Can you justify working in public relations?

I’ve been marking first year PR undergraduate assignments on the topic of whether public relations is persuasion, manipulation or propaganda – at the same time that such issues are hot in the public relations blogosphere.

Canadian,  links to the video on – and discusses the claim that PR equals propaganda (as a pejorative).  Lots of interesting views in the comments to this post.

The first ever from an unnamed Advanced Certificate student, also reflects on the video, and with a comment from , adds some academic context, largely placing PR as rhetoric and vital to democracy.

Meanwhile a fascinating discussion is taking place in the public sphere of ‘s blog on a post that was initiated by the PR Week “truth” debate with Max Clifford – see my post last week.  This includes a link to the which supports an inherent human need to lie – and the more questionable assertion that PR is the lying profession.

I am reminded of a 2003 paper in the Journal of Communiations Management by Jacquie L’Etang – the myth of the ‘ethical guardian’ (Vol, 8, 1 53-67).  In particular, she questions the expertise of PR practitioners to take on this role owing to a lack of understanding of moral frameworks (and the profession’s own poor reputation and low membership of professional bodies).

PR’s claim to be “reputation management” is said to be a “pragmatic, self-interested approach” with the aim of looking good rather than being good “in a morally stringent way”. 

L’Etang, like the PR Watch video, believes much of PR activity is “hidden from view”, especially in politics.  Rhetorial interpretation and communication around issues such as food scares reveal problems relating to the concept of truth.  Crisis communications techniques and withholding unfavourable information are said to infringe the public interest and evidence PR’s ethics are “to a large degree governed by its paymasters”. 

Interestingly, L’Etang asked whether those undergoing professional or academic education in public relations should be:

given the opportunity to engage at a conceptual level with the issues (public interest, dialogic communication, ethics of persuasion, media ethics, business ethics, historical concepts of propaganda) and are exposed to, and required to master appropriate philosophical, sociological, political and political science sources…

Without this, she claims, public relations will lack the credibility externally to act as an ‘ethical guardian’.  She also asks whether a professional qualification is required to purely deal in this specialist field.  (These critical perspectives of public relations are part of the CIPR Diploma course – the session I am taking at Guildford tomorrow)

There is clearly a lot of interest in improving the reputation of public relations, engaging with ethical issues and being able to reflect open, transparent, truthful practices, if the debate in blogosphere is indicative of the wider public relations world.

Or, as an undergraduate told me earlier this week when saying she is thinking of transferring to study marketing – is PR’s reputation for being dishonest ingrained in most practices and practitioners.

Are we protesting too much that PR is not propaganda, manipulation or benign persuasion?  Such moral issues are not the preserve of PR alone – and indeed the dilemmas we face are perhaps the result of a more open, diverse, pluralistic and fast-moving world.  Although then again, they’ve been discussed since at least the times of the Greeks – so I don’t suppose we can expect any easy answers.

10 thoughts on “Can you justify working in public relations?

  1. Hi Heather,
    Thanks for the hat tip but I’m an Englishman in Canada, not a Canadian.
    My thoughts on this are that PR’s duty is to change our clients internally so that they can do remarkable, ethical things and get the coverage they deserve for that; rather than just shouting about things the client thinks are remarkable.
    Change the problem; not the symptom.
    Ed

  2. My mistake – never assume!!

    You are right, one of the biggest duties of PR practitioners is to challenge their clients. That is something we discuss a lot in the strategic PR classes I teach – and many of the guys end up changing jobs as a result of reflecting on how they don’t want to work in organisations that are not prepared to listen to their publics or recognise that PR is more than just shouting out the corporate messages.

    And of course, Seth Godin’s view on being “remarkable” (ie worthy of being talked about it) is vital in the new receiver-oriented world.

  3. I would counter act the propaganda argument by applying discourse theory. For example, although Honda is currently promoting its “green credentials”, this discourse is just one of many which people can choose to listen to. Competing discourses such as those from environmental groups and the media ensure that those receiving messages are able to make up their own decisions.

  4. Stuart – the problem with the discourse/rhetorical perspective is that it can be hard for the public to evaluate viewpoints and come to a reasoned conclusion. Also a lot of people don’t process information centrally around complex arguments and so react on the basis of peripheral processing of messages. Do they like/dislike Honda/cars/F1/Jenson Button etc and ditto what are their immediate thoughts about environmental groups?

    We also have to decide as a society what kind of world we want to live in – should sports such as F1 be forced to change in respect of environmental considerations, or are those who push green arguments being killjoys?

  5. I suppose if a company is saying many diverse things (which could be understandable for many reasons), a ‘public’ could see contradictory messages and in a worst-case scenario, view the organisation as hypocritical. Especially if they’re a ‘one issue’ public?

    By the way, I’m not unnamed anymore, was just clearing it with work!

  6. Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity’s new book Life’s a Pitch… (which I’ve just reviewed at my blog) has a chapter on public relations named ‘Organised Lying’. But the whole book is in effect a call for more widespread public relations in our business and personal lives.

  7. Propaganda in a post I’m running later, is defined as the pushing of the unpalatable for reasons which often don’t add up. when there is something, a product, which can almost sell itself with a little push, this is PR. Just one opinion.

  8. I’m more inclined to look at the different shades of propaganda. That breaks it down more and I feel justifies some elements of it.

  9. Propaganda is an interesting topic that I shall return to after more reflection. Taking the opinion that James mentioned, the problem is that propaganda then becomes a moving target depending on who finds a message to be unpalatable. This also links into Jill’s views on shades of propaganda – one person’s light grey is another’s black art.

  10. I read these posts after submitting a post relating to Heather’s visit to the old HQ of Special Ops during WWII and was delighted to find others with similar views. I also agree with the comments about the PR industry’s self-interested claim to be Reputation Managers. I recently got the green ink out and sent a missive to PR Week to point out the absurdity of their headline suggesting the senior comms professionals in the banking sector were Reputation Managers, when the reputation of the sector is shot to pieces. And I fully understand why graduates don’t want to join an industry in which they perceive the practitioners are just part of some organisational plumbing system that moves the sh*t around. If you have risen to the Head of Comms at Barclloyds Bank, the chances are you a career-minded person who has bought into the values and behaviours of your employer. Telling your MD that boardroom bonuses are obscene or that lending to ninjas (no income, no job, no assets) was likely to put the world economy into meltdown would be a very career-limiting thing to do. Most PR practitioners, I guess, have mortgages and that is a powerful incentive to keep playing the corporate game and not to speak truth unto power. Depressing, isn’t it?

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