Public relations is a communicative tool and many global brands use it everyday to promote themselves. However, there is still the widely spread misconception that public relations is a bit of a dark art. However, PR done well can be interesting and engaging without being evil. The problem is that most people have a very negative image of the profession in their heads. That is why most people in the industry agree on one thing: public relations needs public relations for itself.
The dark side of the media
The first problem is that public relations is frequently portrayed as the dark side of the media industry. The general conception of PR becomes evident by only looking at some of the book titles published about the topic. Ominous titles such as “Thinker, faker, spinner, spy: corporate PR and the assault on democracy” or “Toxic sludge is good for you: lies, damn lies and the public relations industry” paint a black picture of the profession even before one has read a single page.
This confirms Bournemouth University Professor Tom Watson’s argument, who says that PR’s bad image is mainly due to the way PR practitioners are portrayed in other media outlets such as in films. Often this portrayal includes a pretty girl who just happened to stumble into the profession because she’s good with words and has a charming smile. However that’s certainly not the reality. Latest figures show that almost half of the practitioners at a non-managerial level now have some form of relevant professional qualification. That is among other things due to the increasing number of public relations courses at universities all over the world. And their curriculum often stresses the importance of ethical behaviour in PR, which hopefully will result in efforts of future new practitioners to finally bring the profession out of the dark shadows with openness about their work.
PR is propaganda
There has to be something valuable about PR because Bill Gates is famously quoted: “If I was down to my last dollar I would spend it on PR”. However many people equal public relations with the much doomed term of propaganda. That might be due to that fact that Edward Bernays, who is often credited as the father of modern public relations, unfortunately named his famous book “Propaganda”. For him this term didn’t have the negative implications that most of the critics understand it to be. Instead he meant a two-way relationship with the client that includes feedback which connects to other ideas about the ethical behaviour in public relations (mainly voices by James Grunig and his colleagues). Other understandings include the fact that propaganda deals with misinformation whereas public relations is based on facts. However both include the management of perceptions.
Public relations isn’t healthy for democracy
This is a topic of debate that many university PR students debate. One argument among many is that PR supports hegemony, and works in favour of the elite as they have the money to employ it. Furthermore, a lot of PR activity is aimed at other rivalling elites such as other political parties in a general election campaign. The general public, according to this train of thought, is left out and therefore can’t participate in the democratic process.
However it can also be argued that PR makes sure that formerly unheard voices will be amplified to the public which in turn helps people to make informed choices. Due to the ever increasing presence of the internet, many companies’ ideas will get lost and not reach their audience without the promotional help of PR and SEO professionals.
A more general concern comes from latest numbers showing the ratio of PR pros to journalists in the US to be 4:1 which seems a bit overwhelming. As the journalists are so outnumbered critics argue that the public is robbed of the watchdog function of the fourth estate and objective reporting becomes non-existing. The worst case scenario is that every message in the press is sponsored by a company which leads directly to the next criticism.
Public relations ruins the journalism
Of course journalism and public relations are two completely different animals. One of them is (ideally but not always) objective and the other one is clearly subjective. However due to budget cuts many journalism departments now rely on PR input in order to get new stories or even a different angle of a story. PR departments nowadays know that and try to present valuable and newsworthy content that is useful for the journalists and will be picked up and published. As such PR can be seen more as a tool that adds to the broad field of journalism rather than a profession that tries to take over.
In addition to that it needs to be considered that the two jobs are more intertwined than most people are aware of as many professionals will eventually change from being a journalist to working in PR. One of the most known examples is Germany’s government spokesman Steffen Seibert (pictured above) who used to work for the public service broadcaster as one of their top journalists before starting to work for the government.
Public relations is traditionally a profession that operates behind the scenes but it still needs to be accountable and open about its practices if practitioners want to change some of the common misconceptions about their work in the future. So maybe it really is time for PR people to stand up for their profession and create some PR for themselves.