When a novel gets you wrong…

…and so we face New Year’s again! By that I mean that those of us who teach (or study) usually think of September as truly the newest beginning of any year. The newness for me this year means that I’m teaching a couple of new courses and, as usually my undergraduate ethics course. One of my new courses is also ethics-related, but at the graduate level.

In preparation for these courses, I naturally read through the summer. While you might think that it’s summer-schlock reading, it is all in the interests of ferreting out professional issues in public communication. To whit…

I just finished reading Boomsday published last year by Christopher Buckley of Thank-you for Smoking fame. (BTW if you are a public relations/corporate communication type and you haven’t read that book or seen the movie, I highly recommend that you read it so at least you know what kind of popular stereotype is being promulgated by the popular media).

In itself, Boomsday’s premise is intriguing: Gen-Y (I think) blogger Cassandra Devine who by day is a PR consultant, dreams up- a scheme to save the US social security system from bankruptcy by baby-boomers (and thereby bankrupting her generation). She proposes that boomers who agree to voluntarily commit suicide by age 70 or thereabouts be given substantial tax breaks for their families etc.

That’s interesting food for thought on its own, but it’s Buckley’s characterization of the public relations field and its practitioners that provides the most compelling reading for those of us of whom he purports to speak. He describes the agency for which young Cassandra works as having been “…built on the premise that those with a debatable claim to humanity will pay through the snout to appear even a little less deplorable” (p. 5). Her boss also refers to her as a “PR chick.” Inspiring isn’t it?
The chilling thing here for those of us who work at trying to ensure that those who practice public relations and corporate communication do so with a modicum of ethics and professionalism (as I know the majority of PR professionals do), it’s unnerving to see how we are painted – and how this illustration (caricature) is accepted and even thought to be the norm.

Authors will go on portraying PR in this way until they have another image in front of their faces. But even then it will be an uphill battle – you see, PR isn’t nearly and smarmy or glamorous as the public would like to continue believing.

Next time I’ll tell you about the book I’m reading now: Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy – now that’s one to make you proud. P.


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