Pragmatics and publicity: Patterns of media manipulation as demonstrated in selected public school protests

Robert Jackson Bridges


The field of public relations is a part of the lore of 20th-century American life and of its complex communications process. On its face, there is a general assumption that all Americans know what public relations is. Indeed, many of the practices and techniques of the craft are widely known, if not deeply understood. Yet as a field of study and as a field of work, public relations remains ill defined and vaguely comprehended. A problem for professionals, universally recognized in PR textbooks, is a generalized confusion of public relations with its most visible component, publicity. While public relations customarily is treated as an activity of and on behalf of organizations and institutions, examination of newspaper accounts reveals regular coverage of an astounding array of public relations-like activities conducted by individuals who have little or no professional education in the field and who are under no obligation of professional ethics. These are persuaders without responsibilities, manipulators for their own causes. Their often effective ad hoc utilization of public relations tools poses a significant challenge to contemporary American institutions and to professional public relations practitioners. Such increasing use of public relations-like actions of opportunity are particularly well illustrated in public school protests which have attracted widespread and continuing news coverage. These protests seem not to follow the stages of social conflict described in prior research. Rather, apparently self-selected leaders--aggressor orators--go directly for the institutional jugular through the creation of publicity. Coverage of the protests themselves reveals little evidence of prior efforts by protesters to build public understanding and support, one of the standards of professional public relations practice. This study searches for patterns in these pragmatic protests through examination of three public school protests in three different states and in three decades. A knowledge of the arguments advanced and techniques by protesters to garner news coverage should be of value to the administrators of public schools--notoriously complex and dreadfully vulnerable organizations--and to public relations professionals.