Able, Affable, and Available: Occupational Culture of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Public Relations Consultants

Bhargava, Deepti
Theunissen, Petra
Sissons, Helen
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

The practice of public relations is a social field within itself which is shaped by the socio-cultural backgrounds, values and motivations, day-to-day interactions, behaviours, norms, and expectations of its practitioners. The occupational culture of public relations is therefore not universal but varies according to the context within which practitioners operate and is influenced by their lifeworld and routine practices.

Existing research has shown that external consultancy practice may vary from the way public relations is carried out within internal organisational departments. However, while there are generalised perceptions about the identity and practice of public relations consultants, little is known about the background and lived experiences of consultants in Aotearoa New Zealand. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to examine the lifeworld and day-to-day practices of public relations consultants in the country to gain a better understanding of their occupational culture.

To achieve this aim, the researcher applied a constructivist approach and observed two consultants at their respective workplaces using video ethnography. The data was analysed with the help of Ethnographic Communication Analysis (ECA) that examined verbal and non-verbal (such as gesture, gaze, posture, and proxemics) aspects of the routine interactions of these two public relations consultants with their clients and colleagues. The examined interactions included a problem-solving phone conversation with a client, job interview to select a prospective candidate, collaboration with a colleague, and a meeting with a client representative to manage staff turnover. Along with the participant observation, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 consultants (including one who was also observed) to add further validity and credibility to the interpretations. . The findings revealed that the occupational culture of public relations consultants in the country was about being affable, able, and available. Firstly, the consultants were found to be affable in that they used politeness strategies, valued social capital, and applied personal influence. Secondly, they believed that to do well in practice consultants must be able to write well, learn through experience and get the work done within the timeframe set by the client. Finally, consultants defined themselves through their flexible and extreme work ethos and empahsised the need to demonstrate availability to the client.

The findings of the study not only highlighted the occupational nuances specific to public relations consultants but also demonstrated the importance of their interpersonal relationships with clients and colleagues. Additionally, this investigation of occupational culture has raised various concerns about issues relating to identity and habitus of public relations consultants and what they imply for the advancement of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the occupation. With this study, the researcher hopes to inspire reflection on the current discipline, teaching and practice of public relations consulting.

This research has contributed to the understanding of public relations as an occupational field and advanced the application of social theory in the discipline. It is advised that future researchers continue to use ethnographic approaches to understand and make sense of the lived experiences of public relations practitioners, both consultants and those working in-house.

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