Book Review: Public Relations Capitalism by Anne Cronin

Review by Paul Jones

Public Relations Capitalism: Promotional Culture, Publics and Commercial Democracy by Anne Cronin was published by Palgrave in 2017.

Dr Anne Cronin is a Reader in the Sociology department, Lancaster University, UK. Her research focuses on consumer capitalism, PR, advertising and the logics of market societies. Her other books include: Advertising, Commercial Spaces and the Urban (2010, Palgrave Macmillan), Advertising Myths: The Strange Half-Lives of Images and Commodities (2004, Routledge), and Advertising and Consumer Citizenship: Gender, Images and Rights (2000, Routledge).

Explaining the counter-intuitive underpins a great deal of sharp sociological analysis. In certain conditions: Protestants seek to accumulate economic gain despite their religion explicitly teaching against such; poor women make ostensibly extravagant gifts when occasionally inheriting or winning money; application of managerialist measures associated with Key Performance Indicators – so familiar to those of us working in neo-liberal universities – often bring about completely unintended consequences; small supermarkets flourish in areas featuring high on the UK’s Multiple Deprivation Index; the increase in free-to-view online pornography has been accompanied by a decline in offline sexual activity; and, despite structuring much other aesthetic preference, social class seems to do little to explain musical taste.

In Public Relations Capitalism: Promotional Culture, Publics and Commercial Democracy Anne Cronin – who is Reader in Sociology at Lancaster University – analyses corporate communication’s growing influence over public opinion. Cronin’s account shows how discourses of communicative freedom and openness, while at the core of the self-understanding of Public Relations (PR) workers, in practice serve to constrain democratic communication. In a lovely, uncluttered set up to her book, Cronin situates the PR industry as a frequently unnoticed element of public understanding that is ‘exerting influence and control’ (p2) over our everyday lives. The attempt to make some information more visible to some publics, others less so – all while trying to avoid ‘becoming part of the story’ – is central to the work of the PR professionals analysed here.  

PR is part of a wider sector of corporate communications (including distinct-but-related fields of activity such as marketing and advertising), and the work of those in this sector is contingent on a kind of colonisation of a range of spaces – for example social media and print and broadcast media – that connect to publics. Unpacking examples of PR’s influence, Cronin covers disparate examples such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, celebrity promotional culture, and attempts to conceal activities of Jacob Zouma and associates. In the year or so since Public Relations Capitalism was published there have been a number of extremely high profile incidents that has reflected ‘the influence of influence’ over public debate; having read this book I thought very differently about the positioning of a range of issues and people.

Analysing hidden, normatively-ambivalent work opens up a rich seam for sociologists. In this respect Cronin provides an important general lesson: taking seriously perspectives and practices of those with whom you may disagree helps illuminate the world as is (as distinct from how one thinks it should be). In other words, rather than dismissing out of hand the perspectives of those engaged in PR activity, Cronin carefully interrogates their perspectives; the book is based around analysis of in-depth interviews with PR workers, from which a picture emerges of a highly reflexive group of people who are situated in a rather strange set of social relations with respect to communication. 

In the face of the growing influence of their work, ‘PR’s own image is less than positive’ (p9); the participants in this project are well aware of this situation, and have their own analysis of it. Cronin has garnered extremely rich quotes and vignettes from the thoughtful participants, whose words and positions are skilfully weaved into the general argument. Participants suggest that PR is routinely embedded in ‘factual’ [sic] news stories (p29), that ‘to deliver commercial value… we need to drive change at an ever increasing scale’ (p50), and that ‘a crisis can spiral… [you’ve got to] monitor Twitter and Facebook’ (p65). Aside from – or because of – the centrality of ‘telling the truth’ or at least being seen to be, PR workers a engaged in what Erving Goffman called ‘cynical action’ ([1959] 1990), that is behaviour including elements solely designed to create the impression of verisimilitude for an audience. The implications for what are sometimes called ‘post-truth politics’ are stark in PR.   

An overarching theoretical issue here concerns the nature of democratic communication and the constitution of the public. Michael Mair, my colleague at the University of Liverpool, once said to me that ‘publics are made by certain people at certain points to do certain things’. Cronin really digs into these sets of issues in her book. Any description of publics must be understood as a set of political claims; people in PR are implicated in such, inasmuch as their work can distort, constrain, or even corrupt, democratic public communication. Understanding their work requires a theory of politics, and Cronin draws on a wide and eclectic literature to situate her inquiry: perspectives from John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas, Wendy Brown, Michael Warner, and Nancy Fraser amongst others are all carefully articulated. The scholarly treatment of these figures and their theories is a real strength of Cronin’s book, which draws on theory in an enlivened way to support the central empirical inquiry. 

The depth and range of perspectives shared by participants suggest that Cronin is an excellent interviewer. If sometimes there is a slight tendency in the book to let interviewees speak for themselves – it was not altogether clear to me how the reporting of what participants had said had been chosen over others, or then how they were being analysed – the material unearthed was so interesting and revealing that one learns a great deal from reading it nonetheless. In short, the perspectives of many of the PR professionals concerning their own work are reflective of a deep ambivalence; to mangle Antonio Gramsci, their accounts are characterised by an optimism of the spirit and pessimism of the intellect.

One of my few intellectual criticisms of the concerns the tantalising analysis of capitalism therein. The actual political-economic conditions in which PR exists open up fascinating questions, but the material conditions of PR action can appear and disappear from view somewhat; of course, a short book like this cannot do everything – and there is discussion here of neo-liberalism throughout – I was left wanting more of Cronin’s account concerning the shape of the capitalist society in which corporate communication is so central. Another small grumble concerns the format of the book, elements of which I found a little jarring. Things like third person summaries, Abstracts, Keyword lists, links forwards and backward would perhaps be useful for readers who were not paying sufficient attention but as I actually was, they kind of breached the flow of the argument for me. Of course, these are standard devices in Palgrave Pivot books, which by now boasts a very impressive stable, added to by Public Relations Capitalism

Anyway I learned a lot from reading this little book, which made me think so much, and – as a work of sociology – illuminated a fundamental element of communication that is either invisible or taken-for-granted by most people most of the time. So, Public Relations Capitalism is a serious and scholarly book, based around a thoughtful and illuminating study, from which I learned a great deal. When reviewers say ‘timely’ it is often an exercise in damning with faint praise; not here, as Cronin gives a sharp, state-of-the-art account by drawing together an impressive theoretical literature, and evidencing central claims with engaging and rich empirical data. I think Public Relations Capitalism book will make a serious, distinctly sociological contribution to a wide range of debates.

Paul Jones is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool. His research tends to focus on architecture, capitalism, and urban space. He tweets @Jones01_p.

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