Corporate social responsibility, new
activism and public relations
Purpose – This paper aims to analyse why some contemporary corporate organisations are reluctant to
articulate the effect of their market positioning behaviour on the unwilling communities that oppose their
activities. It describes the communicative interactions between several large corporate organisations
and the grassroots activist groups opposing their activities, in Victoria, Australia.
Design/methodology/approach – Extensive secondary data were collected, including extensive
newspaper and radio transcripts from the campaign periods, web site downloads, letters and other
campaign documents. The research design applied to the data, a qualitative, interpretative analysis,
drawing on key theoretical frameworks.
Findings – The research ﬁndings suggest that powerful protest strategies, combined with the right
political and social conditions, and a shift in the locus of politics and expertise, bring to light public
concerns about the ethics of corporate practices, such as public relations, used egocentrically by
organisations, to harmonise their activities in late modern Western society. It ﬁnds that no serious
overhaul of business ethics can occur until the unity of public relations is critically scrutinised and
reformed. It helps deﬁne an alternative holistic communicative approach which could be applied more
widely to business practice that helps avoid the limitations and relativism of public relations.
Originality/value – The research ﬂags new ways of thinking expressed in the notion of public
communication that could lead to creative and unusual coherences vital to deal with the apparent
ecological challenges for society in late modernity.
Keywords Public relations, Ethics, Community relations, Risk management, Australia
Paper type Research paper
PR – outmoded, outmaneuvered, out of touch
In the twentieth century, communication management, or the planned teleological, or
goal-oriented programs of public relations, began ‘‘as a way for an organisation to generate
positive publicity that might offset public pressures to regulate big business’’ (McElreath,
1997, p. 6). Furthermore, organisations that employ public relations as a strategy to manage
dissent in order to achieve ‘‘harmony’’ are promoted not only as a legitimate, but as
beneﬁcial to society. Widely known, this ‘‘Ofﬁcial Statement of Public Relations’’ appears in
key public relations education texts, such as Wilcox et al. (2000), Hendrix (2001) and Cutlip
et al. (2000).
Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more
effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It serves to
bring private and public policies into harmony. (Public Relations Society of America; see
www.prsa.org/_Resources/profession/index.asp?ident ¼ pro).
But public relations, as the instrument of business and a positive harmonising effect on
society, is contested. Critics of public relations (Stauber and Rampton, 1995; Beder, 1997;
Nelson, 1989; Hager and Burton, 1999) argue that, as a domain, it has an unfair advantage
over other social groups in ways that lead to the entrenched dominance of business interests
SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY JOURNAL
VOL. 4 NO. 1/2 2008, pp. 104-119, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1747-1117 DOI 10.1108/17471110810856875
Kristin Demetrious is a
Lecturer in Public
Communication at the
School of Communication
and Creative Arts, Faculty
of Arts, Deakin University,