Regards from the International History of PR Conference in Bournemouth, 11-12 July 2012

– Margalit Toledano, PRINZ Fellow –

This is the second in a series of blogs from afar as I travel on a PR road (and air) trip to a number of conferences.

PR journey 2

The wet summer weather in the UK has not cooled down the enthusiasm of the 36 PR academics from 20 countries who participated in the 3rd International History of PR Conference which took place in the English seaside resort of Bournemouth last week. According to the founder and chair of this annual conference, Professor Tom Watson, the interest in the history of the profession is growing and every year more papers are submitted for presentation in the conference by PR academics passionate about the topic. “They seem to be fascinated by the narratives and insightful stories on the roots of public relations,” said Watson, an Australian who moved to the UK in the 1970s and now heads the Bournemouth University PR Programme. ”The cases presented in the conference over the last three years provided some explanation for who we are and why we are the way we are. Many issues on the PR agenda today have been there decades ago and while examining the past we reflect on the present and future of the profession”.

One such issue studied by Watson related to the history of AVE, the Advertising Value Equivalence measurement tool that according to his research findings has been used in the industry and contested by academics over at least 60 years.  Though the tool has been trashed by PR scholars as providing irrelevant, useless, ”junk” data, clients keep demanding it and practitioners provide it as an easy numerical system to demonstrate results. “It is a persistent pernicious weed and nothing in its history gives it validity,” said Watson and the conference participants agreed and deplored the fact that AVE is still used often for evaluation of PR campaigns and even mentioned in practitioners’ applications for awards as proof for PR success, (editor’s note: although not in the PRINZ awards).

Studies of PR evolution as a profession in different nations were presented by researchers from Turkey, Finland, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Canada and Brazil. In each case the story was different and embedded in different historical and cultural values.  The presentation about the status of PR in Brazil stimulated a discussion on the controversial issue of government licensing for PR professionals. In 1967 the military government of Brazil tried to control the profession by demanding each practitioner complete an undergraduate degree in one of the many public relations programmes offered by Brazil universities and then apply for a license from government to practice PR. According to the study presented in the conference the system does not work. Organizations employ practitioners with no license under different job titles such as Communication Manager to avoid the license condition. Though the regime has changed and is less authoritarian, the professional community was unable to change this undemocratic law. In principle, public relations should be part of the democratic right to “freedom of speech” and not controlled by government. Some Brazilian professionals felt that the license gave them recognition and higher status, however, the researchers believed that the professional community would be better off without the licensing requirements.

Few participants from the US exposed interesting stories about histories of PR in specific organizations such as IBM, New York Times (the 1908 Great Automobile Race), the Mormon Church, and Hollywood entertainment businesses.  A juicy story about the roots of Italian President Berlusconi’s “cuckoo” model of PR explained the amazing power he had over the Italian people for more than 17 years as a result of the daily public opinion surveys he conducted using four different pollsters and his ability to persuade people that he understood their concerns and responded to their needs immediately. Another presentation covered the image of PR in film and television since 1901.

The two New Zealanders who participated in the conference were both from the University of Waikato: Professor David McKie who presented a greatly appreciated paper on historiography and its use in PR scholarship, and my own presentation which focused on methods to retrieve historical evidence from practitioners. We were not able to contribute the story of New Zealand’s history of public relations as the academic study of this topic has not yet been conducted. I hope that one of New Zealand’s PR academics or graduate students will take this challenge and document the development of PR in the context of NZ specific social, political, and economic environment. This should be a fascinating story that would be worth listening to in one of the future Bournemouth International conferences on PR history.

Margalit’s next blog will be in late September – from the EUPRERA annual congress in Istanbul.

Margalit Toledano, PhD, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRiNZ

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