ITL #506 - Sailing in uncharted waters: communications in an era of insufficiently understood changes11 months ago
The global public relations professional community has the knowledge and wisdom to help provide leadership and guidance in their organizations in helping to resolve the immense challenges in today’s global society. By Dean Kruckeberg.
As has been my pedagogical practice for decades, I began each session of my fall 2022 Public Relations Ethics course with this question: “What’s going on in the world?” Students would dutifully summarize that day’s global news events. I would then respond: “You will need to figure out how to help resolve the issues that are related to these events.” Indeed, those soon-to-be practitioners will hopefully contribute meaningfully in the consideration of a range of contemporary challenges of over-riding import—up to and including global sustainability.
In recent years, I have followed this admonishment with my observation that, “Things are crazier now than I have ever seen them before during any other time in my life.” That statement might credibly be considered an overgeneralization, if not undue hyperbole, in any assessment of today’s social, political, economic and cultural dimensions of global society; certainly, each age in our world history has experienced, endured and often has satisfactorily resolved that era’s perhaps unique challenges and hardships.
Yet, to borrow an overused cliché, “These are unprecedented times,” as was recognized by Tsetsura and Kruckeberg (2019, July), who had warned, “… (W)e are sailing in uncharted waters that likely will have unpredicted and unintended consequences, ranging from social anomie to the unknown power of artificial intelligence.” Only one of many obvious examples is the massive global migration of the world’s population that has contributed greatly to worldwide instability. Tsetsura and Kruckeberg (2019, July) also emphasize the immense numbers of the world’s young people who have little or no education and who have little promise of future personal sustainability.
A shorter outlook
In years past, I would also ask my students what the world would be like 10 years hence. I now ask them what the world will be like in two years—predictions for the next decade seem both unimaginable and unfathomable. Perhaps given its present trajectory, the world may not be sustainable in the next decade, neither in its existing social, political, economic and cultural dimensions, but also environmentally. Indeed, considerable rationale suggests that global society is at a critical juncture.
Vujnovic and Kruckeberg (2015) argue that an indicator of a revolution is individuals’ inability to ignore it. Today, we are being fundamentally changed as human beings, albeit this revolution remains largely invisible because what is happening can be easily discounted as an extremely rapid and geometrically accelerating evolution. These authors argue that massive changes are evident in at least four dimensions: socially, in which electronic channels of communication are replacing face-to-face communication; politically, in which power differentials are being flattened and sometimes juxtaposed, with unpredictable power emanating quickly from unrecognized and unseen sources; economically, in which ostensibly inexpensive information results in a greed for this information that can enslave consumers both financially and through inordinate demands on their time; and culturally, in which a global culture is emerging, not only in consumer tastes, but to a lesser extent in a melding of traditions and values.
The global pandemic, albeit tragic and devastating, has only accelerated and compressed the timeframe of this revolution, which was inevitable with or without the impact of covid-19. Over two decades ago, Kruckeberg (2000) had pondered the implications of communication technology for today’s global society:
These massive technological changes—evolving within an extraordinarily short time frame—have tremendous and little understood implications for society and heretofore unmeasured impact on individuals. At the forefront of those who must understand the societal impact of communication technology are public relations practitioners; they must reconcile their organizations’ ongoing relationships with a range of seemingly amorphous publics that are evolving within a global—yet multicultural and highly diverse—society that shows little inclination toward becoming a global community. (p.146)
In the foreseeable—if not near—future, significant changes will occur within many of our traditional institutions, for example, in universities that educate public relations practitioners, as well as in a wide range of other institutions of critical importance that employ public relations professionals. Such changes in the former are described in a recent book that is highly critical of the university as an institution, Higher Education and Disaster Capitalism in the Age of Covid-19 (Vujnovic & Foster, 2022), while an article in a Russian journal, “Study on a Conceptual Model for Campus Transformation of Classical Universities in the Digital Era,” makes thoughtful recommendations for the transformation of classical universities in the digital era (Kuzheleva-Sagan et al., 2022).
A catalyst for change to the nature of PR
Such changes in other traditional institutions suggest that, if those institutions that employ public relations professionals change in significant ways, the perceived mission, role and function of public relations as a formalized professionalized occupation might also be compelled to change. Indeed, some of these changes have become increasingly evident, e.g., Recode (2019) observes:
… (M)any journalism and PR jobs didn’t go away so much as change their names. People who once worked in journalism or PR have commonly transitioned into job titles like “content writer” and “social media manager….”
Vujnovic and Kruckeberg (2018) add:
… (I)n the digital economy, a major aspect of journalists’ work of today is PR. This is true even for mainstream journalism. And, at the same time, public relations practitioners, perhaps more so than ever, engage with tools that are typically used by journalists.
Vujnovic and Kruckeberg (2018) observe that public relations will be increasingly difficult to define by simply articulating its traditional mission, describing practitioners’ perceived requisite knowledge/skills/abilities, and by identifying the accepted parameters of public relations’ best practices. They note with concern that any de-professionalization of public relations will make more defensible a disparate and specialized education that focuses upon specialized technical and tactical knowledge, skills, and abilities—with public relations’ strategic role and function becoming increasingly diffuse and amorphous.
Thus, it should not be assumed that all—if any—potential changes in public relations professional practice will be for the better. “Progressive” histories of public relations generally assume an upwardly linear path culminating in the practice’s pre-destined maturation as a discrete and highly formalized professional occupation. However, such trajectory cannot be assumed when rapidly and unpredictably evolving communication technology has created a media environment in which existing public relations theory and recognized best practices may appear inappropriate, if not obsolete.
My foreword (2022) in a recently published book, The Routledge Companion to Public Relations (Pompper, Place, & Weaver, Eds.), contends that public relations is both temporal and dynamic. I argue that its mission, values, ethics, and best practices must be continually re-examined within the context of society’s constantly changing social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions. Nevertheless, I warn that responses to these changes might result in the demise of public relations’ present “life cycle” and that future junctures in that life cycle might reflect a nonlinear—possibly even downward—path.
Scenarios might include the de-professionalization and fragmentation of public relations practice or even a reversion to how public relations had been conceptualized and practiced in much earlier life cycles. Indeed, I concluded my foreword to that volume with Vujnovic and Kruckeberg’s (2018) warning about the fragmentation that can occur when public relations’ strategic role—its professional role—becomes increasingly diffuse and amorphous.
Some evidence suggests this is happening in today’s media environment that is replete with the ubiquitous use of artificial intelligence and of fake news, lies, misinformation/disinformation, ambiguous sources and a host of other variables that confound and are highly threatening to the integrity of communication.
Grave concern, tempered by optimism
In conclusion, I am gravely concerned about the state of today’s world in which communication technology has created an unpredictable and threatening global environment in which massive and insufficiently understood changes are occurring. I am also concerned about the future of public relations as a discrete, identifiable and formalized professionalized occupation that offers a valuable—indeed critically important—social good. However, I recognize the futility of turning back the hands of time, having noted (2000):
Castigating globalism and modern communication technology and seeking regress to a pastoral and isolationist existence can be likened to a Canutian attempt to hold back the tides. There can be no return to a preglobal and pretechnological society, nor is there a desire to do so by most people who are quick to embrace the advantages of contemporary life—despite its accompanying social problems and troubling issues of power differentials. (2000, pp. 152-153)
Yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Why? Humans are a resilient and hardy species that has existed for a long time, and we historically have proven capable of acknowledging, addressing and resolving social problems and accommodating societal changes.
I am particularly optimistic, however, about the global community of public relations professionals, because I think we have the wherewithal to contribute immensely to the resolution of these unprecedented global challenges that presently exist. However, we must fully recognize and appreciate that we can contribute meaningfully in addressing these contemporary challenges.
I am optimistic because I strongly believe the global public relations professional community has the knowledge and wisdom to help provide leadership and guidance in their organizations in helping to resolve the immense challenges in today’s global society. However, we must be pro-active in doing so.
Kruckeberg, D. (2022). Foreword. In D. Pompper, K. R. Place, & C. K. Weaver (Eds.), The Routledge companion to public relations (pp. xii-xvii). London, UK, & New York, NY: Routledge.
Kruckeberg, D. (2000). Public relations: Towards a global professionalism. In J. A. Ledingham and S. D. Bruning (Eds.). Public relations as relationship management: A relational approach to the study and practice of public relations (pp. 145-157). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kuzheleva-Sagan, I. P., Galazhinsky, E. V., Spicheva, D. I., Kruckeberg, D., & Polyanskaya E. V. (2022). Study on a conceptual model for campus transformation of classical universities in the digital era. Tomsk State University Journal, (477), 74-84. doi: 10.17223/15617793/477/8
Tsetsura, K., & Kruckeberg, D. (2019, July). The changing nature of journalism: A sociology of de-professionalization. Paper presented at the 5th World Journalism Education Conference, Paris, FR.
Vujnovic, M. & Foster, J. E. (2022). Higher Education and Disaster Capitalism in the age of COVID-19. Cham, CH: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Vujnovic, M. & Kruckeberg, D. (2018). Digital media, journalism, PR, and grassroots power. In A. Adi (Ed.), Protest public relations: Communicating dissent and activism (pp. 262-278). London, UK: Routledge.
Vujnovic, M., & Kruckeberg, D. (2015). Conceptualization, examination, and recommendations for a normative model of community-building for organizations managing change using new media. In E-J. Ki, J-N. Kim, & J. Ledingham, (Eds.). Public relations as relationship management: A relational approach to the study and practice of public relations (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge.
Recode. (2019). Chart: How the definition of "journalist" is changing. Retrieved from https://www.recode.net/2019/2/25/18224696/chart-transition-jornalism-public-relations-content-social-meia-jobs?fbclid=IwARObjHOkq67tInrm25jB7-rQXa__NZQqWXQFPOmriLE-xBIS-OY_HenGMg
Dr. Dean Kruckeberg, APR, Fellow PRSA, is co-author of Public Relations and Community: A Reconstructed Theory; This Is PR: The Realities of Public Relations; and of Transparency, Public Relations, and the Mass Media: Combating the Hidden Influences in News Coverage Worldwide. He is co-editor of Public Relations in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries and of Strategic Communications in Russia: Public Relations and Advertising. His honors include the Public Relations Society of America Gold Anvil Award for lifetime achievement; the National Communication Association PRIDE Award for Outstanding Contribution/Achievement in Public Relations Education; the PRSA Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement in International Public Relations; the PRSA Outstanding Educator award; the Jackson Jackson & Wagner Behavioral Research Prize; and the Institute for Public Relations’ Pathfinder Award.mail the author
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