Dimensions of advantage
: How public relations practice in the UK reveals the presence and workings of selected accounts of power

  • Rob Dalton

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

Purpose. This study examines the place and workings of power in public relations practice in the UK. It considers if variations in the management of public relations in contested circumstances can be explained more effectively via conceptual accounts of power and culture than by functional accounts of relative effectiveness.
The theoretical perspective adopted by this study is broadly constructionist in form and mainly qualitative in approach. It relies to a great extent on critical reasoning. Two research instruments were used. The first can be classified methodologically as a content analysis of selected case studies of best practice in the UK. The second was a survey of elite PR practitioners and commentators on practice and power. Data from the second instrument was subjected to three forms of argumentation analysis. Together, the data from the instruments has provided capacity for triangulation.
Professional context. Whilst well described sociologically, and despite a robust body of specific conceptual discussion already available to the profession, power remains a poorly understood and potentially misdirected matter within the field of PR and one where improved knowledge would have a significant impact on contemporary practice. In particular, this would contribute to programmes associated with transparency and accountability, co-production, and values driven marketing and brand communication demanding high levels of trust and authenticity.
Findings. The study generated some 74 findings. These claim that functional accounts of public relations do not hold a complete or commanding influence on practice matters. Instead, strategic and tactical decisions can be accounted for in large part, but sometimes conditionally, by the workings of power and its negotiation societally. Knowledge and appropriate modification of power effects in practice, therefore, may allow for significant improvements in effectiveness and in ways which generate more predictable and transparent outcomes.
Originality and utility. This is the first study of power in PR practice in the UK with regard to highly contested stakeholder or public policy environments and in a manner which considers conceptual matters operationally or via the delivery of actual practice. However, it builds on numerous and extensive conceptual studies of PR practice in the UK and elsewhere. Given its focus on practice, it claims, therefore, some utility in terms of managing strategies and tactics with regard to the professional tenets of symmetry and mutuality (Grunig, 1984). It does this mainly through the use of Lukes’ threedimensional model of power (2005) and other conceptual constructions. This is used to provide a framework to understand relative advantage and disadvantage within the dialectic when practices are designed to pursue symmetry and mutuality (ibid).
Research implications and limitations. In terms of professional utility, truth and trust within the context of communicative competence (Habermas, 1987) have the potential to guide the development of PR strategies in respect of contested policy matters or stakeholder engagement programmes but more work on their suitability and application in practice is needed. Similarly, the Lukes dimensional model of power (2005) provides a currently underdeveloped framework for the analysis and construction of more effective PR practice in contested circumstances. A number of other recommendations are made relating to the application in practice of specific constructions of power and culture.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Solent University

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