by Peter Winkler and Jannik Kretschmer
Digitalization is usually regarded as a phenomenon of late modernity. Accordingly, it has gained traction in public relations (PR) since the beginning of the 21st century (Duhé, 2015). However, the roots of digitalization go back more than a century and a half (Plesner and Husted, 2020). Yet, little attention has been paid to these historical roots, although important lessons can be learned from them – not only regarding the future of a digitalized society, but regarding the future of a digitalized PR as well.
We often start from currently pressing challenges to take decisions and actions that are relevant for the future. This is especially true in a digitalized VUCA world, i.e., an environment shaped by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (Bennett and Lemoine, 2014). As a result, the present is reduced to the moment, and before we know it, the future is already here (Reckwitz, 2020). Acceleration becomes the driving force of decisions and actions, and we end up as victims to the latest fashions and trends. However, this is often at the expense of taking a critical step back and a sound reflection on new digital advancements and their social implications.
But how can a look into the past provide a solution to this? The history of digitalization can be particularly useful if we do not approach it from a purely technological or infrastructural perspective (digitization), but rather focus on the underlying social imaginaries associated with digital transformation (digitalization) (Balbi and Magaudda, 2018; Jasanoff and Kim, 2015). Looking more closely at these historical imaginaries, striking similarities to current expectations and challenges associated with digitalization become apparent. Visions of digitally enhanced agility, collaboration, dialogue, transhumanism or disruption are anything but new. They show long-lasting roots in the 20th century, yet experience a massive revival in the current digitalization debate.
A look into the past therefore allows conclusions to be drawn about recurrent expectations and challenges associated with digitalization. Even more, the historical rise, decline, and cyclical resurgence (Piazza and Abrahamson, 2020) of specific imaginaries also make us aware of the faddishness of the current digitalization debate as such. Accordingly, we suggest taking the time to reflect on more enduring social expectations and challenges underlying upcoming digital advancements and trends, rather than rushing to adopt them in PR – thus learning from the past about the future of digitalized PR.
We addressed similar issues in a conference paper (Kretschmer and Winkler, 2022), which was presented at the EUPRERA 2022 Congress in Vienna and which was awarded as one of the best papers. We took a narrative approach to make visible recurring imaginaries of digitalization in the academic debate of ten leading PR journals of the last decade. Our findings not only provide an integrative perspective on recurring prospects and risks of digitalization in an increasingly fragmented scholarly debate. They also provide the basis for PR – both as field of research and as practice – to shape these imaginaries more actively in the future.
Balbi, G. and Magaudda, P. (2018), A history of digital media: An intermedia and global perspective, Routledge, New York; London.
Bennett, N. and Lemoine, G.J. (2014), “What a difference a word makes: Understanding threats to performance in a VUCA world”, Business Horizons, Vol. 57, doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2406676.
Duhé, S. (2015), “An overview of new media research in public relations journals from 1981 to 2014”, Public Relations Review, Vol. 41 No. 2, pp. 153–169, doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2014.11.002.
Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S.-H. (Eds.). (2015), Dreamscapes of modernity: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the fabrication of power, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago; London.
Kretschmer, J. and Winkler, P. (2022, September 21-23), “Prospects and Risks of Digitalization in Public Relations Research: Mapping Recurrent Narratives of a Debate in Fragmentation (2010-2021)” (Paper presentation). Annual EUPRERA Congress, Vienna, Austria.
Piazza, A. and Abrahamson, E. (2020), “Fads and fashions in management practices: Taking stock and looking forward”, International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 22 No. 3, pp. 264–286, doi: 10.1111/ijmr.12225.
Plesner, U. and Husted, E. (2020), Digital organizing: Revisiting themes in organization studies, Red Globe Press, London.
Reckwitz, A. (2020), The society of singularities, Polity, Cambridge; Medford, MA.