The Double-Edged Sword of Legitimacy in Public Relations

Henrik Merkelsen

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


    Purpose – This paper seeks to clarify the various aspects of legitimacy in public relations in order to establish a better understanding of the limits of professionalization. Legitimacy has always been a central concept in public relations. In order to ensure a license to operate, the conduct of organizations needs to be perceived as legitimate by their stakeholders and the public in general. Public relations has since its conception as a modern profession been confronted with several issues concerning the profession's own legitimacy. The overall cause for these legitimacy problems is often ascribed to the immaturity of the profession and professionalization is generally regarded as an appropriate cure.

    Design/methodology/approach – Through theorization of the connection between legitimacy, power and professionalization the paper points to two important challenges to the professionalization of public relations: the conflicts of legitimizing the potentially disputed role of public relations as an intermediary function between client and public interests; and the dilemma of legitimizing a profession that has legitimacy as its own object and therefore is dependent on discretion in order to be successful.

    Findings – The paper identifies four axes of legitimacy in public relations, each constituting different relationships with specific and often conflicting legitimacy claims: client-public, profession-client, profession-public, and profession-academia.

    Originality/value – As a consequence of these distinct legitimacy claims the paper stresses some important limits of the professionalization project in public relations.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalJournal of Communication Management
    Issue number2
    Pages (from-to)125-143
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


    • Public Relations
    • Organizations

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