The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)chair/CEO Rosanna M. Fiske sent a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, which is investigating the General Service Administration's use of PR firms, specifically a Kansas City crisis firm hired to help with an environmental issue on a nearby federal property. Fiske's letter urges the Subcommittee to "consider the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs on behalf of the federal government."
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Like many PR people, I've done work for public entities and government offices. I understand how public contracts can get people riled up. So it makes sense for you as head of the Public Relations Society of America to argue our profession's relevance in your letter to the Senate Subcommittee of Contracting Oversight. Thanks for that.
But I have to take serious exception with the tone of your letter because you paint a picture that in the long run is far more pejorative than politicians calling us flacks and spin doctors.
Your letter emphasizes that the role of public relations is effective communications based on really good intentions. You imply that taxpayers and their watchdogs have no reason to be anything but thankful for government PR contracts, because our industry's only purpose is to provide information so that we may create mutual understanding and serve the public good by getting people to stop smoking and other nice things.
But this description is spin. Unadulterated, accentuate-the-positive-eliminate-the-negative public relations spin. And everyone knows it.
The truth is that we are in the business of influence.
Sure, we should do things ethically and with a mind toward the greater good. But that's the means, not the end. PR people get hired to achieve someone else's bottom line: sell product, win votes, improve share value, create support, make an embarrassing controversy go away.
The father of modern PR, Edward Bernays, came up with the first true description of our profession when he coined the term, "The Engineering of Consent." He didn't call it "The Informing of the Public About Pressing Social Issues."
Yet over the last two decades this notion has become the great disconnect between PRSA and the working world of PR, especially the consulting side. Out here we get clients by showing we can get results. We only hope our competitors are saying they should be hired because their singular mission is to "advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information."
Not that it's true anyway. Yes, there are many PR people who represent good causes and all things beneficial to children and other living things. But there are also as many PR people – and PRSA members – who represent questionable candidates, fatty (but mighty tasty) cheeseburgers, corporations being sued by the EPA and more than a few controversial public works projects. In almost all of these situations, good and bad, public relations people are packaging and managing information to advance the interests they work for. You're doing the same thing right now.
The point is that public relations people are not journalists. It has never done us any good to pretend we are.
The sooner our profession acknowledges the realities of what we do and why we're hired, the sooner we can deal straight-up with legitimate questions about government paying for our kind of expertise.
Steven Silvers (APR)
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