Public Relations in the Extreme

3 Jun

Politics is public relations in the extreme.  It magnifies and amplifies the best and worst of PR practice.  We’ll often use politicians as examples for media training — they consistently stay ‘on message’.  We appreciate spokespeople who get out there and take the heat from the press corps — the ones like John Wodele, who had to explain Jesse Ventura for four years and did it with — at least from this outside perspective — his honesty and dignity intact. 

Then there’s Scott McClellan.  As President Bush’s assistant and then lead press secretary, McClellan was a cog in the execution of a major public affairs campaign to marshal public opinion in support of the Iraq invasion.  A campaign, he now says, was misled the public. This is PR in the extreme – facilitating public discussion and decision-making with the public’s blood and treasure on the line.

Most of us don’t have to deal with this day-to-day.  In my work, I’m helping tech companies find new ways to stay in the public eye. I’m helping another communicate its brand to employees and partners.  I’m working with a private school to remind its community that there are good stories amid tough financial times.  I’m helping a startup with its message and developing online and offline communication strategy for its launch. 

It’s fun.  It’s great work, and, I’d argue, important work.  But for all of that, we can be a bit thin-skinned as a profession.  Last year’s kerfuffle over Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s PR blacklist is on example; Sunday’s rant and response by CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen is another.  Cohen’s points about the core dishonesty of public relations practice were flip, ignorant and over the top.  But, as he points out, there is a reason why PR has such a poor reputation. 

Here’s my take on why:  Public Relations calls itself a “profession” — like Law or even Journalism.  It’s not. And this core identity crisis leaves us challenged to even define public relations, let alone defend it.

Lawyers are accountable to their clients, but they’re also accountable to state and federal regulations and their state bar association.  Even the role of the news media is made plain in the Constitution and their ideals and standards are part of our civic education. They can hold themselves as upholding ideas beyond the narrow interests of their clients and bosses.

Public relations people, whether we’re at an agency or an organization, are hired to help sell something. Our clients want people to choose their brand of soup, support their technology platform, build new stadiums, specify their brand, donate time and money to their cause, work with us in a crisis, vote for their legislation, and invest in their stock.  Public relations is a core part of the business of convincing people to take the action an organization wants them to take.  Our responsibility is to our organization, bound by ethics, honesty, civic duty and common sense.  We sell.

Now, our preferred methodology is to facilitate public discussion — to help our clients make their most compelling case through the news media and influential institutions, organizations, social networks and forums.  This distinguishes our practice from direct “sales”.  

But our practice is inherently self-interested on behalf of our organizations.  We speak with bias.  We focus on the story our organization wants to tell, toward our organization’s goals. We have no responsibility to tell another party’s story, but in my experience, the best, most credible and convincing stories are the ones that that are rich discussions that give clarity to complex issues — so sometimes, we’ll help make that happen, too.

As I said, it’s great work, fun and sometimes exciting.  And it’s necessary.  Contrary to popular belief, the truth doesn’t write itself — someone has to choose the right words.  Some stories are too complicated for simple headlines and pretty pictures.  Not every marketer is a great writer. Not every executive is a student of the increasingly complex news and social media environment. 

PR people are.  We’re good at words.  We’re students of the media and the Internet. We talk about what’s in the news, share stories, and argue about strategy.  We engage with journalists, bloggers, friends and others in online networks.  And we help our organizations and our clients do the same. 

So, no, Mr. Cohen, our profession is not full of liars and dissemblers. We’re advocates for the success of our organizations, and we know that our organizations’ successes hinge upon being believed, credible and convincing.  It means we’re biased and self-interested, but it means, as a practice, as a career, and as, well, professionals,  we’re on the side of the truth.  You can sort it out form there.

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