Public relations did not become established as a modern management function until the second half of the 20th century. But as Günter Bentele has convincingly shown in his studies of the history of PR in Germany, the roots of the profession go back to the Prussian reform movement, well over 200 years ago. Since then, the discipline has evolved and grown more professional in a multi-phase development. Bentele identifies seven such phases, the last of which – “digitalization, internet, and globalization” – ushered in the epoch of strategically based communications management.
In all these phases, technological progress was a major driver of developments, not least as a result of PR using the most advanced media channels of the day: from print, radio, and television to internet and social media. Given this fact, and in light of the imminent developmental leaps in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, the history of PR innovation seems above all to be a history of constant substitution, first of hardware and later of software. This explains the answers given by PR practitioners when polled about the future focus of their profession. In the European Communication Monitor 2019, no topic increased in significance year on year as much as “the use of big data and algorithms in communications.”
It appears to be a foregone conclusion that PR’s future lies in the machine, even if one sometimes cannot help feeling that this could at best be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this context, it can help both practitioners and academics to broaden their horizons and emulate the German philosopher Daniel-Pascal Zorn. In his investigation of the difference between philosophy and popular philosophy, he writes: “Philosophy can only get to the bottom of things if a bottom doesn’t already exist that it hid there itself.” Such an open-minded (Zorn would say “radical”) approach would also do the debate about the future of PR and the principles of progress in communications management a lot of good.
Two centuries after its birth in the early modern age, PR is still a combination of craftsmanship, art, and science. Obviously, its craft elements have always been especially receptive to technological innovations. But confusing a tactical craftsman’s tool with a new strategic paradigm would have dramatic consequences. The caustic caption of a cartoon in the Los Angeles Times of January 5, 2020, sums up the potential hazard of misusing AI in communication campaigns: “Our company uses artificial intelligence to create real ignorance.” To defend themselves against digital opinion designers’ claims to omnipotence, PR professionals should adopt as their motto what the great French enlightenment thinker Voltaire said: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
Right now, it is not technological progress that is the source of the most important stimuli for the evolution of communications management, but the new demands made of companies by critical stakeholder groups. The emerging new model of stakeholder capitalism, as set out in the Davos Manifesto of this year’s WEF, presents new challenges for companies’ capacity to communicate and, above all, to engage. Meeting these challenges will mean going beyond the classic PR toolbox. Establishing and cultivating durable relationships with critical stakeholder groups (bonding) is becoming equally as important as PR’s classic propagatory effect (establishing reputation).
This also shows that social sciences and the humanities, as fundamental elements of PR, can and must be a source of important stimuli. Marcus du Sautoy, one of the leading AI theorists, also hints as much when he calls on the humanities to play their part: “More and more questions of exegesis (relating to AI) are being voiced in public. Engineers and economists can only provide limited answers.” In other words, incorporating new developments into PR also calls for self-assured theoretical thinkers to play their part, beyond application-oriented technology. As the art historian Erwin Panofsky fittingly writes in his “In Defense of the Ivory Tower”: “At the foot of the tower, people have the energy to act, but cannot see very far. At the top of the ivory tower, people can see far, but don’t have the energy to act.”