Making choices in public relations planning: are we reinforcing stereotypes?
Theunissen, PS; Rahman
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In today’s globalised world, public relations practitioners function in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environments, which they must navigate in the course of their profession, relying on their lifeworlds and understanding of what is “appropriate” or not. These lifeworlds and understandings develop from interaction with other practitioners, the broader social and cultural influences and their own cultural worldview. Such understanding will influence the choices they make about messages, narratives and visuals in their campaigns, which are likely to validate existing beliefs and values, including stereotypes that may exist about other (and their own) ethnic culture. This understanding will also influence the practice of public relations: who organisations choose to engage in its campaigns, how it engages in conversations with these publics, how the messages are constructed and how the images are used. If one were to accept that such choices and engagement will have an impact on the cultural perceptions and societal myth-making, then it becomes increasingly important that practitioners critically reflect on these choices. This paper discusses the impact of the practitioner as cultural intermediary by reflecting on various education and health campaigns launched in New Zealand, such as the “Are you okay?” campaign to curb family violence and the “It’s not our culture” anti-smoking campaign. While the messages and visuals in the campaigns are non-offensive, the visuals are dominated by people who are generally understood to be “Pacific Islander” or “Māori” based on apparent racial traits. While those with European characteristics are also presented (albeit to a lesser extent), those with Asian racial characteristics were noticeably absent, even though the New Zealand 2006 census indicates that those identifying themselves as being “Asian” are the third largest ethnic group in New Zealand—larger than those who are deemed “Pacific Islanders”. In Auckland alone, nearly 20% identify themselves as being “Asian”. The latent message conveyed by the presence (or absence) of specific ethnic groups in campaigns such as these is that only certain (ethnic and racial) groups display particular behaviour. For example, in public relations terms, the absence of Asian people would suggest that the Asian community is not targeted by the “Are you okay?” campaign as they are less likely to encounter family violence, while the obvious presence of Pacific Islanders and Māori suggests the opposite. The question arises then whether these campaigns reflect “reality”, and if so, whose reality? It appears then racial traits are still very much at the forefront of choosing images that represent organisations or products. Understanding the impact of such decision-making on broader societal values is important for the public relations profession if they intend to further social responsibility and responsiveness.