chapter  3
14 Pages

Public relations and storytelling

WithPaul Elmer

Public relations is storytelling. The statement is not, if we take it at face value, controversial. A simple lay explanation of what public relations practitioners do all day would certainly include telling stories. If we extend our interest to elaborated, theorised versions of this commonsense view, we encounter terms such as sensemaking, narrative and discursive practice, which all engage with the notion of telling stories. More specifically, this involves public relations workers who tell stories that support their employer’s interests, in ways that make profitable sense. While journalists might make strident and confident claims for the cultural centrality of their labour, and movie producers may ascribe lofty artistic intentions to their daily bread, we may still recognise a family resemblance that links such work together with public relations as storytelling occupations. Why, then, do accounts of public relations fail to make much mention of it? Perhaps because the term storytelling offers a single but imprecise term under which a confusing range of approaches have come together, in an apparently haphazard way, within a larger and more inclusive category of narrative. This chapter brings together a selection of that material in order to offer some further points of departure to scholars as they explore public relations practices, and reflects the importance of discourse, as discussed in the introduction. In this chapter we encounter storytelling within two quite different bodies of

theory: one founded on management theory; and the other which prioritises sociological and cultural analysis. Both provide rich accounts of work and organisational life. The first arises from an interest in management and organisations, located in a tradition of explorations and explanations that bring tools of social enquiry to the business school agenda. This is the study of organisations and people in organisations that may well be familiar territory to public relations scholars working from a business school perspective. Management theorists have drawn on storytelling approaches, including both folkloric and literary accounts of story, in a variety of ways; Yiannis Gabriel, for example, has used storytelling as a methodological approach to fieldwork,

as well as an analytical tool (Gabriel, 2000). For public relations scholars this opens up greater possibilities for drawing on the stories that practitioners tell, about themselves, their work, their organisations, their clients and working relationships, as a potentially rich source of information about the occupation (see also Hodges, this volume). Other management theorists have also subjected practices and organisations to

critiques that draw on storytelling in other ways, not to collect stories, but to identify storytelling in use and to subject organisational activities to a storied analysis (Czarniawska, 1998; Boje, 2007). There is also a more recent trend to engage literary theory; delegates at management conferences have occasionally found Derrida, Bahktin and Foucault harnessed roughly to accounts of business and organisational life, and while that line of work is relatively immature as yet, it may offer scope for future scholarship in public relations, too. These approaches reveal the potential for public relations analysis to extend beyond its existing, familiar, and well-worn terms of reference to develop alternative analytical frameworks and an expanded range of explanations. As illustrated in the previous two chapters, the sociological contribution arises from

close scholarly interest in people and practices. It is only in the past decade that the critical emphasis in public relations studies has begun to shift away from the functional and managerialist perspectives that dominated the discipline from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and towards explanations of public relations that arise from its social and cultural context. Having arrived rather late to the game, public relations scholars find themselves at a particular moment in relation to sociological and cultural theory; the explanatory power and grand sweep of critical theory has passed its peak, so that it is no longer adequate to rely on critical abstractions that draw together whole classes or groups as if they were all the same. The past 15 years have generated several such accounts of public relations, including those which draw together complex and diverse factors under the popular but imprecise term ‘spin’, while they fail to engage with the precise detail of working lives of public relations practitioners (Miller & Dinan, 2007). Such approaches have now passed the peak of their popularity, amid growing concern that they conceal the differentiated ways that practice, relationship and culture emerge in work and workers (Du Gay, 2007; Nixon, 2003). As a result, there is a shift away from theory that interrogates culture and economy in order to explain the nature of contemporary capitalism (as in Giddens, 1991; and Lash & Urry; 1994) and towards critique at the level of occupations and personhood. If sociological work is now carried out in a period when the explanatory and structuring power of critical theory is on the wane, attention falls instead on competing explanations and modes of enquiry, and in particular on a sociology that focuses on the specific and contingent nature of people and their practices within a distinctive occupational culture (Du Gay, 2007; Nixon, 2003). Such analysis is based on an anthropologically inflected sociology, especially that of Bourdieu (see also both Edwards and L’Etang, this volume). This emerging strand of research and scholarship amounts to a modest sociological turn in the study of public relations. If we re-examine public relations work from the perspective of individual practices

and working cultures, storytelling emerges as one of several routines that animate

working lives. On an intuitive level this may be unremarkable, but reaching a scholarly understanding of this requires us to overcome both the historical lack of engagement with storytelling within public relations studies, and a fragmented and diverse theoretical framework on the topic that derives from social and cultural critique. Exploring that framework engages with the problems of language and power, with

the relationship between story and social life, and with the role of storyteller. There are several key distinctions to encounter. Most authors seek formal and structural distinctions between story and narrative (the two are sometimes used interchangeably elsewhere, but have become established as quite separate terms in this context), between the immediacy of story creation and storied post hoc analysis, between emotion and reason, between dominant forms of knowledge and their disruptive alternatives, between complete stories that make sense of our world, and fragmented stories that seem only to emphasise its incoherence. They are occasionally presented as binary oppositions, although it may be more useful to view them from the outset as structures that authors have engaged as they try to make sense of the world by imposing a sense of formal unity. They are contrasted with claims that are more constructivist in tone, suggesting that life is rather messy and that the stories we find reflect that messiness; that storytelling is polyvocal, that social life is characterised by diverse intentions, and that there are limits to what can be discovered by reasoned critique. To encounter such variety of approach it is not necessary to leave the management school, only to explore its furthest corridors.