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.
The first ever blog from an unnamed CIPR Advanced Certificate student, also reflects on the video, and with a comment from Simon Collister, 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 Neville Hobson‘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 Strumpette 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.