DALLAS, May 22 (UPI) -- "Facing an election, Liberals resort to grubby PR tactics," read the headline in Toronto's The Globe & Mail. Why is "communication" good, but public relations is so frequently derided? Does PR need some PR?
The Globe & Mail columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, was complaining that politicians were hijacking press releases which announced the appointment of distinguished university positions endowed with government funds. The Canadian Research Chairs program is entirely autonomous, but politicians began rewriting the announcements to include their quotes of congratulations, implying they had something to do with the appointment. Simpson calls this "the great political scheme of jostling for undeserved credit." He is correct, but how is that "grubby PR?"
Public relations is simply understanding the relationships between an entity and its "publics," which includes the internal audience of employees as well as customers, investors, regulators, competitors and the general public. Public relations' own image problems can be traced to several causes.
First, communication and dealing with the various publics is now divided between departments. Human resources claims employee communication. Investor relations monopolizes stockholders. In many companies, community relations has become its own department and deals with the local communities. The legal department frequently deals with regulators and elected officials. Sales or marketing targets customers.
Public relations should be the route to all these publics and the internal consultant for both communication and building relationships, which goes far beyond communication. With the natural tendency to protect one's own turf, the risk is that public relations becomes marginalized into a press release issuing machine with little control or input into the organization's ongoing or long-term business strategies.
The Globe & Mail's Simpson correctly identifies that all politicians like to make announcements which will make them visible to the voters, but says, "this illustrates the depths to which these politicians will descend to grab whatever tiny bit of the public-relations limelight they can find" and he says voters should "expect more cheap public-relations tricks." And, with one more slap at PR, he notes that elections force politicians to bring back "the little corruptions of petty public relations."
And this is the problem. He sees public relations as the practice of claiming undue credit, of hyping something and of being fundamentally deceitful. Actually, public relations is no more these things than the practice of law is inherently misleading juries or abusing the judicial system. There are lawyers who abuse the system, but we do not hold the legal system hopelessly tarnished by their behavior.
Another part of the image problem is training. The general counsel went to law school, but the head of public relations may have come from journalism, political campaigns, or almost any other career. William Webster, former director of the FBI, once said he looked for one thing in hiring -- "good judgment." When I asked him how one developed good judgment, he smiled and said, "From all those times you used bad judgment." And that's the crucial quality of PR which is so hard to quantify. The most successful people in public relations have developed good judgment over the years by racking up the broadest possible experience in a wide variety of fields and through an almost limitless number of events and situations.
The field of public relations has struggled with how to train people who call themselves public relations professionals, even developing an exam and an "APR" -- Accredited Public Relations, designation. But there is really no credential for good judgment, let alone for good values and humility.
PR has gotten a bad reputation because it has allowed its superiors to over promise things, to hype, to comment or make public only good news, not bad news. An effective PR person does not compromise his or his employer's integrity, but usually must use persuasion rather than command-and-control, to convince others of the correct action.
It must be admitted that PR has contributed to its own problems by those individuals who place themselves in the public eye and say things they know aren't true, or who go along with the CEO or the lawyers rather than jeopardize a large retainer. Yet, do not lawyers similarly say truly bizarre things in public and give their clients awful advice?
Public relations -- again, understanding, communicating and maintaining relationships -- is a critical function of an organization. It deserves respect.
Merrie Spaeth, the president of a Dallas-based consulting firm, is a regular commentator and writer on communication issues. She was the director of media relations for President Reagan.