Masters of manipulation. Spin doctors. Both terms refer to those working in public relations, but neither one really gets the whole picture – at least not in the correct “frame,” anyway.
The public relations industry is often accused of “spin” and “manipulation.” PR’s bad reputation developed around the first world war with the development of propaganda and has since hindered public relations practitioners from being open about their craft. What was once a persuasion-oriented, strategy-minded industry has become increasingly intertwined with marketing and publicity efforts.
In an article featured in “Mass Communication and Society” (Samsup, 2003) about the portrayal of PR in the news media, a research study was cited that found “negative terms were used much more often with the term public relations than positive terms.”
A possible explanation for this was offered in the same study: “Journalists doubt the credibility of news sources in that public relations material is often disguised as news, or too frequently insists on promoting products and services that do not deserve news space.”
Why is PR getting such a bad rap? Is there anything that can be done to salvage the reputation of an entire field? The irony here is obvious – public relations needs to be done on public relations.
Before launching a full-scale strategic communications plan, it’s important to first ask one question: What got public relations into such a mess in the first place?
PR fails or individual blunders? The making of PR’s bad rap
A quick (and admittedly humorous) Google search of “PR fails” will produce millions of alleged public relations blunders. While most of these “fails” are shocking, horrendous, pitiful and altogether quite stupid, most of the faux pas were not actually committed by public relations departments or representatives.
What the media won’t admit is that people have their own free will and their own decision-making capabilities — people often do things without assessing the possible consequences and effects on their companies, families or other causes with which they associate.
That being said, PR will still fall under fire for the mistakes of individuals’ actions. After Justine Sacco, the former senior director of corporate communications at IAC, sent out the infamous “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Tweet back in 2013, companies should have realized that each employee is essentially a public relations person (in the mind of the public, anyway).
Now that at least a few explanations have been offered about the need for PR on PR, how exactly can public relations move forward?
Doing PR on PR
There is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation. Denise Herd, owner of Indianapolis-based strategic communications firm Herd Strategies LLC, offers the following comparison in “The difference between persuasion and manipulation”:
“Manipulation implies persuasion with the intent to fool, control or contrive the person on the other side of the conversation into doing something, believing something, or buying into something that leaves them either harmed or without benefit” (emphasis added).
Don’t be caught tip-toeing the fine line between manipulation and persuasion. Use the following three suggestions to help shed the PR stigma.
- Know the line and learn the difference
Consider the definition provided above and try to focus on the true intent of each PR effort. Remember that public relations efforts should include mutual, two-way benefits. If any party loses, PR loses too.
- Take off the mask
The one thing people hate more than actually being duped is feeling like they’re being duped. Stop trying to go above the heads of your target audiences and get on their level. Use transparency and openness to elevate your public relations efforts. Anything else is a mutation of the field, and can be considered a cross-breed of publicity, marketing, advertising or some other field (and those fields’ stigmas).
Carefully consider whether or not you want to continue to call whatever business efforts and strategies you’ve been implementing “PR.” If you’re really running a full-scale ad campaign, that’s fine – just call it what it is! Never try and disguise your efforts as something that they’re not. You’ll be caught – and called out by the media – every time.
- Rebrand PR
Once you’ve refocused the intent and transparency of your PR efforts, making sure that from now on, there are two-way benefits in place, let your efforts be known! The only way to change the conversation about public relations is to start up a conversation. Reset and rebrand and allow public opinion to naturally change.
It’s tough for a strategically-minded PR person to just “let it go” (as emphatically sung out by Idina Menzel in Disney’s “Frozen”), but sometimes a grass-roots effort needs to take place to weed out deeply rooted opinion.
Change the conversation about public relations. Do PR on PR! If that doesn’t work… Consider going into marketing.