This blog is provided by IPR based on the original journal article in ESSACHESS.
Public relations (PR) practitioners are unlikely to have philosophical discussions on the merits of modern versus postmodern PR practices with executive management teams. Yet, most PR practitioners are regularly confronted with the tension between these two worldviews.
Modernists accept master narratives and metanarratives of history, culture, and national identity and believe in progress as the driving force behind history (Woods, 1999; Irvine, 2014). They believe that grand theory can represent knowledge and explain everything, a worldview which resonates with organisations. PR practitioners, regardless of their own views, thus often face modernist executive management teams with a focus on structure, processes, regulation, and the bottom-line.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, prohibits grand theorising and is suspicious of master narratives. It deconstructs and is skeptical of closure, certainty, and control (Firat & Dholakia, 2006), traits that are important to most executives. Postmodern PR academics claim to integrate postmodernism in PR education, yet, when analysing undergraduate curricula, evidence of such integration is hard to find (Madden, Brown & Xu, 2019). Neither have the PR industry and regulatory bodies worldwide moved beyond a modernistic worldview of PR and modernist concepts such as management, planned, sustained, process, two-way communication, and mutually, are found in their current definitions of PR. Popular PR textbooks only touch on postmodern aspects such as deconstruction and activism, but continue to focus mostly on modernist PR as a management function (Duffy, 2000). Furthermore, research indicates that modernist PR theories reflecting the excellence theory framework, are often favoured (Ströh, 2009; Thurlow, Sévigny & Dottori, 2018). As recently as July 2021, in sharing his thoughts on the BledCom 2021 PR conference, Stoeckle (2021) wrote “…dialogic Excellence Theory (ET) appeared to reign supreme among chosen approaches.”
Perhaps the answer to resolving the modern/postmodern PR dilemma is not to dismiss modernist PR theories, but rather to revisit their value and relevance when approached from a metamodern perspective.
Vermeulen and Van den Akker (2010) conceptualised metamodernism, in relation to modernism and postmodernism, as a both-neither dynamic and explain that it is simultaneously modern and postmodern as well as neither of them. They define metamodernism as an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism. It does not imply a balance between these poles, but rather a constant swinging of the pendulum during which metamodernism negotiates between modernism and postmodernism. Metamodernism is not simply a convergence of modernism and postmodernism. It is not a compromise either and a good metamodernist is both a postmodernist and a modernist (or neither), respecting both perspectives and believing that each has relevance depending on the issue at hand. It is not an easy way out of the modernism/postmodernism debate since the oscillation between the two perspectives might be difficult from time to time. For this very reason, metamodernism is not normative and descriptive either, because the oscillation might force PR practitioners toward a perspective they are personally uncomfortable with (Ludford, 2021), but which is relevant at that point in time since it relates to “how things are.”
Metamodernism and PR
The relationship between modernism and postmodernism becomes productive when a metamodern PR practitioner has faith in knowledge and science, but not without questioning absolute truths and narratives; believes that reconstruction must follow construction and deconstruction; is comfortable with so-called truths whilst accepting the possibility of being wrong in certain beliefs; engages in dialogue and dialectic conversations with collaboration in mind.
Thus, a metamodernist would deconstruct modernist constructs, identify the good in them, learn from them and reconstruct a new possibility, by joining different and even contradictory positions (Abramson, 2018). A metamodern PR practitioner could for instance ask: how can I juxtapose relevant concepts from activism and the excellence theory to propose an innovative PR solution? How do I be an activist, but remain a welcome member of the dominant coalition as required by the excellence theory?
I have yet to come across a PR practitioner who has had the luxury of practicing purely from a postmodern perspective. Decades of working in the PR industry confirmed that most organisations and many managers still operate within a modernistic framework. Not acknowledging this casts a dark cloud over the efforts of PR practitioners. One of two things happen – they either comply with the modernistic tendencies in the organisation and all PR initiatives reflect this, or they are in constant conflict with management because of their perceived rebelliousness (i.e., postmodern framework).
A metamodern perspective holds exciting possibilities for the future of PR. The PR initiatives of a metamodern practitioner would include the use of modernistic, normative PR theories (how things ought to be), which would provide a level of comfort and security to management, whilst at the same time implementing positivist (how things are) perspectives in a chaotic, uncertain, diverse, and often out-of-control environment – something many of them already do intuitively.
Abramson, S. (2018). On metamodernism. Retrieved 11 May 2021, from https://medium.com/@Seth_Abramson/on-metamodernism-926fdc55bd6a
Duffy, M. E. (2000). There’s no two-way symmetric about it: A postmodern examination of public relations textbooks. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 17(3), 294-315.
Firat, FA & Dholakia, N. 2006. Theoretical and philosophical implications of postmodern debates: Some challenges to modern marketing. Marketing Theory 6(2):123–162.
Irvine, M. (2014). Approaches to Po-Mo. Retrieved 16 September 2015 from http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/pomo.html
Ludford, S. (2021). Against metamodernism. Retrieved 13 May 2021, from https://samuelludford.medium.com/against-metamodernism-51be3cbbe751 on 13 May 2021.
Madden, S., Brown, K., & Xu, S. (2019). Empowering the future practitioner: Postmodernism in the undergraduate public relations classroom. Journal of Public Relations Education. 5(2), 105-131.
Stoeckle, T. (2021). Dealing with a communicative virus. Some thoughts on a virtual BledCom 2021. Retrieved on 2 August 2021, from https://pracademy.co.uk/insights/dealing-with-a-communicative-virus/.
Ströh, U. M. (2009). An alternative postmodern approach to corporate communication strategy. In E. L. Toth (Ed). The Future of Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. Challenges for the Next Generation (119-220). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Thurlow, A., Sévigny, A. S. & Dottori, M. (2018). Global capabilities in public relations. Public Relations Journal. 11(3), 1-25.
Vermeulen, T. & Van den Akker, R. (2010). Notes on metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture. 2, 1-14.
Woods, T. (1999). Beginning postmodernism. New York: St Martin’s Press.
A detailed version of the article was previously published in the ESSACHESS – Journal for Communication Studies’ special edition Future of Communications and Public Relations (PR). (Re)Imagining the Role, Function and Purpose of the Communication Profession” .
Irma Meyer, D Litt et Phil, CPRP, proprietor of Executive Engagements, has a special interest in stakeholder relations and internal communication. She acts as a guest lecturer for several tertiary institutions, chairs the IMM Graduate School’s appeal hearings and facilitates workshops for the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.