Images of public relations in New Zealand: perceptions of key stakeholders in business, education and the media
Sterne, Graeme David
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This thesis examines the perceptions of some of the key influencers of the practice of Public Relations in New Zealand. These influencers were chosen on the basis of their ability to influence the employment, status, and public opinion of Public Relations. They included senior business managers, media editors, and tertiary educators. The study differentiates categories of perceptions within these groups and examines the reasons for these differences. It tests levels of negativity, especially in media representation. It examines various definitions of public relations, the roles and functions assigned to the practice and arguments over its legitimacy. As the study progresses it unveils an approach to public relations that provides significant insights for Western practice and the scope and limitations of the dominant definition of the field. The study began with a Symbolic Interactionist theoretical framework (Blumer, 1969) and then drew on concepts from Pierre Bourdieu (1990, 1991, 2000) to examine the factors shaping perceptions of Public Relations. As the study progressed it drew on hermeneutic examination of context and text, heuristic inquiry as the researcher reflected on his discoveries and ethnographic insights into New Zealand Māori approaches to Public Relations. Public Relations is a much maligned practice (Callison, 2004; Tilley, 2005; Coombs & Holladay, 2007). Public Relations practitioners and academics have sought to defend the practice by arguing that it is a profession with a growing body of knowledge. Various strategies have been offered to bolster its credibility, such as advocacy of excellent practice (Grunig, 1992), rebranding (van Ruler, Verčič, Bütschi & Flodin, 2004) and practitioner registration (Sha, 2011). These arguments assume that Public Relations is in fact a profession and that it can and should advocate its professional standing and integrity to key opinion leaders such as senior managers (White & Mazur, 1995; Murphy, 2003). Descriptions of New Zealand Public Relations practice have relied largely on the views of practitioners. There has been limited research on perceptions of key consumers of Public Relations in New Zealand. This study fills a gap in the body of knowledge in terms of New Zealand Public Relations and analyses the contention that Public Relations is a profession. The key research question was, “What are the perceptions of Public Relations in New Zealand?” Flowing from that core question was a secondary question, “What are these perceptions based on?” This study drew data from eighty-six interviews and 181 surveys. Data was triangulated by way of content analysis of 54 media articles, including business literature, and 33 text books, and a phone survey of the top 100 businesses in New Zealand. The data was analysed using a layered categorisation process cross-checked with other researchers, practitioners, cultural experts and with the participants themselves and then examined using Bourdieu’s concepts of field, habitus, trajectory, symbolic capital and symbolic violence. This thesis argues that framing Public Relations as a profession dedicated to publicising messages is an impoverished construction that does not encapsulate the range of views of senior business managers and does a disservice to indigenous expressions of public relations. This study presents guidelines for an indigenous (Māori) approach to Public Relations that emphasises the importance of identity declaration, reciprocity and respect in a relational context where spiritual and emotional factors play a significant part in human interaction. This thesis contends that exploring indigenous principles of Public Relations in their own terms of reference will greatly enhance the international body of knowledge and practice. To capitalise on this, practitioners may need to review their positivist mindset in order to appreciate cultural expressions among different ethnic groups. Moreover, researchers may need to adopt new conceptualisations and methodologies in order to accommodate the ontological and epistemological positions that underpin the practices of pubic relations in different cultural settings.