So what’s in the dominant paradigm nowadays on the land of PR? The systems theory, that is! Are you still here? Please don’t leave! It may sound like a bit far-fetched term for the first sight, but in fact it is a very useful framework that can be applied to many disciplines to explain how things work in practice. In PR it relates to its function. In her influential book Public Relations: Concepts, Practice and Critique, Jacquie L’Etang (2009) describes the systems metaphor as an approach that “sees the world as a living, interacting organism” where PR constantly helps organisations to adapt to their environment (p. 71). In PR it simply means that organisations and publics need to interact effectively with the goal of reaching mutual understanding and benefiting both sides. That is to say, they need to interact symmetrically to develop an ideal relationship. This resonates with Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) four communications models where the two-way symmetrical model is regarded as ideal.
The fact that this is the prominent best practice organisation-publics relationship model in the UK is well reflected in the definitions of the most influential trade bodies. The CIPR states that PR’s aim is “to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”, while the PRCA definition suggests that PR is „to gain trust and understanding between an organisation and its various publics”.
What strikes me in this theory is how impossible it is to put it into practice. It is simply because organisations have numerous publics that are highly segmented. It is impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs or meet each public’s expectations without hurting the organisation’s interest.
Corporate social responsibility campaigns are great examples of this.
Let’s look at Unilever. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, declared in a recent International Business Times article that the systems approach is the way forward.
“We need to begin now, to work across the value chain and across the systems we touch and which touch us. This is what we are doing in our own business, as well as in collaboration with others…catalysing global business action on a focussed list of priorities.” -Paul Polman
Polman begins his article by noting that extreme poverty, unemployment and climate change are among the most pressing issues today’s society has to face. He suggests that businesses need to recognise that they are obliged to play their role in tackling these problems. This is a valuable suggestion, which bears some problems, however, both on a practical and a theoretical level.
It is a conscious decision from organisations that how they would like to give back to their (social) environment. PR practitioners spend an awful lot of time and effort to develop a CSR strategy and to find out what kind of CSR programme would be the most beneficial for their organisation. Yes, for the organisation. I might be a cynical budding PR practitioner, as some would certainly hiss at me here, but I am sure no CSR programme has been developed based on objective criteria of where help is the most needed. It would be impossible anyway, because it is a subjective view whether, say, terminally ill children or newly diagnosed dementia patients are more in need of help, or whether money should be invested in preventing climate change and thus help future generations or should be invested in improving sanitation facilities in India and thus help the current generation. As Polman writes organisations has to write a “focussed list of priorities”. My view is that priority list will be highly selective and subjective and will be prepared in accordance with the interest of the organisation.
Unilever’s Project Sunlight initiative has various components. Just having a glance at one of them for the sake of an example, the ‘Destroy germs and create smiles’ campaign associated with Domestos improves sanitation facilities in 9 countries: Gambia, Ghana, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan and Vietnam. How were these countries selected? Are they really the ones that need improvements in sanitation the most? Is it improvements in sanitation that they need the most?
Don’t misunderstand me. It is an absolutely valuable and valid CSR campaign that probably improves thousands of people’s life. Obviously, a company cannot support everyone and everything in the world because it would hurt its business goals (and would go bankrupt). The point is that systems theory supposes that an organisation and ALL its publics can mutually depend on each other. It is idealistic, however, because when it comes to CSR campaigns for example, an organisation has to decide which publics to favour over one other.
This should be acknowledged in order to have a clear picture on how exactly organisations and publics interact and how organisations hold the power to decide about the level of interaction with each public. Thanks for staying with me! Any views are more than welcome in the comment box below.