Public Relations and Social Theory: Key Figures and Concepts. Øyvind Ihlen, Betteke van Ruler, and Magnus Fredriksson, eds. New York: NY: Routledge Publications, 2009. 376 pp.
The editors of this much-needed book have set forth to conquer a challenging task: to break public relations free from what some see as an intellectual silo and place both the practice and study of public relations into a larger context. By encouraging interdisciplinarity in the study of public relations, they have both acknowledged the increasing role of public relations in our society, and suggested a way that we can study how the practice of public relations affects our world.
While much of the scholarship thus far has approached the study of public relations from an organizational or management perspective, the editors of this book suggest that a wider focus is needed. This will allow public relations scholarship to become more thorough by acknowledging the large role that the practice of public relations now plays in our society. By bringing to bear concepts from some of the most well known names in social theory, they have attempted to start this process of considering public relations in its larger societal context.
The ideas borrowed from sociology by this book’s contributing authors seem tailor-made to a macroscopic examination of the role that public relations plays in our society. The nature of institutions and their role in society and the idea of a socially constructed reality, for instance, call to mind greater issues about both the process of public relations and the effect that communication in pursuit of this process can have.
The three editors of this volume bring broad and deep experience and a European perspective to this collection. Ihlen is an associate professor at Norway’s Hedmark College and a research fellow at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo. Van Ruler is a professor at the Department of Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam, and former president of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association. Fredriksson is a lecturer at University of Gothenburg and co-founder of the Nordic research network LOKE.
Several of the chapters, including Motion and Leitch’s discussion of Foucault, provide excellent jumping-off points for critical examinations of public relations. By considering social theorists who have been openly critical of public relations, this book provides a well-rounded consideration of the field that looks at contemporary public relations “warts and all,” as explained in a concluding chapter by Ihlen and chapter author Verhoeven. Examining public relations in its larger societal context is a good first step to acknowledging and addressing those warts and an important aspect of the responsible practice of public relations.
While some of the names of social theorists mentioned here (Bourdieu, Foucault, Habermas, Weber) are well known to communications scholars, this book also provides chapters on the ideas of a number of social theorists whose names may be less familiar. Each chapter briefly summarizes the pertinent contributions of the theorist and applies them to the study and practice of public relations as appropriate. Two concluding chapters synthesize the themes from the various essays and critique the applicability of these social theories to the study of public relations.
The editors’ decision to organize the chapters alphabetically by the last name of the social theorist being discussed is logical if the book is to be used as a reference tool. But if the book intends to provide “food for thought” on approaching public relations research from a new perspective, this objective might have been better met by arranging the chapters thematically. For example, a public relations scholar studying crisis communication may not know that she would do well to consult the chapters on Ulrich Beck and Peter Berger if she was previously unfamiliar with those theorists’ work. (An introductory chapter by two of the editors does provide brief synopses of each chapter, as do helpful abstracts at the beginning of each chapter.)
In the introduction, the editors express a hope that practitioners will read this book as a way to “step back” and consider the theoretical underpinnings of their day-to-day work. But some of the chapters are a little inaccessible to a non-academic audience. The concepts of social theory presented here are undoubtedly complex; however, a less academic tone might make the ideas presented here accessible to a wider audience, including practitioners without an academic background.
Public relations scholars whose training has primarily kept them within the confines of traditional public relations and communication theory will find a wealth of new ideas in this book. The book’s value lies in opening up the minds of public relations scholars to new possibilities and interdisciplinary approaches by pointing out social theory that can be applied to public relations. The chapters’ authors not only draw connections, but also allow and encourage the reader to do as well. In this way, the book serves as a sort of mental calisthenics for the public relations scholar whose thinking might have stiffened somewhat along established modes of inquiry. For that reason, it is a valuable addition to the literature in this rapidly expanding field and a good resource for the beginning or established public relations scholar.