An analysis of public relations discourse and its representations in popular culture

Dennison, Mikela
Theunissen, Petra
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Master of Communication Studies
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Auckland University of Technology

This thesis is an examination, exploration and discussion of the representation and perception of the public relations profession. For those outside the profession, public relations is often associated with spin doctoring and unethical communication, and this research is an attempt to understand why that negative connotation is still prevalent in society. This work takes the stance that entertainment media and popular culture are the dominant modes of meaning making for peoples’ understanding. Working within the historical and societal context of an increasingly information-mediated global community, people often take what they see on television or the movies, as reality. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave will be used to demonstrate the idea that the shadows on the wall (or in contemporary times, the images on a screen) are often taken to be reality, and that it can be difficult for audiences to accept that the shadows are only a mediated representation of the real world.

A discourse analysis approach has been employed for this study, which largely focuses on language and its relation to societal learning and understanding. This work incorporates several research methods, and complementary sources of information to provide a holistic and wide-ranging view of the contemporary view of public relations. Firstly, film analysis on four texts (films and television programs) was performed, to examine the way in which public relations characters are represented on screen, and to determine whether there is a set of common traits or characteristics that those characters are portrayed as having. Secondly, three focus groups have been conducted, in order to gauge how audiences feel about the profession, and to determine if seeing public relations characters on the screen has an impact on peoples’ attitude towards the profession. An observational diary, spanning a year long time frame, has also been included as an appendix to this work, with the diary entries contributing a real-life, relatively unmediated view of how public relations arises in magazines, social media, news, personal interactions, and work. In addition, personal communication with Alistair Campbell (the former Communications Advisor to Tony Blair) will be touched on, to offer insight into the bad reputation public relations often has, and how the media often perpetuate the idea of spin. Key findings of this study are that there are a common set of themes that emerge in the entertainment media representation of public relations, most notably ethical issues, power and control, physical appearance and presentation, tensions between old and young, male and female, and UK/US representations of the field. These themes and ideas are echoed in the focus group findings, and supported by the popular culture diary. Integration of the various data sets has allowed a wider and more meaningful account of the contemporary representation and perception of public relations to emerge. A case is made for the importance of questioning entertainment representations, so that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave does not ring true in the years to come, and for people to be engaged with how meaning is made in their own lives.

Public relations , Popular culture , Entertainment media , Media effects , Semiotic analysis , Focus group , Plato's Allegory of the Cave , Perception , Representation , Alistair Campbell , Professional reputation , Stereotypes
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