Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Interfering with Culture

Public Relations is the business of interfering with culture. I say this simply by examining the standard definition of 'Culture' in the light of areas of Public Relations Practice that are supported by the Public Relations institutions; the scope of Public Relations practice that has been found to be practices and evidence for more recent (if less comprehensive) research and studies.

The standard definition I have adopted for this essay is that given by Sir Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871.

Tylor said that culture is

"that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."

I have simply taken each of the elements identified by Tylor and examined them in such a way that their meaning is realistically comprehensive (mostly using Wikipedia) and then have identified how Public Relations affects each culture element as part of common practice.

From this analysis, it is fair to say that the business of public relations is to change culture.

Cultural Elements

PR practice


Complex whole

PR planning and management representing holistic and reductionist viewpoints.

Holism as a principle says that the properties of a system cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its components alone.

Reductionism in philosophy describes a number of related, theories that hold roughly that the nature of complex things can always be reduced to (be explained by) simpler or more fundamental things (genes are an example).

The breadth of practice and skills brought together through a known and explicit form of management (see Gregory 2001) to encompass every form of social organisation as it reaches into society.


Knowledge is information of which someone is aware. Knowledge is also used to mean the confident understanding of a subject, potentially with the ability to use it for a specific purpose.

PR has a role to create the means by which channels for communication can be used for explaining information in such a way that it can be understood by third parties as knowledge


Beliefs can be presented as perception, through reasoning, offered for contemplation and communication. In the psychological sense, belief is represented as a mental state that takes the form of a propositional attitude.

In the religious sense, "belief" refers to a part of a wider spiritual or moral foundation, generally called faith; historically generated by a group's need to provide a functionally valid foundation to sustain them.

Public Relations is a practice that makes explicit the combined values of tangible and intangible assets to publics. An example of this practice in found when practitioners are involved in creating statements of purpose, vision, mission etc.


Art can be described as Liberal arts, of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. History, Linguistics, Literature, Philosophy,

Public Relations practice uses the arts and also has significance influence over the arts. From the events organised by public relations practitioners in aid of the arts to the use of art in communication and presenting the case of its clients.

There is also an element of imagination and ideas development used in the practice of Public Relations (often called creativity) .


Law in politics and jurisprudence, is a set of rules or norms of conduct which mandate, proscribe or permit specified relationships among people and organizations, intended to provide methods for ensuring the impartial treatment of such people, and provide punishments of/for those who do not follow the established rules of conduct.

Not only is Public Relations subject to the law, it is involved in the law in many ways.

In its creation it has a lobby role; in Explaining the law to citizens its is involved in explaining the law; in its presentation and advocacy on behalf of its clients it has a role in prosecution and defence of ideas, concepts, people, organisations, brands and products.

Many practitioners are involved in a practice that aims to bring people outside the law to justice of to bring them within the law.


The understanding of normative ethics is important for Public Relations.

Consequentialism argues that the morality of an action is contingent on the action's outcome or result. Some consequentialist theories include: Utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right if it leads to the most pleasure (and least pain) for the greatest number of people. Egoism, the belief that the moral person is the self-interested person.

Deontology, on the other hand, ignores the outcome of an action and instead requires acts to be taken that are in accordance with an individual's duty. Examples of deontology include: Kant's Categorical Imperative, which roots morality in humanity's rational capacity and creates certain inviolable moral laws. The Contractarianism of John Rawls holds that the moral acts are those that we would all agree to if we were unbiased.

Philosophers such as John Locke who believe that humans have absolute rights are also considered deontologists. Aristotle and others argue for virtue ethics which focuses on the inherent character of a person, as opposed to the specific actions they may take.

The understanding of normative ethics is present in everyday public relations practice and is practiced as part of advising the client on moral approaches to issues.

Public Relations practice often has to take a moral stance or has to explain the moral stance of its clients.

In addition, Public Relations has to observe the moral mores of its publics in the execution of PR programmes.


Which may include the elements of ethics but is also significant in law . Custom, or customary law consists of established patterns of behaviour that can be objectively verified within a particular social setting. Generally, customary law exists where

* a certain legal practice is observed; and

* the relevant actors consider it to be law (opinio iuris).

In sociology, a norm, or social norm, is a rule that is socially enforced. Social sanctioning is what distinguishes norms from other cultural products or social constructions such as meaning and values.

One of the principles of Public Relations is the practice of representing the viewpoint of external publics to internal publics and vice versa. In doing to it has to both understand and explain the norms and customs of publics.

In addition, Public Relations is often tasked to change customs and norms. For example, a healthcare campaign my be aimed at reducing obesity or smoking.

Capabilities acquired by mankind

There are many ways of examining Capabilities. Capability In a dictionary sense is the quality of being capable physically or intellectually or legally; OR the susceptibility of something to a particular treatment; "the capability of a metal to be fused"; OR an aptitude that may be developed.

One Capability Approach is a philosophical framework pioneered by economist Amartya Sen for evaluating social states that focuses on human capability (positive freedoms to achieve the various 'doings' and 'beings' people value) instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfilment) or command over resources (income, commodities, assets).

In Public Relations, the practice is involved in explaining capabilities of the client. It also has a role in creating understanding among publics so that they can acquire capabilities.

This can be a corporate client or an individual (e.g. Celebrity). In addition, Public Relations is involved in using capabilities both as the agent and in employing agents with capabilities.

Habits acquired by mankind

Habituation is an example of non-associative learning in which there is a progressive diminution of behavioral response probability with repetition of a stimulus. It is another form of integration. An animal first responds to a sensory stimulus, but if it is neither rewarding nor harmful the animal learns to suppress its response through repeated encounters. Not all habituation is conscious like this - for example, a short amount of time after dressing, the stimulus the weight of clothes creates is 'ignored' by the nervous system and we become unaware of it.

Public Relations practice depends on habituation for much of its activity. For example, it depends on people's habit of reading newspapers to execute media relations programmes. However, another part of Public Relations practice is involved in changing the habits of peoples by, for example, offering the context in which a habit may be changed or discarded.

Membership of Society

The social sciences generally use the term society to mean a group of people that form a semi-closed social system, in which most interactions are with other individuals belonging to the group. More abstractly, a society is defined as a network of relationships between social entities

Public Relations practice is predicated on creating groups of people or relationships that support a view, product, brand, vision or mission.

One may want to examine this idea further to see how Public Relations can influence culture or perhaps see how the generality of practice is applied in changing culture.

Picture: Edward B Tylor

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