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Dejan Vercic (*)
The article confronts a U.S.-based definition of public relations as relationship management with a European view that besides a relational, argues also for a reflective paradigm that is concerned with publics and the public sphere; not only with relational (which can in principle be private), but also with public consequences of organizational behavior. The article is based on a three year research project on the European Public Relations Body of Knowledge and it reflects on the consequence of that project for definitional activities in the US practitioner and academic communities. (C) 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
In a recent article Hutton (1) reopened a debate on the definition of public relations with the purpose "to propose a definition of public relations; explore some of the implications of that definition, in terms of the domain of public relations; propose a three-dimensional framework by which to analyze public relations theories and practice; and encourage the process of integration, rather than disintegration, of the field." (2) We find his endeavor commendable, yet a bit flawed: as many authors before him Hutton approached the field of public relations as being a solely North American theory and practice. By reading his article a reader gets the impression that the conceptual issues Hutton discussed using solely sources from the U.S. equally apply around the globe and that the definition based solely on U.S. theory and practice has a global validity. In this article we would like to question this based on our three-year research program on public relations in Europe. At least from a European perspective we find Hutton's definition, dimensions and the domain of public relations being inadequate; yet we don't claim that our proposals have a global reach--we think that further work still needs to be done in Europe, but we also need a better understanding of the current situations in public relations theory and practice on other continents. It is only after we are able to take into consideration the full richness of the present state of thinking and practicing public relations around the globe that we will be able to draw conclusions towards what the public relations profession is in the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
In what follows we first introduce the reader into our project on the European public relations body of knowledge (EBOK). This is the fourth part of a still incomplete presentation of the results of that study. (3) Then we review Hutton's proposals on the definition, dimensions, and domain of public relations. These will be confronted with the findings from our research. After that we present some ideas on how we could bridge the differences we encounter. In the final section we propose the areas for further investigation and explain where we intend to lead our research next.
2. The Delphi research in public relations in 25 European countries
Twentieth century public relations was dominated by North American scholars and practitioners. By its end, the U.S. had more than 3,000 universities teaching public relations--more than the rest of the world. The two U.S.-based practitioner organizations (PRSA--Public Relations Society of America, and IABC--International Public Relations Association) each had more members than the International Public Relations Association (IPRA). The major textbooks from both the practitioner and academic press originated in the U.S. The global marketplace for public relations services was served primarily by U.S. agencies/networks. (4) While all the above is witnessing the strength and vitality of U.S. academia and practice as compared to the rest of the world it seemed to have produced a lack of interest on the part of U.S. scholars and practitioners for any theoretical and practical work in public relations on other continents. This attitude sometimes turned into arrogance. Between 1988 and 1995 the Public Relations Socie ty of America was publishing a bibliography for public relations professionals entitled "Public Relations Body of Knowledge"--without noticing non American authors and publications. Even the authors of the chapter on Europe in a major book on International Public Relations were Americans. (5) Partly as a reaction to this ignorance in 1998 the European Association of Public Relations Education and Research (CERP Education and Research; in January 2001 the organization changed its name to EUPRERA--European Public Relations Education and Research Association) mandated a task force to produce the European Public Relations Body of Knowledge--EBOK (with the authors of this article being its members).
The EBOK was originally conceived as an electronic database accessible via the Internet. Its purpose was to codify the existing body of public relations literature in Europe and to enable its fuller use and affirmation. This bibliography was to include all public relations publications in all European languages published since 1990, with abstracts and their translations in as many European languages as possible. By December 1998, national coordinators (members of CERP Education and Research) were identified in 25 countries, but this task proved to be more complicated than initially thought because the task force found itself confronted with the question: What qualifies as a public relations literature item? It became clear that coordinators in different countries had different views on what is public relations and that before a bibliography could be produced common ground on which to build it was needed. For that reason the EBOK project got a second component: a Delphi study on public relations in Europe.
A Delphi study is a research method used in social sciences, including public relations, for assessing future, complex and ambiguous subjects. (6) It is based on the techniques of iterative and anonymous group interviewing. A group of respondents is typically composed of experts who are asked to clarify muddled issues descriptively (e.g., "What is public relations?") and/or normatively (e.g., "What ought to be public relations?"). The premise of the method is that iterative questioning will either cause the range of answers to converge on the midrange of the distribution or will show a clear and reasoned dichotomy. The essence of the method is to use participants' answers in the following rounds. The usual iteration number is three "rounds" or "waves".
The critical element of a Delphi study is the quality of the respondents. The research team based its selection of the respondents on the following criteria: (1) respondents should represent as many European countries as possible, (2) from each country there should be one academic and one practitioner, and (3) respondents should be knowledgeable in public relations in their country. In reality, 37 participants from 25 countries (7) were involved in the realization of the study and the majority of the countries were represented only by an academic. Questionnaires were distributed and answers received electronically (via e-mail) in three rounds between January 1999 and March …