The Power of Public Relations

ethics cartoonAt the behest of my publisher, I’ve just completed a proposal for a third edition of my book Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice.  As I pondered the changes and updates that would be appropriate for this new edition, I asked a couple of PR professors/instructors who use the book as classroom reading material if they had any thoughts about what’s missing at this stage.

One of the issues that rises to the top is the fact that as social media offers more and more access to communication tools without benefit of the traditional gatekeepers – such as editors – public relations and corporate communication practitioners, who have always had extraordinary power to influence, have accrued even more power.  There is no longer a need to pitch all stories to editors or journalists for example.  We can go straight to the target.  This increases the power and brings to bear significant responsibilities that need to be faced.

The power inherent in the practice of public relations as we know it today is at the heart of the ethical issues that face practitioners.  That power stems from the application of strategies and tactics that are designed to influence the way people think about organizations, issues, people and products.  Unfortunately, many neophytes – and sadly even more seasoned practitioners – fail to understand this power.

Remember the movie Wag the Dog?  If you don’t, you should make a point of watching it with a view to considering the power to influence.  The very idea that a communicator can make a whole country believe that there is a war going on when there isn’t just to take attention off another political story is chilling.

And what about the film Thank-You for Smoking?  A satirical look at big business, it shines a very clear light on the possibilities of persuading people to do all manner of activities that might in fact be harmful to them – but that line the pockets of particular industries.  This is interestingly timely in light of the recent Quebec Supreme Court decision to hold big tobacco responsible for health problems faced by long-time smokers.

These are fictional but potent commentaries on the power of persuasion and the power of the well-developed and implemented strategy.  The use of power also suggests opportunities for abuse.

Real examples include Hitler’s ability to use persuasive techniques to further his anti-Semitic agenda and the US government’s 1990 strategy to sell the first Iraq War to the American people.  You might call the first example propaganda and dismiss it as “not PR.”  You’d be wrong.  The two are intertwined and often only a matter of semantics.  In the second instance you cannot so easily dismiss it – the government actually hired public relations firm Hill and Knowlton to develop and implement a clever PR strategy.  And it was a breathtaking success.

Although public relations as a basic management function in organizations is the process of developing and maintaining long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, a large part of that relationship management involves tactics that inform and persuade – that persuasive communication is wherein lies the potential for abuse of power.  Discussions of public relations ethics often focus on these major issues such as persuasion versus propaganda, and less frequently shed light on daily activities, which contribute in a big way to the overall persuasive power of PR.

Aside from the day-to-day ethical dilemmas that all working people face (such as whether to use the office photocopier for making copies of your resume, sleeping with the boss etc.), the ethical issues of importance to PR practitioners stem from PR’s influential role.  The question is: Do most PR and corporate communication professionals recognize this?  It is important, then for us to take the time to focus our attention on the activities that make up our days as practitioners, and that we often fail to examine for their moral implications.


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