Friday, October 24, 2008

Public Relations Should Be Good for Democracy

From the October 9 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune.

I teach public relations. That’s not always easy during a presidential election. People often associate public relations with the negative aspects of political campaigning, in particular the negative ads and the “spin” that goes with candidates’ claims.

Some of my faculty colleagues across the country think we should make a distinction between PR and politics. Others, including myself, think we should continue to stress what we teach, that PR should be building mutual relationships with the public through transparent and honest communication.

Certainly, there are bad examples of public relations professionals behaving badly. The lies and deceptions of PR people have been a part of giving the PR profession a bad name. But here’s the thing: many of the deception is done by people who don’t have an education in public relations and their job title might not even be public relations. But when they do something deceptive, the media and the public call it public relations. It’s as if PR were synonymous with deception, which it is not. To believe that would be to believe all journalism is like the National Enquirer, or that all chemists run meth labs, or that all priests are pedophiles. The majority of public relations professionals practice honestly.

In fact, public relations properly understood has a central and ethical role in democracy. The PRSA Code of Ethics mentions democracy as the context for the values and provisions of the code, notably by asserting that public relations professionals should seek to enable “informed decision-making in a democratic society.”

The spin you see in campaigns is either done by political operatives who know nothing of PR, or by PR people who have lost their way. It is not the essence of PR.

That essence is seen in the common academic definition of public relations: “the management function that seeks to identify, establish, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and all the publics on whom its success of failure depends.” The key to this definition is mutual relationships. I’ll spare you the technical descriptions of theoretical models about public relations practice, but the methods advocated by people like me who teach PR are characterized by the key concepts of collaboration, negotiation, and mediation. In this model, PR professionals listen as well as communicate to their publics.

Understanding public relations as dialogue to achieve mutually beneficial relationships is the proper way to see the profession as a positive and ethical contributor to democracy. This understanding of public relations is related to what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood” in his famous book, “Democracy in America. ” As he described it: “American moralists do not pretend that one must sacrifice himself for his fellows because it is a fine thing to do so. But they boldly assert that such sacrifice is as necessary for the man who makes it as for the beneficiaries.” While Tocqueville was talking about relationships among individual citizens, the same can be said today of relationships between organizations and their various publics. Public relations professionals should see that considering public benefit is in the best interest of the organizations and candidates they represent, and part of their ethical and democratic role.

Critics of public relations characterize the profession as “spin” that distorts citizens’ ability to discern the truth. But early writers about democracy point out that truth is a complicated matter. What some call “spin” may not be deliberate lies, but a legitimate, alternative perspective of the truth. To label public relations as only and always something negative is a form of rhetorical censorship.

In 1644, John Milton made a plea for open deliberation in his “Aereopagitica.” The title of this speech, intended for the Lords and Commons of the Star Chamber court in England, is a reference to the Aereopagus, a court of ancient Athens that included 300 elected citizens. The essence of Milton’s argument with the government was that government censorship, even if well intended, does great harm to society. Milton is famous for his plea to “let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter.” In other words, ethical/democratic public relations practitioners should allow and seek out opposing views for the good of the public. Critics of public relations should not condemn PR but recognize it as a profession that enables otherwise still voices to be heard in open democratic dialogue.

Similarly, in his book “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill notes that the truth is not always black and white. He argues that citizens will not pick a “winner” but find a consensus among the multiple points of view offered. “Truth,” Mill wrote in 1859, “in the great potential concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites.” It serves no helpful purpose to label one argument as truth and another as “mere public relations” if both contain elements of truth. Public relations critics and professionals alike should view PR communication as contributing to different perspectives worthy of consideration and deliberation by the public.

Public relations properly understood involves reconciling a candidate’s or organization’s interest with the interest of the public. The ethical and democratic role of public relations is to help provide equal and diverse expression, to encourage deliberation, and to enable informed decision-making. Public relations professionals do have an ethical obligation to represent points of view fairly and honestly. But citizens have a civic duty to listen to all sides, without labeling views as “mere public relations,” and then decide with discernment.