Economics, social dialogue and Public Relations


By combining the strategic and social strands of public relations, PR professionals have the opportunity to become catalysts in realising the potential of economic activism and social dialogue. This chapter looks at how.

You’ll learn:
•    Social dialogue is an emerging communication model based on good governance
•    PR practice could be more entrepreneurial/activist
•    We need to listen more!

Of hearts and minds… and hands

The advent of near-ubiquitous, digitally-driven social networking in the last 10 years or so is one factor pushing public relations professionals to rethink their business function and societal position. 

Recent debates about whether PR even qualifies as a profession testify to this. At the same time, the rise of big data has renewed the challenge of measurement, with some questioning the ability of PR, along with other communication disciplines, to make appropriate use of data analysis.

There is a case to be made for PR as both craft and profession. The 2016 Global Communications Report [1]cites content, technology, and talent as the top three challenges facing the industry. 

The Report’s survey of agency and in-house recruiters also reveals that their number one talent requirement remains ‘traditional’ writing skills. Good writing is described as “the price of admission” to the industry. Writing is a craft; in other words, an exercise of skill in the pursuit of making something (which is one reason why PR can learn so much from design, but that’s another story).

Let’s say, then, that writing is what we do with our hands in PR. Understanding data is an example of the need to engage the rational capacity of the mind. And there is always a place for the heart – both as a symbol for the emotional aspects of good PR, such as storytelling, and as a reminder that we should “care about the big issues” [2].

But if you think this sounds ‘soft’, and that PR folk should be ‘hard’ and lean on econometric validations, bear in mind that it was former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul” [3].

The economy, stupid

Thatcher’s message appears to be bearing fruit within the EU, via a growing cross-sector movement that integrates economic development with social cohesion. It does this by linking institutions on the one hand, and entrepreneurship as a creative function of individuals on the other. It’s an approach that is neither completely dependent on the market nor entirely beholden to the state.

This is achieved through ‘social dialogue’, an open and well-governed form of communication between economic interests which have, in the past, seemed contradictory: entrepreneurs and authorities; businesses and social institutions; individual liberty and central planning. The purpose of social dialogue is to create better outcomes for individuals and stronger communities, drawing on a broad definition of entrepreneurship in which every person has the potential, given the opportunity, to be the author of their own life.

Anyone familiar with the work of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) will recognise that last phrase. It characterises an ethos the RSA has promoted for over 260 years. Recently, the RSA has been developing ideas to improve communication between government, communities, businesses, and individuals. One initiative in particular captures the spirit of social dialogue in a way that offers interesting lessons for public relations.

Entitled the Citizens’ Economic Council, the project sets out to increase knowledge of, and discussion about, economic policy. It seeks to give a voice to ‘non-expert’ citizens’ views in an area that has such impact on everyday life, yet is often so opaque. The Council’s founding Prospectus identifies the need “to promote transparency in the way economics is discussed… to strengthen democratic accountability… and to promote creativity in the conversation about economics” [4].

In a sign that this is being explored at the highest levels of government, one of current UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s first pronouncements was about putting employees on corporate boards, in order to make boards “more accountable to outsiders” [5]. Whether this includes giving PR ‘a seat at the table’ is not clear. This more direct approach is also picked up by the 2016 European Communication Monitor, in what it calls a “trend towards one-to-one stakeholder communication” [6].

Excellence and its discontents

These and other examples demonstrate the rise of social dialogue, which I describe as a progressive method for maintaining relations between publics. However, in order to be true to the notion of dialogue there needs to be more emphasis on listening. As Jim Macnamara’s recent detailed study reveals, there is precious little listening happening in organisations at present, which renders many claims of ‘stakeholder dialogue’ to be, at best, doubtful. Quoting the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s exhortation to speak “only inasmuch as one listens”, Macnamara concludes that “[n]ow is the time to stop, and listen” [7].

This advice is equally applicable to two competing camps in the ongoing debate about the meaning of public relations. One holds PR to be a management practice with strategic aims, while the other focuses on PR as an activist behaviour with social aims. 

Both put dialogue at the heart of PR practice, the former through the two-way symmetrical model, the latter through direct involvement of stakeholders. For the past couple of decades, the ‘excellence’ approach derived from the two-way symmetrical model has dominated PR theory and, to some extent, practice. But it is not without its critics, as Stephen Waddington has noted [8]

Meanwhile, alternative histories of public relations and radical views of its socio-political status have emerged in the work of practitioners and academics Robert E. Brown and Derina Holtzhausen. Brown argues for public relations to take its place among the humanities along with architecture and literature, because, like them, PR seeks to “narrate public meaning” [9]. Holtzhausen posits a postmodern ethics as the basis for an ‘activist’ public relations practice that contributes to the creation of “a radical, participative democracy” [10] – which now sounds oddly in line with the wishes of a Conservative Prime Minister.

PRs – doin’ it for themselves?

Entrepreneurs are described as individuals with the drive and determination to start something. They “create opportunity rather than wait for it” [11]. This is what being the authors of our own lives is all about. Being more entrepreneurial, improving our listening capability, and building on the inclusive governance of social dialogue is a combination that, perhaps, affords us a glimpse of a new kind of PR.

It’s fine to continue promoting or advocating for products, services, and experiences on behalf of governments, companies, non-profits, or celebrities. But as George Pitcher suggests, we have to be “brave enough to use communications as a means of action, not positioning; of joining the debate, not evading it” [12].

By combining the strategic and social strands of public relations, PR professionals could become catalysts in realising the potential of economic activism and social dialogue. Given the ongoing repercussions from the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU this represents a significant opportunity. 


[1] Holmes Report and USC Annenberg Center on Public Relations (2016) Global Communications Report.

[2] Gregory, A. (2015) ‘Communicating with conscience; influencing organisational leaders to do the right thing’. In S. Hall (ed.) #FuturePRoof 1 (e-book).

[3] Interview with the Sunday Times, May 3, 1981.

[4] RSA (2016) Economics for Everyone: Prospectus for the Citizens’ Economic Council.

[5] May, T. (2016) ‘We can make Britain a country that works for everyone’. London: Conservative Party Press Office. 

[6] Euprera/EACD (2016) European Communication Monitor: Exploring Trends in Big Data, Stakeholder Engagement and Strategic Communication.

[7] Macnamara, J. (2016) Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

[8] Waddington, S. (2015) ‘A critical review: The four models of public relations and the excellence theory in an era of digital communication’. In S. Waddington (ed.) Chartered Public Relations: Lessons from Expert Practitioners. London: CIPR/Kogan Page.

[9] Brown, R. E. (2015) The Public Relations of Everything. Oxford: Routledge.

[10] Holtzhausen, D. (2012) Public Relations as Activism: Postmodern Approaches to Theory & Practice. Oxford: Routledge.

[11] Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (2013) Your Assignment: Grow the Global Economy (white paper).

[12] Pitcher, G. (2003) The Death of Spin. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Ezri Carlebach MPRCA FIIC FRSA is a senior associate with the PR Network and visiting lecturer in public relations at the University of Greenwich. He has led communication teams in FTSE 100, non-profit, and government organisations, and served as President of IABC’s UK chapter, Treasurer of its EMENA region board, and chair of the international committee for the Gold Quill Awards. 

Twitter: @ezriel