Last fall, I had the privilege of being on the receiving end of a phone call from an irate city councilor. He called my personal cell phone to tear into me about my use of the phrase “public relations win” in an email to him, his staff and other elected officials. The councilor took umbrage with my use of that phrase in an official communication, arguing that it could get him in trouble.
As I understood it, his complaint was that public relations is nothing more than the art of manipulation. If those emails were exposed and he were caught discussing such things — well, he can kiss re-election goodbye, right? Wrong.
Public relations is not manipulation, propaganda or spin. It is not shady. It is not making “bad guys” look good. Nor is it any of those other pejorative terms so often used in its place.
Public relations is precisely what it says it is. Whether a global brand or an entrepreneur, an elected official or a nonprofit organization, a government agency or a university — public relations is the management of the relationships between that entity and its publics.
The Public Relations Society of America explains the tenets of ethical public relations:
- Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
- Foster informed decision making through open communication.
- Protect confidential and private information.
- Promote healthy and fair competition among professionals.
- Avoid conflicts of interest.
- Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.
There is nothing nefarious, unethical or immoral about public relations done right. The problem, it seems, is that folks have gotten the wrong idea about what public relations is thanks to a handful of people who have no business claiming to be a part of the profession.
Have some “image gurus” engaged in deceit and public manipulation as a means to profit and power? Absolutely. No argument there. These are misguided individuals acting outside of the framework of the true public relations practice.
It’s easy to spot the most egregious examples of spinsters masquerading as public relations practitioners. We’re all familiar with the cliché: the smarmy spokesperson cleverly wordsmithing their way across a tightrope of misleading, meaningless jargon. As Frank Underwood might say, their intentions are “as clear as a glass of moonshine.”
These masters of language have given us now-common phrases like job creators, trickle-down economics, clean coal, and death tax. They’ve cleverly and covertly sold the lie that cigarettes don’t cause cancer and that climate science isn’t settled.
In fact, a new film called “Merchants of Doubt” features a cast of “highly charismatic, silver-tongued pundits-for-hire.” It documents the link between the “experts” behind Big Tobacco’s notorious claims and other unpalatable issues like toxic chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs and climate change denial.
I have not seen the film, but what the trailer portrays is, in a word, repulsive. But what it is not is public relations. Such chicanery is a violation of every single article of ethical public relations, and therefore it cannot be public relations.
Returning to my confrontation with the elected official last year, I was gobsmacked not just with his utter ignorance of what the public relations profession is, but also with his admonishment of me, a constituent, for practicing it. Efforts to enhance relationships between an elected official and his constituents are not immoral or unethical. Elected officials are in office to serve the public. Doing what is right by them is not propaganda, it’s leadership.
This same truth goes for corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. At its core, public relations is ultimately a leadership function. The result of that leadership must be mutually beneficial for the entity and the public they serve.
Anyone who says otherwise is merely another “merchant of doubt” willing to lie, cheat and steal their way to profit or power — or both.
About the Author
Michael Hansen is a public relations strategist and co-owner of Mud Pie Creative Lab. Michael has a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Alabama. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.