Bournemouth University

The Media School

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15 July 2011

L-R Keynote speaker Ray E. Hiebert and IHPRC organser Prof Tom Watson

Is there a more honest term to describe public relations? International conference assesses the merits of the discipline amid turbulent times.

An international event tackled new approaches to public relations theory and practice at Bournemouth University, UK, this month. Led by Professor Tom Watson, the International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) attracted delegates and papers across all continents.

Renowned PR historian Ray E. Hiebert observed: “Would a more honest term for public relations be communication management? Persuasive communication? Or communication strategy?” His keynote speech explored the relevance of academic study into public relations with “the past as prologue to our future research.”

Other topics tackled included whether the role of public relations in negotiating the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, the rise of litigation public relations and national history of public relations in south east Asia, eastern Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. The early 20th century tale of ‘Mary the Elephant’ the circus performer, was outlined by John Brummette of Radford University in the US as an early example of sensationalist publicity conflicting with corporate social responsibility. The elephant was hanged in response to whipped-up public opinion after she trampled her handler to death. “They thought it was the right thing to do from a socially responsible perspective” suggested Brummette.

Other speakers discussed the origins of public relations. Professor Sherry Holladay from University of Central Florida argued that American activists were among the first, while others suggested recognition and value of PR could be tracked to religious leaders in the eleventh century and even as far back as the Roman Emperor Augustus.

A notable development was the use of social media to disseminate thinking and encourage debate in real time during the event. The News International breaking story surrounding journalists’ conduct provided a suitable backdrop to the discussions with ethics, social values and spin doctors all hot topics on Twitter via the conference hashtag, #ihprc2011.

The event was organised by the Centre for Public Communication Research in BU’s Media School. Now an annual occurrence, it is an international opportunity for academic researchers, historians and interested practitioners to meet, hear papers and discuss this emerging area of research.

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