Categories: PR issues / Trust and reputations

20 June 2009


Definitions of PR: keeping it honest

The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) recently adopted a modern definition of PR. It throws up a whole host of issues about what PR is about. Here’s my take on the business PR professionals are in.

First, here’s the CPRS National Board definition of PR, which it endorsed in February 2009, in Fredericton, New Brunswick:

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest. (Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)

As detailed in a post to PR Conversations, Introducing a new, maple-infused definition of public relations, in both official languages, by Canadian Judy Gombita, a member of CPRS, the definition is being discussed by the “defining” architects, other contributors and frequent commentators to PRC, plus academics at PR Conversations.

Some of their comments have expressed a wish that other PR bodies in other countries should endorse the CPRS line. Without wanting to be a party-pooper for the sake of it, here’s why I hope they will not be successful.

Who do PRs represent?

The problem PR professionals (let’s just call them ‘PRs’) confront is the following. We have to decide whether our first duty as PR advisers is to our clients or to the public. Do we swear allegiance to both on equal terms even though it is our clients, rather than the public, which pay for our services? Would it be ethical to treat both responsibilities equally?

Now let’s examine some of the problems with this latest attempt at a reconciliation of this conundrum.

Proposition A (“realise organizational goals”) is scuppered by Proposition B (“and serve the public interest”), unless we are to have a rather strained oxymoron.

PRs are paid to promote the interests of their employers. They promote A within the bounds of decency and the law. They do this – if they do it properly – professionally in the best sense of the word. That is in the public interest (B) in the sense that having one-sided advocacy is a part of free society since freedom is not merely the right to speak but the understanding that truth and good sense emerge from competing arguments.

In other words, the defence advocate is serving the pubic interest almost whatever the merit of his or her client. Almost all the time, the PR’s job is to persuade the public that A equals B. But unless these two propositions are simply supposed to be coterminous (which is a stretch) there is often an important tension between propositions A and B. In reality, PRs have to favour A under the cover of espousing B.

The honest PR would admit that PRs dress up A as B. They would insist that his or her professionalism dictates that they should warn the public about the threat of “deception” (or at the very least, one-sidedness) which lies therein. This is why it is so unprofessional and sad and demeaning that PRs should (often do) pretend that A and B are always, or even should or must be, a good match.

It has always been a comfort to me and to colleagues that doing A is clearly defensible (within limits) and doable whilst achieving B is as hard to achieve as it is to define.

Public interest is hard to define

It is the impossibility of defining pubic interest (B) which has reinforced our civilisation’s conviction that lots of A (“realise organizational goals”), done competitively but within limits, is really the best way of achieving B. I say this in the spirit of how markets, democracies and debates are organised in the free world and how they actually behave in practice.

None of this is to deny that a PR may want to enrich an employer’s view of what A is, and do it by framing a view of B which could be promoted. A good example of this is corporate responsibility (CR) and a commitment to sustainability.

Hence, the honest PR needs to make a distinction between espousing B as an instrumental matter for pursuing A, and as a goal in its own right. He or she also must distinguish between pretending to know what B really is, and adopting a popular view of B, or a view of B which was plausible but also suited A.

Obviously the more B is bent out of shape so as to fit A the less the PR can claim a real moral power for his use of B, or for his employer as it claims to adopt B. Therein lies the accusation of greenwash and much more, as the rift between reality and practice produces a credibility gap.

It is my view that authenticity, truthfulness and being aligned with reality will nearly always and in the long run trump fluff, flannel and puff (spin) when it comes to winning long-term public trust; even if the case put is uncomfortable and unpopular. That’s to say: the long-term “organizational goals” will usually be best met with honest PR. With any luck, being honest will usually strike the public as having been in the public interest too.

The notion of the public interest is somewhat loose. We all have our own wildly differing definitions of what it is; even if sometimes it is also clear to all (most) of us what it is not. Being honest – and prizing honesty – is a principle that has stood up pretty well.

That is why it may be best to leave the public interest out of it. The International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Gold Paper No: 6 seems on safer ground when it notes that:

‘[According to the Dutch PR association] Public relations is the systematic promotion of mutual understanding between an organisation and its public‘. Or, as the British express it: ‘Public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its public’.

Of these, I have a fairly decent quibble with the British definition. To “maintain goodwill” might involve a good deal of deception or systematic lack of frankness. “Mutual understanding” is nice because to understand something includes the idea that what one is learning is not untrue. (The English language does not allow that one can “know” or “understand” an untruth.)

Is PR related to propaganda?

By the way, Gold Paper 6 gets muddled when it tries to explain why PR and propaganda are different. It describes propaganda as a one-way process wherein the public (or a particular section of it) is a nominated target and the objective is to change public thinking or prompt public responsive action.

But perhaps the most successful propaganda campaign ever devised was based on two-way communication. It was also grand in scale and viral in nature.

The Four-Minute Men campaign launched by The Committee on Public Information contained many of the founders of the PR industry. During the First World War it rallied community-based opinion-formers who made speeches in favour of the war, interactively and face-to-face, to millions of people gathered in small audiences across the length and breadth of the United States of America.

What’s my view of a working description of PR?

I like to say – as Bill Huey did here – that PR is defined by its practice. Or, as an Hegelian might say: the spirit of PR is involved in self-realization by the process of movement, development, evolution and progress. If I had to pick one word that captures its essence it would be “advocacy”: the act of pleading or arguing for something to influence an outcome on behalf of clients, preferably by using two-way communication techniques. That is to stress that I am not all that interested in PR which persuades people to think a certain thing unless the PR has invited and accepted and met informed challenge by the target audience.

At the end of the day, PRs have to acknowledge that they are not in business to push their own varied agendas on to their clients. Rather they represent – advocate – their employers’ interests. PRs are more like barristers than priests. True, they can – like doctors or management consultants – help fix their employers’ problems. True, they can – like diplomats – bring the wider world to their employers and sensitise their employers to the wider world’s needs. Be they however sophisticated, flacks are hacks – they are for hire. That does not mean they leave decency or professionalism behind when they go to work.

Indeed, the definitions I recommend for them may be more rigorous and personally costly than swimming with the tide of fashionable nostrums, which is my beloved trade’s commonest activity right now.

6 responses to “Definitions of PR: keeping it honest”

  1. […] to this blog post: – The New Canadian Definition of Public Relations (PR-Bridge) – Definitions of PR: keeping it honest (21st-century PR […]

  2. Anonymous coward says:

    Since when has PR for companies been about “serving the public interest”? That’s a load of bollocks. A closer definition of PR would be: Get as close to the edge of credibility as you can, while all the time protesting that you have something new, innovative, fashionable, life-saving, world hunger solving, global warming solving etc. Hence the rash (pun most definitely intended) of PRs punting swine flu stories favoring their clients’ products and services.

    I don’t think PR people should tell barefaced lies. But there is a significant difference between “the truth” and “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

  3. Oleksandr Kleshch says:

    A very well written article! A must-read for both newcomers and seasoned parctitioners in the PR field. I applaud to Paul’s point that ‘the public interest is as hard to achieve as it is to define.’ It seems to me that the notion of ‘public interest’ turned into an unhappy cliche, that is too often overused and profaned due to the perfunctory modus operandi of many these days, who, as Paul rightly pointed out, prefer ‘swimming with the tide of fashionable nostrums’.

  4. tim beighton says:

    Have to say an excellent article on what is probably one of the most challenging subjects with relation to how a PR should operate. PR, Spin and propaganda are all terms close in relation to each other, but I think you hit the nail on the head with your definition:

    ‘…represent – advocate – their employers’ interests. PRs are more like barristers than priests. True, they can – like doctors or management consultants – help fix their employers’ problems. True, they can – like diplomats – bring the wider world to their employers and sensitise their employers to the wider world’s needs.”

    As you say a PR is for hire, and so long as they are honest about the outcomes and use two way communication; the employers objectives can be aligned towards the relevant stakeholders.

    Sometimes however I believe the danger is when a client requests the message to be designed around the stakeholder rather than put into the public eye to be consumed however a stakeholder sees fit. In essence this is a PR s job however this is also where the morals of a PR come to play. s challenging quandary!

  5. […] to this blog post: – The New Canadian Definition of Public Relations (PR-Bridge) – Definitions of PR: keeping it honest (21st-century PR Issues) – The Week’s Best, 22 June 2009 (Teaching PR) – Sales promotion is […]

  6. Guy Versailles says:

    Five years later, may I still weigh in?

    The abstract : This commentary makes the argument that the ethical practice of public relations is in the public interest. This is because efficient communication between organizations and the public, as well as between organizations and themselves, is at the core of the democratic process our political system is predicated on.