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Kenn Gaither co-authors book about globalization and PR

The School of Communications associate dean explored how postcolonial nations use public relations to benefit citizens & communicate across cultures.


In the Western world, the practice of public relations is often distilled into its simplest terms: perhaps an effective press release or a well-timed tweet. But internationally, public relations is being used different ways in different places. Yes, it’s still about transmitting a message. But the how and the why of that dissemination often changes, and as a result, public relations is affecting how countries develop and build their brand.

That’s the focus of “Globalization and Public Relations in Postcolonial Nations: Challenges and Opportunities,” a book co-written by School of Communications Associate Dean Kenn Gaither that was released in late September. At its core, the book investigates how postcolonial countries—more often referred to as developing countries, a term Gaither rejects—use PR to satisfy the needs of its citizens and to communicate across cultures and publics.

“The primary emphasis was to examine some hard political and economic issues relative to public relations,” Gaither says. “We want to look at the role of public relations in those countries partly as it relates to social justice issues. We suggested that public relations could make meaningful differences in the lives of others. Initially, the concept was, let’s go into dark corners of societal issues and shed light on them, looking through these lenses and figuring out where public relations fits in here.”

Gaither and his co-author, Patricia A. Curtin, endowed chair of public relations at the University of Oregon, contend that much of PR research is too reflective of western ideals and technologies. It neglects to understand cultural differences and issues in postcolonial nations, which the book specifically defines as those countries that gained independence in the middle part of the 20th century.

“Public relations is often associated with western hegemony,” Gaither says. “A significant amount of the world’s knowledge has been captured in English. It raises the question, ‘How many people have access to a computer?’ ‘How many can read English?’ We’re saying that public relations is a transmission of messages that are beneficial to a group of people, many of whom don’t fit western PR criteria. We need to be better and more reflexive and adaptive to notice that what works here doesn’t work there.”

One of the clearest examples of how countries attempt and employ PR practices based on the needs of their people is happening in Zimbabwe, Gaither says. There, farmers are given mp3 players with audio recordings that reveal information about crops and how to grow them. They’re receiving, from their government, a valuable message on a device they’ve never seen before, Gaither says.

The recordings are in their language, and they have access to it. And that’s key because most people in Zimbabwe wouldn’t be able to find that kind of information by simply logging on to a computer—something people in the western world take for granted.

“We’re looking at the plight of so many who don’t have a voice in the global discourse and trying to understand their lived experiences and figure out where public relations fits into that,” Gaither says.

The book investigates a number of areas, including globalization, appropriate technology, labor issues, human trafficking, the environment and health issues. Chapters provide background information about a topic before diving into a deeper case study. The Zimbabwe anecdote helps define the area of appropriate technology, as does a discussion of Estonia, which acts as a contrast to how Zimbabwe shares information.

Kenn Gaither

“Estonia is one of the most wired countries in the world, so much so that it’s been called E-Stonia,” Gaither says. “We look at how the web is completely revolutionizing everything from voting to paying parking tickets online. We’re looking at how technology is used and seeing these dramatic differences.”

Gaither himself is so interested in international PR techniques because he’s captivated by cultural differences and how those differences are presented to the world.

“Communications is central to our understanding of the world,” he says. “I’m fascinated by how nations brand themselves. Can nations translate that brand not just into positive press, but into a better quality of life in that country?”

Gaither and Curtin began work on “Globalization and Public Relations in Postcolonial Nations” in the spring of 2010. Gaither says the book builds theoretically on the last work he and Curtin co-authored, titled “International Public Relations: Negotiating Culture, Identity, and Power,” which was published by Sage.

Gaither is also the sole author of “Building a Nation’s Image on the World Wide Web: A Study of the Head of State Web Sites of Developing Countries.” He has published research in the Journal of Public Relations Research and Public Relations Review and has written several book chapters. Currently, Gaither recently completed a pull box about the circuit of culture for the “Encyclopedia of PR,” which will be published in 2014. He’s also working on a paper with a colleague from Kuwait that looks at Islam in the context of public relations and how western PR practitioners can negotiate the Islamic faith and Arab nations.

Gaither has lived or taught in Brazil, Ghana and China, and he’s completed nine Semester at Sea voyages spanning more than 25 countries (most recently as executive dean of the summer 2012 voyage). He teaches courses in the strategic communications major and Interactive Media master’s program in the School of Communications. He began teaching at Elon University in 2004.

Colin Donohue,
10/11/2012 6:20 AM