Deep impact

We see hundreds of public relations messages every day, and they have a significant effect on the type of lives we all lead
Apple Store Hong Kong 16 9
Apple store Hong Kong Robert Ziemi CC0

“We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed… largely by men we have never heard of.”  This is how Edward Bernays, often called the father of public relations, described the power of information.

Bernays’ concept of public relations, as a process driven by powerful organisations seeking to gain favour for their products, services or ideas, has dominated the field since his book Propaganda was published in 1928.

But a new book by Dr Lee Edwards of the Department of Media and Communications argues for a change in how public relations is studied. Instead of focusing on the organisation driving the communication process, Dr Edwards argues that the prevalence of public relations in modern economies demands a wider understanding of how it affects our society and culture.

Dr Edwards says: “Up until recently, the thinking around public relations was primarily business focused, and mostly found in organisational and management studies. So there is lots of material on how to create effective public relations campaigns.”

“But these studies do not really engage with how public relations actions might impact upon society,” Dr Edwards adds.

This understanding is not based simply on the images or words we are exposed to, but also on the ways those images and words circulate and become normalised.

According to Dr Edwards, a distinction between advertising (audio or visual marketing communication), and public relations (managing an organisation's relationship with its stakeholders) is necessary to fully understand the power the public relations industry has.

This addresses what Dr Edwards percieves to be an inequality in the study of communications, which has tended to focus on how exposure to advertising changes social behaviour. 

She says: “The promotional materials we see and hear are clearly important, but so are the channels used to distribute them. Whether an organisation conveys its message through social media, their website or news coverage, all of those decisions really matter in terms of the power the communication has.”

Dr Edwards, who worked in public relations earlier in her career, says technology company Apple offers an illuminating example of this kind of power.

She says: “Apple’s communication celebrates quite specific ways of living, working and generally conducting relationships. In other words, it encourages people to adopt a certain lifestyle. Owning an iPhone is integral to their message, and Apple’s products become synonymous with this ‘desirable’ life.”

“But that also means that if you don’t want to own a smartphone, or don’t have the resources to buy one, you are unable to participate in that life. You can’t communicate with others in the ‘best’ way, so you are disadvantaged. If you don’t fit within that world, you become different, and potentially isolated,” Dr Edwards adds.

According to Dr Edwards, public relations is an ever-present part of most people’s lives to the extent that we barely notice it. She says: “We see hundreds of public relations messages every day, and they have a significant effect on the type of lives we all lead, whether we buy the products or services being promoted or not.”

In 2017, Dr Edwards launched a Master's programme in Strategic Communications, where she is programme director. The course follows the position outlined in Dr Edwards’ book, focusing on the social and cultural impact of strategic communications industries, rather than the practical skills needed for communications activities.

Dr Edwards says: “In the course we try to go beyond the organisational context and understand what is happening in society when strategic communications take place. Who is affected by it and how do they respond to the organisations that are engaging with them?”

“What are these companies telling us about who we should be and why? This is a crucial question for a discipline like public relations, which is so significant in constructing our world.”

Behind the article

Understanding public relations: Theory, culture, society by Dr Lee Edwards is published by SAGE