Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009)
©2008 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Roumen Dimitrov
University of Western Sydney, Australia

bookPublic Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practices. Edited by Jacquie L’Etang & Magda Pieczka. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 2006. 442 pp. ISBN 0805846182.

Only a few texts in public relations education deserve the title of “foundational” status. Certainly Robert Heath’s Handbook of Public Relations is one of them. I would make the case that Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practices is also worthy of placement in the same category. The latter, which is the focus of this review, is an updated and enlarged continuation of the original and out-of-print Critical Perspectives in Public Relations that the editors, Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka, published exactly ten years earlier, in 1996.

Like the field it describes, Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice has grown markedly. Not only has the number of chapters increased from 8 to 23, but the number of authors has also expanded from the four University of Stirling editors and writer who produced the first book, to many more researchers and practitioners from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. What they all have in common is an intellectual view from the margins. Such a perspective, which looks from the outside in, tests old assumptions, welcomes cross-pollinations of old and new approaches, ponders the complexity of the profession, and is fascinated by the widely unrealised project of communicative action.

Most of the original collection has been updated. Only a few remain virtually unchanged. In the concluding section of the new collection, Section V, one can read the original tour de force, notably Magda Pieczka’s paper on the paradigmatic dominance of the system theory in PR, as well as Jacquie L’Etang’s exploration of the rhetorical dimension in public relations and Peter Meech’s conceptualisation of corporate identity and image.

The new texts bring in a more critical and empirical approach. Four main themes run through these new chapters: propaganda, history, the PR industry, and PR practice. These chapters also profit from the apparent decision of the editors to lift any restrictions on the length of the contributions.

What has not changed is the pedagogical perspective of the book. The original edition was designed to teach public relations at the University of Stirling, the first institution to introduce PR as an MSc degree in the UK. At that time, the authors were critical of limitations in the UK educational environment (similar to those in Europe and North America), in which PR was taught. Such an environment privileged courses over research and allowed the technicist mantra of PR as management application to dominate the PR curricula.

Critique of students’ work was meant to help them deconstruct their own educational environment, which is why the emphasis fell on the evaluation of the mainstream (U.S. style) functionalist concept in PR, on the social effects of professional communication, and on the elevation of educational standards from basic training of technicians in charge of “deliverables” to a more sophisticated education of self-reflective, empowered, and astute professionals (including decision-makers) who understand how to play power coalitions and organisational policies. The thought being that teaching PR students to communicate at a higher and more sophisticated level would benefit both individual students as well as the industry at large.

This perspective remains alive and well in the new book. While ten years is not much time in academe, it certainly is in professional PR. Accordingly, the editors have recognized some changes. Today, many universities offer undergraduate and graduate programs in public relations and cognate fields (management communication, business communication, et cetera). There has, therefore, been a rapidly growing body of PR research that informs these newer programs.

The first four sections in Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice are new. Section I offers a conceptual framework that encompasses rhetoric, ethics, relationships and the public. In the opening article, C. Kay Waver, Judy Motion and Juliet Roper question the relation between propaganda and public relations. Registering the “pejorative” definition of public relations as well as the critical discourse, which finds that there is no real difference between propaganda against public interest and public relations for the public interest, the authors offer the provocative conclusion that the critical discourse view of public relations helps us understand the significance of the PR contribution to hegemonic power, construction of knowledge, truth, and the public interest.

Section II presents the historical approach to PR. The title is somewhat deceiving. We have to keep in mind that every critical approach must begin with putting “universal” assertions into historical context. The critical interest of the editors may be partly explained by their historical expertise. (In 2004, for example, Jacquie L’Etang published her Public Relations in Britain: A History of Professional Practice in the 20th Century.) Especially riveting in this section is Heike Puchan’s reading of the history of PR in Germany. Despite the hegemony of the American model, PR in Germany has developed relatively independently, based on different traditions in the human sciences and serving both a society and industry structured in their own way.

Section III, entitled “ New Directions,” is an eclectic one. Most of the chapters here are not about conceptual directions, but rather new areas in empirical research. Richard Kilborn asks how to build trust in the context of the entrepreneurial trend in recent documentary filmmaking. Vincent Campbell explores the misrepresentations of science in the media and their implications for the audience. Included are articles on branding and crisis management in football and the employment of PR practitioners in sport, health, and tourism. 

Section IV is the shortest with only three chapters; yet it is central for making sense of the collection as a whole. It brings together education, theory, and practice from the perspective of the public relations professional. Magda Pieczka is the co-author of the first article and the sole author of the other two. Based on a rich body of empirical research, she explores the degree to which public relations has become a profession.

Googling undergraduate and graduate programs in public relations in 2009, one finds that Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice has already established itself as a key textbook in many universities, especially in Europe. It stands out because of its openness to other approaches in communications and social sciences, its critical and methodically anchored self-awareness, and its engagement with issues of agency and reflection, efficiency, and ethics.

The book is even more important in the context of a new generation of public relations practitioners and academics—especially young university teachers—who are products of their own education. Their careers tend to be more institutionalised and encapsulated than ever. They often study public relations from the undergraduate level to PhD level and, without pause, start teaching and researching what they have learned. They encounter other disciplines and alternative perspectives mainly in the form of a book like this one.

Look at the qualifications of the earlier generation who paved the way to the composite and quality education that is now a prerequisite for professional public relations. For example, let’s look at the intellectual knowledge Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka bring to their approach to public relations. Here are some of their “other” areas of expertise: Film and Media Studies, Internal Communications, Event Management, American, English and Commonwealth History, English Literature, Teaching English as a Second Language, Management, Social Justice, Distance Learning, Publishing Studies, and Sociology professions (including Public Relations), and Organisational Ethnography. These varied backgrounds are not academic adornments or self-indulgences but often represent difficult biographical choices, demanding changes of networks, and perhaps spells of personal and professional crisis. Such interdisciplinary achievements stem, at least partly, from the many stations and crossroads in their not so straightforward professional biographies.

Will the new generation of public relations students and educators achieve the same academic breadth and exposure?  Or will they be trapped in narrow academic confines? This book doesn’t answer such big questions, but it does demonstrate to the newer generation the value of variety in approaching public relations, whether it be as a professional, an educator, a critic, or a sympathetic observer.


Heath, Robert L. (Ed.). (2000). Handbook of Public Relations. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.


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