Is PR another dangerous Anglo-Saxon phenomenon?

8 years, 3 months ago


n an edited extract from his new book, Trevor Morris examines why PR has flourished in Anglo-Saxon cultures and assesses growth prospects for the rest of the world.

There are many in Europe – not least President Sarkozy – who are suspicious of Anglo Saxon values. Some even see Anglo-Saxon ‘financial capitalism’ as the underlying cause of the Euro crisis.

Is PR a similar threat?

PR may have spread around the world, but it is worth considering why it is more prevalent in Anglo-Saxon cultures than in other developed economies such as continental Europe or Japan. Of course some form of "PR" – unconsciously and in other guises – has always been practiced in such societies, but there seems to be some catching-up to do with what is, in historic terms, a relatively new American innovation. In general other countries seem now to be moving towards a more Anglo-Saxon use of PR.  In considering why PR has flourished in the Anglo-Saxon world the following factors bear examination:

  • Anglo-Saxon commercial culture has traditionally been seen as particularly vigorous and competitive – or, in the eyes of critics, ruthless. The emergence of PR in its modern form coincided with anti-trust legislation in the United States, which sought to break up monopolies. In the United Kingdom the boom in PR is associated with the free market reforms of the Thatcher era. PR meets business’s need to be assertive and to maximise competitive advantage by making itself heard (and indeed by defending itself) in the marketplace. The huge financial markets – New York, London – of the Anglo-Saxon world place a particular emphasis on PR as they respond instantly to information and opinion, both of which can quickly and sharply influence the value of shares, commodities and currencies. Other countries have moved in this direction, but more hesitantly. Many have traditions of a more consensual approach to business, and the Anglo-Saxon brand of capitalism (with PR as one of its weapon systems) is viewed with some nervousness or even distaste. However, the current evidence in places as far apart as China and even France is of a move towards the Anglo-Saxon model, or at least a finessed version thereof.
  • Long traditions of press freedom in the USA, UK and other Anglo-Saxon countries have also had an impact. Everyone – even the most powerful politicians and business leaders – cannot be certain that they will be able to say what they want via the press, and, indeed, has to live with a nagging anxiety about what might be said about them and their organisations. Moreover, other forms of news media – from radio and television, to digital media such as blogs – have inherited much of the more confident and combative tradition of the press. PR is an attempt to deal with this uncertainty. In many countries the tradition of media freedom is not as well-established, and the media often pull their punches when discussing large companies and political leaders. Once again the world seems to be heading in an Anglo-Saxon direction. There are signs of the media becoming freer and less passive, even in countries such as China, while French political leaders such as Sarkozy have found that their media have discovered a new appetite for personal attacks.
  • Opposition parties and powerful pressure groups supply the media with ammunition and back up the media’s role in exercising vigilance. While such parties and campaigning groups exist beyond the Anglo-Saxon world, the tradition is undoubtedly more deeply rooted and stronger in north-west Europe and North America than in much of the European continent or most of Asia. Not only are pressure groups great users of PR resources in their own right, but they also compel the business world and governments to deploy PR resources to counter their campaigns. There are no signs of this trend slowing down, and it is spreading internationally. Indeed it seems likely that as wealth and education grow, often prompting demands for democracy and reform, so will the call for PR.
  • Democracy is of course not unique to the Anglo-Saxon world, but it is particularly well established there, and it takes time – generations even – to establish the deeper characteristics of democratic rule. This implies much more than rule by an elected government. It also involves an unceasing public debate and a clash of ideas, much of which takes place in the media and is facilitated by PR people. When countries emerge from dictatorship it can take a while for public debate of this type to become established, and some suspicion and stigma may be attached to any form of persuasion as it is associated with the propaganda of the past regime. For example it has been argued that the notoriety of Nazi propaganda retarded the growth of PR in the post-war German federal republic, as did communism in East Germany. It is notable that now Germany has the biggest PR industry in mainland Europe.

Against this background, what is the likely future for the PR industry?

In my view the PR market in the United States and United Kingdom is now mature. The industry will continue to grow, but not at the same spectacular rates witnessed in past decades. However, we believe that in most of the rest of the world the growing grip of democracy, market liberalisation and powerful pressure groups will drive PR growth, albeit with economic hiccups along the way, for many years to come.

PR, rather like global financial markets, is here to stay. Adapt or die!



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The Author

Trevor Morris

Trevor Morris is Visiting Professor in Public Relations at the University of Westminster, former CEO of the UK’s largest public relations group, and co-author with Simon Goldsworthy of PR – A Persuasive Industry? published by Palgrave Macmillan. This article is a synopsis of a chapter from the book.

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