Monday, October 10, 2022

Kristin Demetrious's "Public Relations and Neoliberalism"

Kristin Demetrious is an Associate Professor of Communication at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. Her research investigates power in public relations and its language practices through a number of social sites such as activism and gender using a socio-cultural lens to explore how it can create and control forms of identity and shape public debates that set policy directions.

Demetrious applied the Page 99 Test to her new book, Public Relations and Neoliberalism: The Language Practices of Knowledge Formation, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page of Public Relations and Neoliberalism catapults the reader into the middle of an elaborate theoretical idea about how PR language practices work to impose a narrow and constricted ‘vision’ of neoliberal society – an argument that drives the logic of the book. And that’s a good thing. This page shows that one way that blank transactional meanings are insinuated into society is by privileging a utopian idea of ‘living in the moment’, so that no historical or relational counterpoint is on hand for people to compare within a broader context, and in doing so, suggests how this ‘spell’ might be broken. But to have a stronger sense of what this idea means and why it’s important, both for life now and in the future, the previous chapters are crucial. These paint a picture of how globally dominant public relations language practices have impoverished politics and public debate in ways that are systematic, deliberate and working to impede social change. This is because, increasingly, the way we speak, listen, and circulate meaning is dragging us into a limited set of ideas which promises an economically inflected idea of ‘freedom’. And this comes at a cost. We have less (real) imagination, and we have less (real) public opinion, because we are caught up in this cul-de-sac, this road to nowhere. The book is literally focussed on understanding this and finding a way through. Nonetheless this chapter is the crucible because it deals with concepts that might break the deadlock. It analyses the repertoire of language practices that have been harnessed by the neoliberal project and in doing so, provides a kernel of hope.

And with this a new object emerges: the neonarrative. I argue this ‘thing’ (the neonarrative) lives, working quietly in public debate in pernicious yet undescribed ways, hence it is simultaneously dangerous and benign, and at this point in human history, everywhere from activism to big business and government. The concept of neonarrative draws on the lucid ideas of Uwe Poerksen who identifies a privileged vocabulary of empty ‘plastic words’ like ‘communication’ and ‘development’ that insinuate neoliberal meaning into everyday discourse. Founded on my conception of ‘intrinsic and extrinsic public relations’, neonarratives are the vehicles through which plastic words are assembled and propelled in discourse to gain fidelity and influence. By now, readers would have picked up on my view that ideas like ‘spin’ are woefully inadequate. Not only do they fail to fully capture the dynamics of discourse but relying on terms like ‘spin’ to critique unethical public language practices invested with self-interest, serves to create some sense of personal control, as if everything can be explained and then neutralised by deploying this term. As if there is nothing more to say. This effect is deadening and neither works for or against a critical position. Think of it as a hall of mirrors. It keeps us staring at ourselves but not really seeing. As a result, we remain in a state of critical suspension all of which serves to allow these language practices to continue unhindered. Neoliberal language practices (or PR) exercise enormous control, but when it is analysed thus, it is easy to see how we pass quickly over this territory and how this in turn serves neoliberal purposes.

Up to this point in the book I’ve argued the combined forces of neoliberalism and public relations produce a closed discourse focussed on economy, competition, growth, and market-based notions of progress. I am particularly interested in the 1947 formation of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS) which sought to undo progressive political agendas like collectivism and rejuvenate the somewhat unpopular, and seemingly outdated ideas promoting business and growth. In this there is considerable focus on the Austrian economist and intellectual Friedrich August von Hayek - who was the driving force behind the society which would eventually become a powerful transnational neoliberal network. Neoliberal language practices are hiding in plain sight, and we must understand what is happening for our very survival. In exploring this, two further chapters are focussed on how this is working in two important debates of our time: climate change and in the movement of people in and between nation states, like refugees, stateless people and asylum seekers. The book makes the claim that public relations is more potent and powerful than currently understood both within, and outside the field. I hope at the end of the book, to open doors to new thinking in this area.
Learn more about Public Relations and Neoliberalism at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue