Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization

Editorial Record: Submitted to the editor-in-chief by the associate editor of reviews on March 2, 2018. First published online on May 21, 2018.


Christie Kleinmann

Christie M. Kleinmann, Belmont University

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization

Author: Burton St. John III, Professor, Old Dominion University, USA
London, UK: Routledge, 2017
176 pages
Hardback, ISBN-13: 978-1138945012, $160.00
E-book, ISBN-13: 9781315671635, $55.00

A trusted companion, a fellow traveler, and a sage guide, perhaps not the top distinguishing characteristics of American corporations in the 21st century, but, based on recent scholarship, these three corporate personas define much of American business in the last 90 years. In Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization, communication scholar Burton St. John III asserts that businesses emulate a corporate persona, such as the trusted companion, fellow traveler, or sage guide, that reinforces the mutuality of business and citizens and joins them on the shared path of self-actualization. Using a critical lens, St. John presents four perspectives of the corporate person: the legal perspective, the marketing perspective, the constructivist perspective, and the storytelling perspective. These perspectives are deconstructed through the public relations materials of five corporate entities: the National Association of Manufacturers, PR News, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Standard Oil of California (SOCA), and the reality television show Undercover Boss. St. John also includes a chapter on social media and its role in the storytelling perspective.

Corporate Persona of Trusted Companion

The economic crash in 1929 eroded public trust in American business, leading to an increased desire for government to ensure economic stability. To restore trust in business, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) used public relations strategies and tactics to present a persona that shared the goals and values of American citizens. Specifically, NAM conveyed three key messages: that it shared values common to Americans, that it was a beneficent fellow actor in society, and that turning to planned economy would interfere with the mutually beneficial relations between the individual and private business (p. 45). Through these public relations efforts, St. John concludes that the persona of the caring fellow American was effective in establishing mutual benefit and encouraging fellow citizens in protecting free enterprise. Norfolk and Western Railroad illustrate a similar use of corporate persona in public relations. Using its organizational newsletter Norfolk and Western Magazine, Norfolk and Western developed the persona of defender and fellow advocate in the preservation of American free enterprise.

St. John continues to illustrate the corporate persona of trusted companion with SOCA and its publication, Standard Oiler. Through this public relations tactic, SOCA maintained the preservation of the free enterprise message illustrated by NAM and the Norfolk and Western Magazine but from a Foucauldian perspective of self-governance. Using this persona, SOCA often used the first-person “we” to portray the mutuality of interests between the corporation and the individual as self-reliant and capable, in comparison to an inefficient and intrusive federal government (p. 99). This corporate persona of trusted companion directed citizens to the already-existing affinity between the individual and corporation through shared corporate-individual worldviews and goals.

Corporate Persona of Fellow Traveler

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona also considers the role of public relations in corporate persona by reviewing the weekly editions of PR News from 1950-1952. Through this analysis, St. John found that PR News believed public relations “had the responsibility to help organizations tell their fellow citizens about the importance of the free enterprise system” and positioned public relations as a “mentor and teacher” (p. 61). In doing so, PR News characterized business as a fellow traveler on a shared journey of free enterprise, a journey that would bring mutual benefit to the individual and the corporation. St. John carefully articulates the role of public relations in this process, noting that the shared journey is not one created or sustained by public relations. Rather, public relations offered an organization’s persona the “place” to identify shared values and destinations. Public relations was a “courtship of re-affirmation” that confirmed the affinitive organization and citizens (p. 102).

Corporate Persona of Sage Guide

From the reality show Undercover Boss, St. John illustrates a sage guide persona in the fast food industry. In Undercover Boss, a top executive assumes the position of a lower-level employee to learn about the organization. By doing so, the executive is often personified as a “powerful persona descending into the world of the common person, taking on that lifestyle so as to learn large lessons about humility and empathy” (p. 109). However, when the executive reveals his identity, s/he is portrayed as a sage guide who instructs, rewards, and encourages employees. This sage guide personifies the common American values of self-reliance and self-advancement and becomes a source of encouragement for those acting on those values (p. 120). As a result of this persona, employees can reflect on the “wise counsel of the corporation” and take steps toward achieving self-actualization (p. 120).

In Public Relations and the Corporate Persona, St. John concludes that through corporate persona, organizations create a shared sense of identity with citizens that allow organizations to influence and even direct political, economic, and social structures. As such, this text is a timely examination of corporate persona in American business. With declining public trust in business, St. John offers an important examination of previous efforts to restore public trust in business and free enterprise. Further, Public Relations and the Corporate Persona offers a largely unexplored critical examination of corporate persona and public relations’ role in shaping our perceptions and shared perceptions.

The text concludes with a critical analysis of business today, noting that “the American public sees precious few recent examples of a corporate personality that asserts a common good with the individual” (p. 162). Rather St. John encourages organizations and public relations professionals to move beyond the product-driven associations prevalent today and resonate shared American values. He also encourages future research in social media and corporate persona and how corporate persona may be perceived online.

Public Relations and the Corporate Persona is a valuable read for upper-level undergraduate or graduate students in public relations, corporate communication, or strategic communication programs. The text’s rich case studies and quantitative analyses offer both breadth and depth on the issue of corporate persona, and the book raises pertinent questions on the role of public relations in this process. Further, critical studies would benefit from this text as it challenges existing public relations practices and poses important areas for future research.