AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Roy V. Leeper (*)
Public relation's search for a unifying theory may be fulfilled through application of Alasdair MacIntyre's concept of a "practice," a very specific and value-laden concept. This article explores what it would mean to be a public relations practice in MacIntyre' s concept of the term and argues that such an approach to public relations is of value for the field. (c) 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
The field of public relations has long been in search of a unifying theory and set of definitions. In 1989, Grunig wrote that many theories apply to public relations but that there is no public relations theory. (1) As a result, public relations suffers from an "identity crisis" and "has failed to arrive at a broadly accepted definition of itself in terms of its fundamental purpose, its dominant metaphor, its scope, or its underlying dimensions." (2) It is recognized that "definitions play crucial roles both in societal processes and in the minds of those who study and practice public relations ... ("3) Because of the lack of a theory and common definitional focus, those outside of the field, by default, have been allowed to define the field. Those definitions are often negative. (4) Because of the lack of common focus, there is "vagueness and disagreement and confusion" about the profession. (5) Because of these and other concerns, a concerted effort has been made in recent years to reach consensus on an ope rative paradigm for the field. (6)
It has been argued that one such possible paradigm is the establishment and maintenance of community. (7) Culbertson and Chen wrote that "communitarianism has something to say for the modern practice of public relations" and drew out a set of "tenets" entailed by that paradigm. (8) Such an approach seems to be in keeping with the 1982 Public Relations Society of America's "Official Statement on Public Relations" which identified the goal of public relations as being to help "our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to bring private and public policies into harmony." (9) Newsom, Turk, and Kruckeberg argued that "In the long run, the best PR is evidence of an active social conscience." (10) This social conscience should lead to what Seitel described as the goal of public relations--"to harmonize internal and external relationships so that an organization can enjoy not only the goodwill of al l of its publics, but also stability and long life." (11) This harmony is not necessarily at the level of specific issues, where genuine disagreements can and do exist, but at the level of community cohesion and values that, hopefully, will lead to harmony, or at least understanding, on basic underlying values and issues.
A problem is that research in the field of public relations has tended to focus on effects and tasks rather than on fundamental purposes. (12) A public relations theory needs to be prescriptive as well as descriptive (13) and start at the metatheoretic level. (14) This article explicates the normative, or prescriptive, side of a communitarian approach to public relations by examining the field in light of MacIntyre's s concept of a "practice." MacIntyre' s conception of a practice is explored, what such a practice would entail is developed, and then the value of such an approach for the field of public relations is examined.
1.1. MacIntyre's concept of a practice
MacIntyre's After Virtue has had a major impact in academic circles. The thesis of the work is that "in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in ... grave disorder ...." (15) After developing that thesis, he spends the rest of the book attempting to provide solutions, based upon an Aristotelian analysis, to that disorder. The book is a major work on the philosophical/theoretical side of the modern communitarian movement. (16) Dobson called the book one of the most influential books on moral philosophy in this century. (17) Herrick argued that the call for a return to virtue ethics, spurred in large part by the publication of MacIntyre's book, is "perhaps the most powerful movement in recent ethical theory" and that After Virtue is the "most influential work in the field of virtue ethics." (18) The importance of MacIntyre's work for this paper is his concept of how virtue develops within the context of what he calls a practice.
MacIntyre argued that there are three stages in the "logical development" of an account of virtue: the background account of a social practice, a narrative order of a single life, and a moral tradition. (19) Each of the three stages has its own conceptual background. (20) A practice is defined as "any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended." (21) As examples, MacIntyre wrote that "throwing a football with skill" is not a practice "but the game of football is, and so is chess. Bricklaying is not a practice; architecture is. Planting turnips is not a practice; farming is. So are the enquiries of physics, chemistry and biology, and so is th e work of the historian, and so are painting and music." (22) Similarly, writing a good press release is not a practice but the field of public relations is.
Virtues, according to MacIntyre, develop within practices: "A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods." (23) (Emphasis in the original.) The difference between goods internal and external to a practice is that internal goods are intrinsic to the …