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.