Embracing the backstage of public relations

Experiencing Public Relations: International Voices is no ordinary public relations textbook.  It brings together stories of public relations in daily life throughout the world, examining both its positive and negative sides.  Here, co-editor Elizabeth Bridgen from Sheffield Hallam University explains why we need to delve beneath the surface of public relations practice if we are to ever understand and explain it.

You'll learn…

  • Why it's OK to be impressed by good public relations carried out for bad organisations
  • Why we should celebrate individual practitioners in public relations
  • Why the less glamorous 'backstage' of public relations is just as important as the celebrated 'frontstage'

Embracing the backstage of public relations

Why is there a photo of a slightly bored-looking woman with tattoos on the front of a book about public relations? I predict that those who see public relations as a strategic management function will feel awkward about this - that's not how those at the top of public relations perceive public relations or want others to see it.

Public relations leaders have a knowledge and experience (and possibly a well-read blog) which has given them status in the world of public relations.  They understand how communication fits into broader leadership behaviour and, for that reason, they belong to the dominant coalition in their organization – in other words, they are among those people at the top who make the real decisions. This is the image that students get from text books, this is how practitioners tell their ‘war stories’ at conferences and how they present their best case studies for public relations awards. This is, in the words of the sociologist Erving Goffman, the public relations frontstage.

In his book Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Goffman developed a metaphor of theatrical production to describe social behaviour. We all live in a duality of frontstage and backstage behaviour. For instance, we wear comfortable clothes at home, and dress up when we leave the house. We have parts of our houses which are presentable to our guests and we have rooms which are rather more chaotic and into which we usually don’t invite guests. Essentially, we talk, behave, and interact differently in backstage than frontstage. Frontstage is a public place, backstage is private - and public relations is no different.

An image that represents reality

The woman with the tattoos is not telling the story of public relations that we see presented at conferences or in industry blogs and articles. She tells the story of the hidden in public relations - those grafting in the background, running Twitter feeds and running around after clients.   

These are the public relations practitioners who go home, pour a glass of wine and start a second shift of work liaising with online influencers. These are the public relations practitioners who get shouted by journalists and ignored by the agents of D-list celebrities. Sometimes they're bored, sometimes they're stressed, sometimes they hate their job and other times they love it. They're multi-taskers and have their own lives outside public relations.  They don’t hold managerial positions and they don’t belong to the dominant coalition. 

And if we scrutinise public relations literature, they barely exist - even though there are thousands of them across the world.

In public relations literature, public relations is often only discussed as a ‘thing’ or in the abstract; the individual is frequently forgotten.   When a junior practitioner is remembered, it's only on account of the 'great work' they have done (such as in the '30 under 30' lists) or as a 'problem' which can be solved with a little hard work (such as gender or diversity or education - the individual's problem is acknowledged, but they are often absent from the conversation about the solution in favour of industry 'greats' giving their views).

However, the individual matters, and without them public relations wouldn't happen.  The problem is, however (as we have explained above) that they don't tell the story that public relations leaders want to hear.  Get a group of public relations practitioners together and they will tell you stories of how they had to break the rules to get an impossible task finished for their boss or a client.  Or they might whisper stories of the unethical practice that goes on in agencies with the highest ethical standards. 

Time for a different story to be told

These practitioners experience public relations in different ways and carry different understandings of the work they do. They also have their own strategies and models – not the grand models of academic papers but strategies which give them a way of surviving the workplace or carrying out the work they are asked to do. The stories of these people remain largely untold in favour of the ‘big stories’ or the frontstage of public relations. However, these are the people who try to bring these ‘big stories’ – and the everyday plans and campaigns that accompany them – to life. They are also the people who are told to carry out the unpleasant side of public relations as well as the everyday, the trivial or irrelevant within the industry.

And here we get to the heart of the matter.  Public relations has a problem with its image, as all the op eds about the reputation of public relations will testify. The truth is that some public relations activity is unethical and wrong, with work carried out for unpalatable organizations and on dubious campaigns where language is used to manipulate. Meanwhile, other aspects are worthy. And a lot of public relations exists somewhere between the two. 

The fact that the less than savoury side of public relations puts the new and reputationally rather fragile public relations industry in an unfavourable light doesn’t mean that this aspect shouldn’t be discussed. 

Is the ‘unpleasant’ side of public relations too horrid to write about apart from when commentators use it to 'bash' the public relations industry? Confusingly, some offensive organisations (such as terrorist organisations, or oppressive governments) use public relations techniques to an incredibly high standard and have enviable corporate narratives - that we refuse to discuss them in case they put public relations in a 'bad light' means that perhaps, we refuse to learn (and counteract their effects).

A 360° view on the profession

Whether we like it or not, we need to understand all representations of the everyday life of public relations- not just to learn from it but also to help inexperienced as well as seasoned practitioners make sense of their personal feelings about their jobs and what they see at work. 

By digging into the dirt, you can obtain valuable insights into how things operate. This knowledge is useful for orientation in the universe, not only in its physical landscape, but also within our heads. 

It’s the sign of the maturity of a practice that it can also confess and articulate its darker and muddier sides. Humans and our actions are not perfect, and telling people that they can expect only the best in their lives (which is often the picture painted by 'how to' public relations texts)  may make them miserable later down the road. 

This book is about the public relations that happens while managers are busy making their strategic plans.


Experiencing Public Relations: International Voices, edited by Elizabeth Bridgen and Dejan Verčič is published by Routledge https://www.routledge.com/Experiencing-Public-Relations-International-Voices/Bridgen-Vercic/p/book/9781138632448


Twitter: @lizbridgen