EXCERPT FROM BEYOND POST-COMMUNICATION: Macnamara’s New Book Challenges and Provokes

January 20, 2021

FEW SCHOLARS see their field as clearly as Jim Macnamara, the prolific professor of communication and public relations, and fewer still give balance and voice to what is contrary. I was glad then to be interviewed by Jim for his new bookBeyond Post-Communication: Challenging Disinformation, Deception, and Manipulation, and thankful for his even-handed treatment of our exchange. — Alan Kelly


A CONTRARIAN’S TAKE

From Chapter 5, Strategies for a Communicative Society, pp. 192-193

A practitioner who believes that PR can never be remodeled in the likeness of the public interest and social good is Alan Kelly, an outspoken US PR practitioner and part-time teacher. Kelly founded and headed a PR agency called Applied Communications for more than 20 years before selling the business and focusing on writing about PR and proving to be something of an enfant terrible of the industry in his blog posts, podcasts, and speeches.

Kelly agrees that PR and corporate communication should be conducted ethically. And he supports regulation of the field. However, his reasons for supporting regulation are different to most. Kelly refers to PR as part of the “influence industries” and he says that PR and related promotional practices should be transparent and frank about their role and their allegiances. He argues that PR operates “first and foremost to create competitive advantage” for those who use it. He elaborates: Influencers are always running plays [his term for influence strategies], most especially PR people, because their essential purpose is to defend or advance the position or point of view of a client or company. PR/comms is advocacy dressed as education. And if it’s advocacy, it’s manipulation.

“PR practitioners are like chemists without a periodic table.”

Kelly believes the PR industry needs to come clean about the nature of its role and work, which he sees as predominantly advocacy to influence and manipulate, particularly on behalf of business and government. He alleges that “unlike more advanced disciplines, they [PR practitioners] have no formal or codified basis for understanding the atomic nature of their work.”  In his book, The Elements of Influence, he says that PR practitioners are like chemists without a periodic table. In short, he sees the PR industry and its disciplinary doppelgangers as ambivalent and even duplicitous about their role.

Kelly claims that the PR industry obfuscates what it actually does on a daily basis because it wants to “maintain a beautified view of its work.” He goes further than scholarly critiques and says “decades of normalized hyperbole and hedging attribution have both compromised the Fourth Estate and laid the groundwork for fake news and post-truth.” He argues that PR is heading for “it’s very own 9/11 moment. Just as insurance, energy, finance, and now politics and media have hit their walls, PR is a hair’s breadth away from being exposed” for the “monster they’ve made.”

In an interview in Washington, D.C. in mid-2019, Kelly reiterated his view that “PR has side-stepped the issue of defining the discipline.” He said “there are poisonous elements in the mix” and expressed concern that these are being covered up under theories and codes of practice that profess mutuality and social good. Referring to fake news, disinformation, and post-truth, he said “in this country there are something like 250,000 PR practitioners and 50,000 journalists. How does that work for truth?”

It is true that PR industry associations worldwide have codes of ethics, but most of these are toothless because they rely on voluntary membership and also the associations lack legal powers to enforce standards or sanctions. Many codes are also quite broad ‘motherhood’ statements. This has been acknowledged by the president of the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), Sarah Hall, who told a PR conference in Europe in 2018: “I’d like us to first think about what kind of threshold we set our ourselves for professional conduct and ask whether it isn’t, frankly, quite low.”

See more essays, opinions and videos by Alan Kelly here.

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY of BEYOND POST-COMMUNICATIOON

While many analyses have examined disinformation in recent election campaigns, misuse of ‘big data’ such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and manipulation by bots and algorithms, most have blamed a few bad actors. This incisive analysis presents evidence of deeper and broader corruption of the public sphere, which the author refers to as post-communication. With extensive evidence, Jim Macnamara argues that we are all responsible for the slide towards a post-truth society. This analysis looks beyond high profile individuals such as Donald Trump, Russian trolls, and even ‘Big Tech’ to argue that the professionalized communication industries of advertising, PR, political and government communication, and journalism, driven by clickbait and aided by a lack of critical media literacy, have systematically contributed to disinformation, deception, and manipulation. When combined with powerful new communication technologies, artificial intelligence, and lack of regulation, this has led to a ‘perfect data storm.’ Accordingly, Macnamara proposes that there is no single solution. Rather, he identifies a range of strategies for communication professionals, industry associations, media organizations and platforms, educators, legislators, regulators, and citizens to challenge post-communication and post-truth.