An ‘Insider’ in Mexico: researching the occupational culture of public relations practitioners
International PR research has typically been concerned with ways that allow for an ‘objective’ characterisation and classification of practice, using what are assumed to be value neutral and ‘scientific categories’ (in particular, attempts to translate Excellent practice into ‘non-Western’ contexts). Such approaches are flawed in their attempts to assume ethnographic authority (Banerjee and Linstead, 2004: 231), and tendency toward abstraction and generalisation. Recent growth in sociological approaches to researching public relations, however, has encouraged scholars to empirically challenge much of what we think we know about PR practices and their generalizablility across cultures. Critical researchers recognise that the challenge is to move away from ‘objective’ characterization and classification to more heuristic approaches, thus bringing ‘insights gained on the periphery back to the centre to raise havoc with our settled ways of thinking and conceptualisation’ (Marcus and Fischer, 1986: 138). The potential of these ‘insights’ will rest on the acknowledgement of the fact that, as researchers, we live in reality that is culturally constructed and we, therefore, cannot assume an authority in how we present the data. Research exploring international PR practice, which follows this approach considers PR within the context of cultural intermediation and raises questions about what it means to ‘do PR’ (Hodges, 2006; Curtin and Gaither, 2006, 2007).
As we expand our conceptualisation of public relations as a cultural practice, it is important to develop research models that can shed further light on the complex and dynamic communication processes at play within different international cultures. Drawing on the concept of ‘radical-reflexivity’ as presented by Cunliffe (2003, p. 991), this paper will argue that as researchers, we are ‘bricoleurs’ whose ultimate purpose and practice is “to ‘unsettle’ representation by constantly constructing meaning and social realities as we interact with others and share our experiences.” Reflexive inquiry can offer valuable insights into PR theory and practice by stimulating a critical exploration of how we constitute knowledge and enact our own practices as researchers (Cunliffe, 2003: 999). In doing so, it raises possibilities for different forms of inquiry and new ways of understanding experience.
Whilst authors in other disciplines have encouraged research designs and sampling that incorporate a diversity of perspectives across and within cultures, few have addressed the practical means by which this might be achieved within the field of public relations (Aldoory, 2005; Pompper, 2005). In the search to design reflexive, grounded, rich and interesting fieldwork, we are all called to manage complex relationships with research sites, constraints such as sample size, timings of data collection and analytical techniques for exploring or developing complex models. Furthermore, we often face mid-project changes to planned research designs as we seek to collect qualitative data opportunistically (Leung, Bhagat, Buchan, Erez, & Gibson, 2005; Edmondson and McManus, 2007). This paper will share first-hand experiences of the ‘messy realities’ (Edmondson and Mcmanus, 2007) of undertaking ethnographic research into the occupation of public relations in Mexico City and consider some of the difficulties faced by researchers when, as Van Maanan, Sorensen and Mitchell (2007: 1146) argue, publication forms do not favour the presentation of results or “require that the personal history of how the research process unfolded be revised or forgotten.”
Dr Caroline Hodges
The Media School
Dr Christine Daymon
School of Marketing
Curtin University of Technology