Critical Review of Globalisation and Public Relations: An Overview Looking Into the Future

The real challenge for public relations is to help organisations bridge that which is global and that which is local.
The real challenge for public relations is to help organisations bridge that which is global and that which is local.

Based on the report of “Sriramesh, K. 2009. Globalisation and public relations: An Overview Looking Into The Future. PRism 6(2)”, this article presents a critically informed analysis of the development of the body of knowledge of global public relations, broadly defining “culture” with a view to the future.

The real challenge for public relations is to help organisations bridge that which is global and that which is local. Following an overview of the history of PR, attention is given to how the concept of internationalisation can be used more effectively by public relations professionals, and how cultures are favoured by communication firms and consultants as essential public relations tools.

PR educators may need to review course curricula in light of developments and industry responses. The article concludes that despite some deficiencies in methodology, to the extent that this research is exploratory, the study has provided some insights to account for new markets and cultures in the developing public relations standards across national borders.

Introduction

Globalisation has brought individuals, groups, and organisations closer together. What happens in one country now can have immediate effects on people, organisations and relationships in many other countries. Likewise, the field of public relations is fast becoming influenced by international theories and practices from different cultures because of the processes of globalisation and internationalisation. Globalisation has been one major force whereby most organisations are required to develop and maintain positive relationships with their international stakeholders (Sriramesh, 2009). Along the lines of Sriramesh, the Academy of Marketing argues that organisations should not only seek their customers and benefactor stakeholders internationally nowadays; multinational corporations must also be prepared to handle possible resistance from host cultures upon setting up their subsidiaries, branches, or outlets outside the country of their headquarters (Conference, 2011). It is imperative, therefore, for public relations scholars and practitioners to develop their sensitivity, knowledge, and skills in conducting PR work in international settings effectively. Sriramesh (2003) had also previously been consistent in claiming, “given the extent of globalisation that has occurred especially in the past 10 years, a majority of public relations practice in the twenty-first century has, and will continue to, become multinational and multicultural in nature” (p. 505).

A central part of many public relations professionals’ jobs is to communicate with multiple stakeholders and stakeseekers. Communicating with diverse publics is a difficult enough task in a nation or region when the PR practitioner shares the same overarching cultural background with the public. Communication becomes an even more complex task when organisations seek to engage in relationships with global publics that live and work across many real and perceived boundaries. Many practitioners are being called upon to build relationships in complex cultural environments. The substance of Sriramesh (2009) paper is that globalisation is to be credited for moving the public relations body of knowledge toward greater cultural relativism “in order to make it more relevant to practitioners who are faced with the challenge of communicating effectively with the diverse publics of the emerging markets of Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa.”

History: PR towards globalisation

Sriramesh’s view is persuasive on J. Grunig (1976) concerning the history of public relations. The earliest approach to international PR research was led by Grunig and his colleagues as they conducted their ‘Excellence study’ to investigate best practices of public relations in three countries including USA, UK, and Canada (Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 2002). In general, this theory advocates the elevation of public relations roles in organisational decision making and strategic planning since PR managers take on the boundary spanning role, the function that helps organisations gather inputs from external stakeholders. In this sense, organisations that demonstrate excellent PR practices would work symmetrically with their publics. Their idea of symmetrical public relations has been tested in various parts of the world (Grunig J. E., Grunig, Sriramesh, Huang, & Lyra, 1995). While this approach to international PR research seems solid with strong empirical evidence in many countries, several scholars caution that this generic approach may lead to ethnocentricity (For example, Choi & Cameron, 2005; Wakefield, 2010).

Sriramesh’s work leads him to conclude that the final decade of the 20th century heralded significant changes that put globalisation on a different scale altogether because of three principal factors – elimination of trade barriers among nations of the world, onset and development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), and ultimately recognition among overwhelming majority of countries of the world that the human race needs to come together and address common problems.

Table 1: Overview of Three Approaches to International Public Relations:

  Excellent Approach Political Economy Critical/Cultural
Main premise Search for generic principlesof effective internationalPR practices Identify environmentalfactors to analyseinternational PR practices Provide a flexible framework to avoid imposing on indigenous culture
Strengths Provide a clear guidelinesFor international publicrelations practices Similar to Excellence approach but more sophisticated as environmental factors considered Display respect andemphasize genuine dialogue, rather than persuasion
Weaknesses May reinforce ethnocentricity All factors vary from case to case and might be difficult to manage them at a time The framework for cultural analysis is very loose and subject to interpretation

However, while describing the history of public relations, Sriramesh was less clear about various events, and he omitted many important people who contributed to the evolution of PR in the world.

PR for national development

According to Sriramesh (2009), empirical studies have been conducted in other Asian countries such as South Korea, China, the Philippines, and Japan, as well as some Eastern European and former Soviet-Bloc countries throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, which ultimately “helped begin the process of ‘internationalising’ the body of knowledge of public relations.” Studies support the theory that societal culture as conceptualised by Sriramesh and White (1992) also influences PR practices. Sriramesh and White (1992) argue that the cultural differences among societies must affect public relations practices by people of different societies. They also propose that societal cultures which display lower levels of power distance (PDI), authoritarianism, and individualism, but have higher levels of interpersonal trust among workers, “are most likely to develop the excellent PR practices identified by Grunig” (Sriramesh and White, 1992).

Not unlike Sriramesh (2009), in some developing countries public relations is used as a tool for national development or public health. For example, Van Leuven (1996) studied public relations practices in South East Asia. According to Van Leuven’s (1996) study, PR was used by Malaysia and Singapore government as a tool for national development. Taylor (2000) also conducted a public relations study in Malaysia. According to her study, a campaign in Malaysia was aimed at improving relationships between two different ethnic groups, Chinese and Malay.

Wu et al. (2001) also analysed the development of public relations in Taiwan. According to their analysis, public relations was used as political tool for government before the Martial law was abolished in 1987. Right after the Martial law was abolished in 1987, many demonstrations and petition activities have occurred in Taiwan. Specifically, Taiwanese people began to pay attention to environmental issues. Therefore, public relations was mainly used as a crisis management tool by the Taiwanese government and corporations in the early 1990s. However, due to rapid economic growth, public relations now supports marketing activities in Taiwan. By looking at the evolution of public relations functions in Taiwan, we can safely say that the primary function of public relations can change when there is a change in political system. Later on, in his paper, Sriramesh (2009) supports this belief. According to Sriramesh and Verčič (2003), “in India, for example, many public information campaigns have used folk media such as docudramas, dances, skits, and plays in rural areas (p. 15.).”

The generic principles

Sriramesh (2009) supports the concept that effective public relations links two elements by drafting communication strategies that adopts some or all of the ‘generic principles’ and ‘localising’ (‘harmonising’) them to the environment where the communication is taking place. The author is right in so far when he mentions that “the word ‘glocalisation’ where one judiciously combines elements of the ‘global’ with the ‘local’ aptly describes this approach where some universally applicable principles of public relations are harmonised to develop communication strategies that suit local cultures.”

The approach to the study of international public relations, and the one that has received the most attention has, indeed, been the idea of a “generic approach” (Lim et al., 2005; Rhee, 2002; Sriramesh & Verčič, 2003; Verčič, Grunig, & Grunig, 1996). Grunig (2006) noted that “evidence continues to mount supporting the usefulness of our theory of generic principles and specific applications” (p. 170). Grunig further claims that research is moving “beyond confirmation of the utility of the generic principles of the Excellence theory” (p. 171). As Sallot et al. (2003) point out in their meta-analysis of theory development in the field of public relations, “Theory was most prevalent in articles about excellence/symmetry” (p. 27), and more articles on theory development in public relations (19/148) have focused on excellence/symmetrical theories (p. 42). Sallot et al. conclude, “Of the 148 articles classified as theory development, the largest share… were categorised as concerned with Excellence theory, arguably the closest public relations comes at this time to having a paradigm” (p. 51).

It is agreed that the generic approach has great potential for focusing international research and clarifying infrastructure, geopolitical, legal, cultural, media, and other important variables (Sriramesh, 2009). The generic approach to international public relations is valuable insofar as its five variables: political ideology, economic system, degree of activism, culture, and media system (Sriramesh & Verčič, 2003, p. 2) serve to describe a majority of the salient features of public relations in other nations. However, the generic approach (as named in the Excellence model) has several limitations, which Sriramesh (2009) circumvented in his paper.

Public relations academics and professionals need to more vigorously examine the cultural, social, and economic factors that influence public relations development in different contexts. The Rhetorical Generic Theory (RGT) approach to studying international public relations is one such beginning. Studies of intercultural and interpersonal communication have shown that culture and communication cannot be reduced to a few principles, a topology, or a list (Michael & Maureen, 2007).

In public relations, studies by many scholars have informed about practices and every new study has potential value. However, we must not be seduced by the simple topology. Culture is too complex. New research, theories, and models are needed to better describe and measure international practices in public relations. An understanding of international public relations practices should be as dynamic as other areas of research. One theory will never explain the practice of public relations in every country but an assortment of heuristics, models, theories, topologies, and examples of practice will allow professionals and academics to more effectively conduct and teach international public relations.

PR education – informal vs. formal

In his paper, Sriramesh (2009) mentions that, “Until as recently as a couple of decades ago, most public relations practitioners around the world were ‘imports’ from other disciplines such as journalism, English literature, etc. and in some parts of the world this trend continues as public relations education has not permeated tertiary education.” The point of Sriramesh’s argument here appears to be mocking.

However, research shows that public relations in most regions of the world historically developed out of journalism and press agentry, and this history has informed much of the present public relations curriculum. For example, in Australia, early academic public relations courses were heavily vocationally focused and directed toward managing the print channel (daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers; brochures; trade magazines; and staff newsletters) as the primary means of communicating with publics. The initial Public Relations Institute of Australia university course accreditation process also had a strong emphasis on writing, grammar, and how to construct press releases for print mediums (Alexander, 2004).

The creation of schools of communication in tertiary institutions around the world, housed both public relations and journalism courses within the same environment (Putnis & Axford, 2002). Public relations text books in the 1970s and early 1980s were mostly sourced from the United States and these also emphasised the links between public relations and the media.

Sriramesh (2009) claims that, “Although an important foundation, education alone will not result in a well-rounded public relations practitioner who can add value to the organisation. Despite the best education, professional development occurs on the job and through informal and formal exchanges with peer networks (such as professional associations).” He further supports his statement by adding that a combination of theoretical (obtained through formal education) and practical (obtained through professional peer networks) elements “helps mould the young communication enthusiast into a well-rounded public relations practitioner who can add value to organisational processes (Sriramesh, 2009).”

Merging both formal and informal education brings the opportunity to learners to combine knowledge and interactions (Antonio, 2008). In contrast, once students graduate, they become newcomers to the work environment. Newcomers bring new ideas from their formal education at institutions such as universities to their work place (Apple et al., 2003). The formal side of education is visible to all us, in all tertiary institutions. But, the central question that underpins the purpose of any informal education in respect of welfare rights, caring or any of the examples explored by Sriramesh (2009), is to what extent practitioners’ interventions are directed towards critical reflectiveness and action.

Public relations education is facing a fundamental challenge to its theoretical and pedagogical directions. Unless educators respond to the changes that technology is bringing to the communities they serve, the academy faces the prospect of becoming irrelevant by not providing students with the skills and knowledge required by the marketplace. A strategic view, therefore, needs to be taken of future practitioner, client, and student needs.

PR has come of age, and with that has come a critical need for broadly-based education that is relevant and connected to the practice. The changes in public relations practice since the 1987 Commission on Public Relations Education Report are numerous and profound. At root, these changes reflect nothing less than the way the world has changed and continues to change, seemingly spinning ever faster and veering in new directions. But, happily, the changes also reflect a broad acceptance of the validity of modern public relations practice to a global society that is increasingly interdependent, increasingly interconnected (PRSA, 1999).

The future of PR

When it comes to predicting the future of public relations, Sriramesh (2009) argues that there is a need for a healthy blend of both ‘local’ examples and ‘global’ ones to “help students and practitioners be better educated to meet their ‘global’ challenges.” In fact, any concept of globalisation that attempts to airbrush out the importance of local, national, or regional dynamics is not going to take us very far. It is no longer acceptable to rely on the watchwords, “Think Global, Act Local.” Perhaps closer to the mark is a line by Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who once said, “All politics is local.” In some important senses, all PR is local, too.

In considering the reality of global public relations, we should remember that it is complex, not simple. The tension and balance between the power of international and the power of local is an old theme. According to Diamond (2006), one lesson is clear: “global and local always coexist and have always been intertwined.” History shows that one does not necessarily lead to the demise of the other.

It is argued by theorists, such as Matsushita (2011) and Ahmet I. (2001), that globalisation is complex and multilayered and it is perilous to forget that. The first step in understanding the reality of the globalisation of public relations is that some of the key players now are no longer capable of being understood within the confines of traditional national boundaries. It’s not just that they act internationally; they act supranationally. Their psychology, their thinking and even their cultures are becoming truly global (Diamond, 2006).

The real challenge for public relations is to help organisations bridge that which is global and that which is local. Unfortunately, there is no magic template for doing this. What there is, instead, is a steadily growing body of wisdom that comes from doing it, day in and day out, in numerous markets around the world.

Conclusion

It has to be admitted that the current study is still far from being conclusive. Further studies must be undertaken, better measures must be developed, and larger samples must be used to improve our understanding concerning the exact relationship between globalisation and public relations. A lack of precisions have been observed in the paper when it comes to identifying the core issue. The specialised terminology has not been usefully defined. Also, Sriramesh has provided adequate literature review, but most references have been done to his own-written previous papers. As such, mentions from other authors’, researchers’ and theorists’ papers could have brought more clarity and diversity in the intensification of the topic. Despite some deficiencies in methodology, to the extent that this research is exploratory, that is trying to investigate an emerging issue, the study has provided some insights to account for new markets and cultures in the developing public relations standards across national borders.

– KRISHNA ATHAL

Works Cited
  • Ahmet, I. & Fuat, K., 2001. Globalisation, Security and Migration. Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey, p. 23.
  • Alexander, D., 2004. Changing the public relations curriculum: A new challenge for educators. PRism, Volume 2, p. 4.
  • Antonio, J. M., 2008. What are the purposes of formal and informal education?. Westsidechs, p. 8.
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  • Sriramesh, K. & Verčič, 2003. The global public relations handbook: Theory, research, and practice. p. 505.
  • Wakefield, R., 2010. Why culture is still essential in discussions about public relations?. The SAGE handbook of public relations, pp. 659-670.

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