PR is not a four-letter word – A Discussion

Note: This is an edited transcript of a Google Wave exchange between Will Reichard of CrossCut Communications (http://will.crosscutcommunications.com) and Benson Hendrix, author of Net News 54 (http://bensonhendrix.com/about/), a blog about new media. It is being cross-posted on both sites.

Several times in the last couple of years, we’ve been asked to present to budding communications students to give them an overview of the world of public relations. We have both been struck that their perception seems to be that public relations as an industry is equivalent to “spin.” We’re not naive. We know there’s a reason that PR people have been called “flaks,” and we know there’s a reason that shows like “Mad Men” continue to capture the popular imagination. Still, we thought we were past all that. We’re both huge fans of PRSA’s code of ethics, and in our experience, the PR industry is conscientious about doing the right thing. We’re both former passionate journalists who believe that PR has a vital role to play in modern organizations. Here’s part of the conversation we’ve been having on the subject.

Will: My theory is that PR is like legal representation–we’re all entitled to a vigorous defense within ethical bounds. That’s our system. But many of the people I talk with seem to feel the world exists in black and white, as though each situation has one “right” and one “wrong” answer. When I try to explain that situations are intricate and that the best PR people work to ensure that organizations are communicating everything they should be to their multiple publics, I see blank faces. I try to point out that all of us, every one, makes choices about how to present him or herself each day. We choose our words, our clothes, what to post on our Facebook pages, how to sit in a class or walk down the street. We are constantly choosing what to communicate. People seem to have a very hard time separating conscious communication from malicious manipulation. They tend to forget we’re all using these techniques every day.

Benson: One of my greatest concerns about public relations is that we as PR professionals are all too often seen as “spinners” by members of the C-Suite. This is a view that has been perpetuated on the profession not only by members of the media, including some memorable rants from Rachel Maddow – comparing one PR firm to “The PR Firm Hell Would Hire” – but also by a minority of public relations professionals who are beyond willing to please their bosses. There are firms willing to do what is necessary, and usually those same firms specialize in taking on clients whose public personas are seen as less than positive (see Wal-Mart, oil industry, nuclear industry, etc.). (And now to contradict myself, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. These companies can stand behind a record of providing jobs, bringing in money, etc., to a local community–if it’s true. When they get into problems is when they say these things without actually doing it, in the hope that the PR team can “spin the facts.”)

One of the main tenets of Edward Bernays’ book “Propaganda” is to not sell a product, but to sell the need for a product. Following up on that idea, good public relations professionals try to sell causes, ideas and concepts that might impact a person’s beliefs, instead of selling a group, or just a cause, etc.

Will: Perhaps it’s that our society is gravitating as a whole toward polarizing platforms. A world of “American Idol,” a world communicated in 140-character bursts, doesn’t have a lot of room for acknowledging that nuance is essential, that the “truth” is an intersection of multiple viewpoints, each of which must be clear and critical.

Or maybe it’s that we’re all so conscious of the controlled and mediated nature of communications that we want to dislike anyone who acknowledges it and calls attention to the fact. Maybe PR–as, ironically, one of the most upfront institutions when it comes to its motivations–occupies an important space as something we can point to and say, “We are not that.” We’re not so hyperattentive to our personas that almost any image we can project is by definition manufactured and, thus, largely impersonal.

Benson: Another reason could be that most people don’t realize the impact that public relations efforts have had in their day-to-day lives. Have you ever signed a petition for a politician? What about called in to a talk radio show on behalf of a cause? These are but two tactics that PR pros helped craft into the effective tools you see today. Many non-profits, especially non-profits that advocate, have taken cues and clues for effective communications strategy from public relations efforts of the past. In fact, later this month there will be a big communications conference for progressive non-profits (some of which don’t really realize how PR has impacted their groups).

How the public personally views each of these industries should be less of a concern for PR people (because for every person opposing a site like WIPP, there’s another in favor of the jobs it brings to the area). What should be a bigger concern for PR professionals is the ongoing view that we are nothing more than cleanup. Perhaps a future role for PR professionals is to go beyond PR and into Corporate Social Management, looking at the best moves for a company to make before they make them.

Will: Great points, Benson. In the executive MBA program at UNM, we spent a fair part of the program studying corporate social responsibility, which is heartening. Cultures change very slowly, but at least things are changing. Communications as a management objective is creeping closer to the C-suite. And fortunately, part of what managers are learning now is to look for a certain level of professionalism when they’re hiring public and community relations staff. I know you had mentioned recently that we’re seeing a lot of unskilled agents creeping onto the scene.

Benson: That really is another problem we in PR have been dealing with–the tendency for anyone to say “I’m a publicist” after watching 4 episodes of Entourage or Arliss, and the unwillingness of people who represent PR (either in PRSA or “stand-up guy” PR practitioners) to call out these faux-publicists when they do something wrong. I’ve heard stories about PRSA wanting to institute a “licensure” test for people to conduct PR professionally, but I don’t see that happening. Because unlike practicing law or medicine, you can’t stop people from getting in front of a camera and talking, regardless of how they sound.

Conclusion: What do you think of when you think of public relations? What does the industry do well, and what could it do better? Thank you for reading.