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Cooperation, not competition, is best approach to public relations, professor says

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

LAWRENCE — Though battling the competition and looking out for No. 1 might appear to be the best public relations strategy, a University of Kansas professor argues that approach is, at most, the second-best practice in the field. In a new book, the researcher contends that cooperation and building positive relationships is, in fact, the superior practice — and backs the claim with evidence from the fields of evolutionary biology, philosophy and rhetoric.

Charles Marsh, Oscar Stauffer Professor of Journalism & Mass Communications, has written “Public Relations, Cooperation and Justice: From Evolutionary Biology to Ethics,” a book arguing that cooperation is superior in public relations to “contingency theory,” the dominant approach focused on conflict and competition. Throughout the book, he also shares 20 recommendations on how cooperation can be put into practice by public relations professionals.

The book is the result of years of Marsh’s research. A classics scholar, he found that the ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates advocated a cooperative approach to relationships. Though perhaps lesser-known today, Isocrates’ school was the most successful Greek academy of his time, with the most students, most acclaim and Isocrates himself making more money than his peers Plato and Aristotle, who taught elitist and competitive, conflict-oriented approaches, respectively, Marsh said. 

Isocrates' teachings that relationships and strategic communications be built on respect and the welcoming of dissent were later adopted by the great Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian. Marsh presented his findings at professional conferences over the years, and peers generally agreed with his statements but said other fields such as psychology and evolutionary biology might not agree that cooperation outperforms competition.

“This is the way business was done in philosophy and rhetoric for 2,000 years,” Marsh said. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful approach for public relations.’ The dominant theory in the field is contingency theory, or looking out for number one. If number two benefits, OK — but that’s incidental. People said, ‘Surely evolutionary biology doesn’t agree with the cooperative approach.’ It actually does.”

Marsh studied writings of Charles Darwin, who is often attributed with the idea that only the strong survive. He actually argued that species that cooperate are the strongest and have the best record of survival. Marsh writes he suspected noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would not agree; he authored a book titled “The Selfish Gene,” after all. However, Dawkins wrote in later years that new research persuaded him that he should have called his book the “The Cooperative Gene.” Even skeptical psychologists and philosophers such as Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche reluctantly agreed that social cooperation is more powerful than conflict and competition, Marsh said.

One of the leading theories in public relations is resource acquisition. The widely accepted approach states that in public relations, an organization has goals, and in order to reach those goals, resources are necessary and the organization often does not control them. Therefore, to attain them, the organization must build relationships with those who do. Marsh argues in “Public Relations, Cooperation and Justice” that building positive relationships, rather than taking a me-first approach, is the superior way to achieve the goal.

The book devotes sections to how the fields of evolutionary biology, philosophy and rhetoric all support the cooperation theory, providing a shared, accepted set of knowledge. The final section shares conclusions and a list of recommendations for how public relations professionals can implement a cooperative approach to their profession. Perhaps the most important recommendation for today’s world is ironic, Marsh said. The most-known scholars in the fields he’s studied are all Western, white men. While the past can’t be changed, new evidence from those scholars, particularly in psychology and neuroscience, shows that one of the most important ways to increase cooperation is to empower women, ensuring that they have equal access to education and leadership positions and are not socially subservient to men.

“If we want to implement this as a way of doing business in public relations, here are 20 ways we can do that,” Marsh said of the recommendations section. “One way that emerged the most powerfully is that to do so, we must empower women, for public relations and society as a whole.”

Marsh said he has extended his research into economics, which already appears to support his argument in early stages as well, and that he hopes to extend his work to anthropology and further into psychology. Marsh said he wants to reach public relations professionals and scholars with his book, and by extension students who will be the next generation of leaders in the field. The dominant theory is not the only option to teach.

“To be teaching our students ‘here is how you go into these relationships, it’s a dog-eat-dog world’ is not the only way. In fact, that’s not the most effective way to build productive relationships,” Marsh said. “It’s a wonderful time to be in public relations research.”

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