Can PR Change the World? Why the hell not?

Hardly a day goes by that a Facebook friend or Twitter follower doesn’t link with pride to positive coverage earned for an employer/client. PR people are experts at securing news coverage for clients. We’ve learned all the tricks of media manipulation, and we can manufacture news on a moment’s notice.

I don’t say this to judge. It’s part of what we do. But as any media-relations professional knows, it’s the negative headlines that get the most attention. And often, the bad press results from 1) irresponsible behavior by clients/employers or 2) inattention to emerging issues and events.

As PR professionals, it’s our job to monitor the environment and spot the problems before they become full-blown events. It’s also our job to counsel those clients/employers on matters of ethics and to encourage socially responsible decisionmaking.

This week’s headlines suggest to me 3 opportunities for PR to lead and maybe even change the world:

Preach values and ethics. New Jersey’s Bridgegate scandal remains a PR failure for the Governor Christie. Even if he didn’t know about the plan or the coverup, it happened on his watch and is the sort of behavior we DON’T want in our next U.S. president — or any other elected official.  But it’s important to remember that Bridgegate is a failure of ethics and values. It’s hard to fix these things when your bosses/clients don’t get it.

For the past 50 years, leaders in the PR profession — including some top academics — have argued that PR must fill the role of “chief ethics officer.” Had an ethical communicator been consulted about lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, there may have been no lane closures and Christie might still be perceived as frontrunner for the 2016 GOP nomination.

Addressing the distribution of wealth. Slate magazine published a story this week claiming the 85 richest people in the world have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion — or about half the world’s population. It’s one of those WTF? kind of stories, and one that the lords of business and their PR counsel would be wise to monitor closely.

The ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, in the USA and around the world, is well documented. If that gap continues to widen, there will be consequences — possibly violent consequences. History teaches many lessons about the oppressed rising up to smite their oppressors. We saw it in the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Labor Movement. All of these events involved conflict between haves and have-nots, and in each case, it took violent uprisings to bring justice and change.

Since most people prefer peaceful change, I’m wondering how many PR practitioners have attempted to sound the alarm about the lopsided distribution of wealth. After all, it’s in all in the history books.

Focus on cross-cultural behavior. A story emerging from Pakistan this week centers on the unusually high mortality rate from breast cancer there. About 40,000 Pakistani women die of the disease each year — a death rate twice that of the U.S., proportionate to population. Granted, Pakistan doesn’t have the healthcare infrastructure we do, but the real problem is cultural.

The word ‘breast’ is considered a taboo and cannot be spoken aloud. Breast cancer had to be referred to as the cancer of women when talking about the disease, mammograms and self-exams.

When you can’t raise public interest and awareness for an issue, it’s nearly impossible to bring about social change. And isn’t that the primary goal of ALL public relations professionals? Change? Imagine if brightest minds in PR went to work on this problem in Pakistan, perhaps led by a large professional organization such as PRSA and supported by a couple of university research grants. They would working closely with the influencers in each town and village to understand the obstacles and to devise life-saving programs.

Back when I was teaching the sophomore-level PR Principles class, my closing lecture for the semester was titled “How PR Can Change the World.” Attacking the breast cancer problem in third-world countries is one way to do that.

Why us? Well, why not? And besides, it doesn’t appear the lords behind the castle walls are too concerned about that 99% outside those walls.

I began this post with the premise that most disasters, PR and otherwise, result from irresponsible behavior and/or inattention to emerging trends and events. Someone in the inner circle must sound the alarm.

I know from personal experience the risk that role brings with it. But as professional communicators, we must find ways to make the case.

Laugh if you’d like, but I’m still convinced that PR can change the world. Somebody better.

6 thoughts on “Can PR Change the World? Why the hell not?

  1. Great thinking, Bill! I’m with you 100 percent. What I attempt to pound into the heads of undergrads (in addition to the notion that they are responsible for how much effort they put into understanding their future careers) is that ethics is at the heart and soul of good public relations. Shannon Bowen is an important scholar in this area and I think it is imperative that students are exposed to her work. Same with Derina Holtzhausen — even though I was too obtuse during many of my discussions with her at the University of South Florida to understand the concept — and public relations professionals as organizational activists. We’ve seen the way reading these thinkers has transformed students, particularly those with long, successful careers.

    For me, it boils down to public relations as a form of education. I rarely meet a business or organizational leader (big or small organization) that doesn’t immediately want to talk about how much help they need. Much of it is based on educating stakeholders. Think how powerful it might be if corporations or governments attempted this…at least the levels of transparency might be higher.

  2. Bob, I certainly had the experience you refer to when I was teaching in the KSU online master’s program. One student in particular was profoundly affected by Holtzhausen’s view. Had a significant effect on her both personally and professionally, and it was exciting to see the kind of change that can happen when students are exposed to different models of PR, especially those models based on ethics.

  3. Great points, Bill. I find most serious practitioners are idealists under the skin, something we tend to undervalue in ourselves. With reference to your third opportunity, your followers may have heard of PR Without Borders, which sends senior communicators to Third World countries to provide free advice and services.

  4. Very insightful and optimistic point of view. I definitely think that PR function is undervalued by lots of managers or descesion makers. Business really needs to address the power of public relations instead of putting PR under the dept of marketing, or even worse…sales….

    Your article let us see what we can do to serve the company, community, and even society. Public relations specialists are watch dogs for a company, because we are constantly aware of things happening outside of the box.

    So, instead of letting PR becoming the fire department running around dealing with crisis, let PR achieve something bigger, something that marketing or sales would never be able to do.

  5. Thanks for all the comments, and sorry I couldn’t jump into the conversation over the weekend. The snow piled up and my grandchildren were stranded at our house. A happy coincidence, for sure, but not if you hope to get any work done!

    I come back one again to a mantra I learned from the late Pat Jackson: Public relations enables individuals to participate in decisions that affect their lives. If your PR programs don’t foster participation, if they don’t invite diverse views — including dissent — then your PR and your management style are badly flawed.

    I understand this isn’t the way most organizations operate. But PR must continue the good fight.

    • Great post. Sorry I am late to the party. The fundamental problem we face in American culture is we don’t value dissent. In fact, we consider it unpatriotic. Kind of ironic, as that’s how I remember the culture of the USSR.

      Bill, thanks for keeping the faith and sharing it with us.

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