Observing the observers: the invisibility of public relations in theory and practice

Ruth Garland

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


In an interdisciplinary field such as public relations that seeks to examine a form of professional practice conducted by actors loosely defined as ‘promotional intermediaries’ (Davis, 2013; Nixon & Du Gay, 2002), on what basis can we say that public relations as a discipline, and PR practitioners as actors even exist as conceptual categories? As a PR practitioner for more than 25 years I identified less as a PR professional than as a participant within the fields in which I was situated – that is, public health, television, publishing and local government. Later, as a PhD student researching into UK government communications in the age of so-called ‘political spin,’ I situated myself between two media studies areas: mediatization and media sociology; and political and public communication (Garland, 2017). Public relations was less an object of study in itself, than an aspect of promotional culture (Wernick, 1991). My respondents were mainly civil servants who specialized in dealing with the media but I was interested in them more as unique and canny witnesses to the changing interplay between power structures, organizations, the media and public opinion, than for their professional affiliation. The conceptual basis for the research was not PR theory but a synthesis between Hepp's idea of cultures of mediatization, and Lingard and Rawolle's idea of 'cross-field' effects, as outcomes of a shared policy and representational space where media and political actors create shared understandings of problems and solutions, (Rawolle & Lingard, 2014; Hepp, 2013). To conduct the analysis I used my own set of concepts that related to media and political change over time - that is, resilience, resistance, responsiveness and representing the public - and used these to organise the data and interpret the results. PR theory and its link to practice were barely considered. Within the ‘cross-field’ the various actors shared cultural references and professional ethics, and struggled to produce narratives that would attract public attention. Their identities were fluid: journalists crossed the line to become government press officers, government press officers became lobbyists, journalists performed the watchdog role but were also expert propagandists. Some became political activists and moved into positions as senior (albeit temporary) civil servants – Alastair Campbell being a case in point. The notion of ‘political spin’ as a form of name calling, and blaming the ‘other’ for various forms of misrepresentation, could be applied equally to politicians, their aides, journalists, or those in specialist PR roles (Macnamara, 2014). In this paper I reconsider the concept of public relations and the identity of the public relations practitioner in the light of my research trajectory. Did I marginalize my own role, both as a former practitioner and as a PR academic? If I consider myself and others like me to have a unique and rich perspective on modern mediatized society, should I not assume my own voice rather than deploying the voices of others?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationICA preconference on 'Theories in Public Relations'
Publication statusUnpublished - May 2018


  • public relations, promotional culture, government, theories


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