PRConf14 guest blog 4 – Democracy in context

Jocelyn Williams, Head of Department, Faculty of Creative Industries and Business, Department of Communication Studies at Unitec, and speaker sponsor for John Parkinson’s visit to NZ.

As part of his trip to speak at the PRINZ conference, Professor John Parkinson spent time with students and staff at Unitec on Wednesday 28 May. In a lunchtime lecture, John challenged around fifty students and staff from Communication Studies, as well as Social Practice and other disciplines, to think about how democracy is constructed in different contexts.

Jocelyn Williams with Unitec staff, Unitec PRConf14 student volunteers and Simone Bell

Jocelyn Williams with Unitec staff, Unitec PRConf14 student volunteers and Simone Bell, CEO of PRINZ.

He argued democracy requires public spaces where people can gather to debate and protest – and yet the redesign of cities suggests these sorts of spaces are being deliberately constrained. Public spaces are designed for shoppers and consumers, but not for those who wish to express active citizenship.  Instead they need to invent their own spaces, such as online, to mobilise dissent.

On the other hand, “consultation” processes appear to be flourishing, but are empty exercises if people are not invited to set the agenda in the first place.  Both here and in his keynote at the conference the next morning, John was challenging PR to facilitate true public advocacy, and help the excluded to be heard.

John Parkinson presenting at #PRCONF14

John Parkinson presenting at #PRConf14

This was stirring stuff for the mostly Communication Studies audience, a mixture of postgraduate and undergraduate students and a sprinkling of staff. From our perspective it was a breath of fresh air to have a speaker equipped with both extensive PR experience and a bigger picture academic point of view put some provocations to us.  John paid attention to big concepts in public opinion that were so useful for budding practitioners, enabling them to anchor the detail of their learning, reflecting on cases and examples from their courses and internships.  With final assignments and the end of semester looming, this was a timely invitation to students to consider central questions of ethics and the responsibilities of the PR profession in a democratic society.  There was plenty for us to think about beneath John’s easygoing presentation style.

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