Trough of Disillusionment: Reclaiming Public Relations

Public relations is a vast industry. After all, the core of public relations is its very name, “relating to the public,” which is typically executed utilizing various channels of communication. Every large entity at least dabbles, if not all-out engages, in communicating with the public. Private companies, NGOs, nonprofits, governmental entities and many other organizations must communicate with appropriate publics. Yet, trust in many of these entities is pretty low. As of 2014, only 36 percent of Americans feel corporations are a “source of hope” for their economy (Lam, 2014). Trust in the media is at its lowest since 1972 (Sutton, 2016). A recent poll found that only 13 percent of Americans trust their government (Topaz, 2014). This growing distrust, skepticism and dehumanizing of large, faceless entities brings with it questions about the current role of public relations (and of its potential).

Public relations should not just exist in the form of crisis management, spinning or even community relations; public relations must, without question, exist and embody itself as a form of ethical leadership within any organization. While some nay-sayers refer to the phrase “public relations ethics” as oxymoronic (given the field’s association with manipulation, propaganda and deception), society’s disdain for public relations may reflect a social-systematic distrust of government, institutions, and corporate businesses (Lee, et al., 2011). It does not detract from the fact that a better understanding of ethics and ethical leadership can help public relations professionals more effectively manage ethical challenges (Lee, et al., 2011).

The PR industry has had many gaffes over the year. The industry’s reputation as “spin doctors” didn’t appear out of thin air, rather from the silver-tongued suit looking to distract, sway and spin his or her way out of utter transparency (especially in cases of clear recklessness or deception on the part of the organization). Many of these gaffes and unethical practices are detailed in Toxis Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Stauber & Rampton, 1995); this unprecedented peek into the public relations industry reveals corporate espionage, deceptive marketing, cronyism between private business and public figures facilitated through lobbyists, campaigns that included falsified research and more. To this day, PR firms can be working from the shadows with little to no public awareness of the puppeteer’s existence.

In late September of last year, you could find many activists in major cities throughout the Western world voicing support for the rebels in Aleppo and opposition to the Syrian and Russian bombs raining down on the city. While it seemed like an innocent, grassroots campaign, many people (even within Washington) were unaware of the entity working in the shadows. Posing as a non-political solidarity organization, The Syria Campaign leverages local partners and media contacts to push Western military intervention into toppling yet another Middle Eastern government (Blumenthal, 2016). This Campaign has utilized liberal-friendly language about human rights to promote a No Fly Zone, packaging it as a way to protect civilians. However, as far as American foreign policy works, rarely is there ever a NFZ instated without regime change following shortly after. The Syria Campaign even helped publicize the viral images of Omran Daqneesh, the young Syrian boy pulled from a toppled building that made the front news of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many other major papers; it also helped secure the group that pulled the boy out of the rubble, the White Helmets, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination (Blumenthal, 2016). At its core, though, The Syria Campaign is a pro-opposition PR agency. The Syrian government was democratically elected and its civil war must remain within its own border; however, with the help of some old-fashioned lobbying and grassroots movements, some Western governments are being persuaded to intervene. If public relations is supposed to be about two-way communication (Hendrix, 1988), there is something questionable (if not entirely unethical) about The Syria Campaign’s practices.

Beyond politics, there are many other realms of PR in which professionals can choose to partake in ethical behavior or unethical behavior: internal communications, community relations, investor relations, governmental relations and so on (Hendrix, et al., 2013). Internal communications should not just be about informing employees or members of an organization; rather, it should be about connecting with and improving the lives of those people that serve the organization. Community relations should not just be sponsoring a few random, public charity events so that the company is associated with a good cause; rather, it should be about reinvesting profits back into the very community upon which the company relies on for continued prosperity. Investor relations shouldn’t be limited to an annual report; rather, it should involve a continued relationship with the investors and those high-ranking executives that supersedes the pages of said report. Governmental relations should not be about lobbying and practicing crony capitalism; rather, it should be about working with public organizations and officials to better learn how to interact with the public that both entities serve. However, this can’t happen if public relations is dozing off in the back seat. It must be in the passenger seat, helping decide where to go.

Many of the negative connotations of corporate social responsibility (CSR) are linked to its perceived role as a public relations exercise (Ben, et al., 2010). Given the demanding expectation of corporate social responsibility (due specifically to millennials), more organizations are looking to expand their community involvement and to shift from certain practices that may be detrimental to the world at large to more beneficial practices. However, this isn’t just about good practices for the sake of good PR. This is about shifting an entire business model that inherently makes good decisions to impact everyone involved positively.

This must start at the top in every organization. Debbe Kennedy, founder, president and CEO of Global Dialogue Center and Leadership Solutions Companies, summarizes the top three communications mistakes that leaders make.

“Leaders often talk at people instead of with them. Many seem fearful about sounding too personal or human, as if that were a weakness. Leaders say what they want without considering what employees need to hear. Most employees are longing to hear about the leader's vision, how they fit into it, how they can help and how much the leader values their contributions. Leaders use too much head-talk and not enough heart-talk. Many leaders hide behind buzzwords, shoptalk and B-school jargon. It's safe, has no emotional connection and means little to almost everybody listening” (Greene, et al., 2007).

Leaders must set a tone that empowers its partners and employees to be more conscience about their responsibility to invest in its customers with more than just a product or a slogan.

In taking any form of leadership with any entity, public relations-conscious leaders must also consider ethics. Much of the discussion about ethics and leadership is philosophical, outlining what leaders should do, consistent with the belief that ethics is crucial to leadership and vice versa (Lee, et al., 2011). “As a major concern in the field of communication and public relations, ethical performance cannot be ignored when we try to propose theoretical framework for strategic leadership in public relations,” according to Juan Meng and Bruce Berger of the University of Georgia and University of Alabama, respectively (2013). Louis Day explores broad ethical theories in his book Ethics in Media Communication: Cases and Controversies (2003). Such theories include the deontological, teleological, utilitarian and others. The deontological theory, which is considered to be a “duty-based,” practices and shares truth regardless of “good” or “bad.” The teleological theory measures the consequences of truth to determine which path leads to the maximum number of benefits for the greatest number of people. The “Golden Mean,” which is a utilitarian-esque approach to disseminate true information selectively, attempts to benefit the public over time, balancing out to a happy medium of positive and negative information.

To apply this, let’s reconsider The Syria Campaign. The group works almost entirely from the shadows. Its goal is regime change in Syria. It practices astroturf PR, sponsoring what appears to be grassroots rallies. There is no two-way communication as to what path to peace would be paved with less bloodshed and war. There is one goal in sight and The Syria Campaign attempts to see it through. Now, they likely defend their action using a teleological theory; those involved with the group likely see a No Fly Zone, despite the near 70,000 troops that will be needed to enforce it, as a necessary risk of sacrifice in order to prevent further death. The Syria Campaign likely believes that the risk of war via a NFZ would still lead to a better outcome for more people, and is willing to carry on a PR campaign to mirror that belief. The war has already claimed over 400,000 people and has helped create one of the worst migrant crises since World War II (Syria, 2016). Even still, there is a larger argument about regime change and the West’s role in civil matters specific to sovereign nations. A public relations campaign that offers no room for the voices of dissent does not represent two-way communication and is indicative of the distrust felt by many people towards PR groups.

In Public Relations Cases by Hendrix, Hayes and Kumar (2013), there are many cases detailed throughout. Each chapter is divided into specific realms of public relations and each case is considered to be a success, gauged by a number of relevant factors. Regardless of circumstance and of which realm of PR the case is involved in, one theme is present throughout: community. In the case of Rubbermaid, CEO Mark Ketchum made a plea with his employees (in full climbing gear) to prepare for an uphill battle that hopefully lead the company to greater prosperity. In the case of Westfield, Corp., the organization reached out to the public to research how it could better serve the community in which is planned to develop. In the case of Riverside Health System, the organization worked directly with the community to gain approval for a new hospital. In the case of Aflac, the company worked directly with its shareholders to take a revolutionary step and create a system in which the shareholders vote on the pay of the CEO. In the case of Lifeline of Ohio, the nonprofit worked directly with a segment of the community to increase organ donor registration within the state of Ohio.

Each of the above cases represent successful PR campaigns that would not have been a success, had the organization chosen not to work directly with its relevant publics or communities. At the core, public relations shouldn’t be about spinning and covering up poor business practices or a flawed business plan. Public relations should be about paving the way to connect an organization with its public to increase transparency and accountability. The ethical choices should be created by an inherent desire to serve the publics’ needs first and maximize profit second, rather than maximize profit and rely on public relations to smooth over any scandals. Two-way communication is supposed to create a real relationship, with dissenters, supporters and all.