropology? Well, why not? Public relations as a discipline is a work-in-progress that has borrowed ideas from many other disciplines especially psychology, management and organisation studies and marketing, but also from political science, philosophy, media studies and social theory. However, there are more compelling reasons why public relations scholarship would do well to give attention to anthropology. Although the interests of anthropology – culture, communication, change (globalisation, consumerism, technology) – are all central to public relations, the strategies, tactics and outcomes (outputs) of anthropology are very different to those of public relations scholarship. Anthropology offers alternative approaches to thinking and writing about public relations. For example, the discipline of anthropology is an exemplar of reflexivity and is characterised by a particular research approach – that of ethnography – both of which are rare in public relations (Daymon & Hodges, 2009). In short, the anthropological imagination offers considerable potential for public relations scholars and practitioners. In advocating an anthropological approach, I suggest some possible lines of enquiry that could put

some flesh on the public relations skeleton. ‘Imagining public relations’ opens up creative possibilities and new and alternative storylines rendered through empathetic listening and interpretive readings derived from ethnographic methodology. The dominance of functional instrumental research in the public relations dis-

cipline has resulted in uni-dimensional and rather unimaginative outputs about formal roles and idealistic prescriptions about how public relations should be practised ethically and effectively. But we know virtually nothing about PR work-styles, lifestyles and practice cultures, or practitioners’ engagement with local cultures and meaning-creation activities and impacts within them. The anthropological positioning of this chapter foregrounds ‘cultures’, that is to

say, spheres of meaning that unify communities in societal contexts, as a primary focus for public relations. Culture has multiple definitions. For example, definitions have included:

The total way of life of a people … the social legacy the individual acquires from his group … a way of thinking, feeling and believing … an abstraction from behaviour … a storehouse of pooled learning … a set of standardised orientations to recurrent problems … learned behaviour … a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men … a precipitation of history …

(Geertz, 2009: 4)

Culture incorporates mental architecture and patterns of behaviour within self-referencing communities that possess recognisable identity and share meanings among individual members through specialised language and symbols. As a communications discipline, public relations practitioners need ‘culture-capacity’ – the ability to recognise, understand and communicate with diverse cultures at multiple levels, for example: ethnic, organisational, occupational, political, recreational. Geertz remarked that the concept of culture ‘is essentially a semiotic one’ (Geertz,

2009: 4). He supported Max Weber’s view that, ‘man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself spins’ and that these webs comprised culture (Geertz, 2009: 4). This metaphor is of great interest in a public relations context because of the popularity of the term ‘spin doctor’ that, in many cultures, portrays the PR practitioner as the spider spinning webs (often employing trickery or deceit to capture unsuspecting audiences). The metaphor also implies PR’s role in producing discourses, seeking to influence which webs have ‘significance’. In this chapter, I suggest that anthropology and its characteristic research

approach – ethnography – could offer alternative insights into the roles of public relations in contemporary societies and promotional cultures. I highlight some anthropological concepts that might generate alternative readings of PR, and drive research in new directions under the rubric ‘public relations anthropology’. I begin with a definitional discussion of anthropology and its defining method, that

of ethnography; the connection between public relations and culture; and proceed to a brief review of literature on applied anthropology in media, marketing and

organisation studies. Finally, I consider how anthropological concepts and ethnographic approaches could contribute to public relations research and practice, and highlight issues and concepts that could form starting points for a new research agenda.