Friday, July 16, 2004

On the use of puppets

It was encouraging to read about transparency, public relations ethics and the insidiousness of spin at various points of this PR Blog Week. On this forum as in others, one gets the feeling public relations professionals are trying to get the industry moving toward new paradigms and values.
 
The calls for change are coming not a moment too soon.
 
Ninety years after Ivy Lee was labelled a “professional liar” for saving the Rockefeller’s reputation following the Ludlow Massacre, public relations professionals are still being seen as one of the untrustworthiest categories of human beings. The fact that famous entertainers and talk radio hosts score even lower on the Public relation Society of America’s National Credibility Index does little to make our 42nd (on 44!) place look better.
 
So after the first century of modern PR, our clients and employers recognize us as valuable members of the team, but the public thinks we’re despicable liars. How about starting the second century with a little public awareness campaign to correct public perceptions and clean up our image a little, as some proposed in other forums? Wouldn’t that improve our professional prospects, or at least our social life?
 
Perhaps, but we have to clean up our act a little if that fragile veneer of respectability is to stick. If not, we’ll have to continue avoiding the words “public relations” when future in-laws ask: “So, what it is that you do?”
 
The ever-present “spin”, mostly the look-at-the-bright-side variety, is probably what most people would complain about. As Jim Horton mentioned earlier this week, there’s “too damn much of it.” Cutting down on spin won’t be easy though, in part because the line between “a good pitch” and a bad spin can be tricky at times, and being recognized as a good spin doctor is a point of pride in some sectors of the profession.
 
I’m actually more concerned with the increasing awareness among the public that PR operations make massive use of seemingly independent groups or experts to bolster the credibility of dubious claims. The practice of putting together front groups as part of “astroturf” campaigns and buying the services of researchers with scientific credentials is now so widespread that it’s entirely possible most people interviewed as experts by the media are being fed their lines by a major PR firm.
 
Fairly few PR outfits and departments can summon the resources and ruthlessness necessary to use these tactics, but they’re having a large impact. On a global level, examples include climate change issues, genetically altered foods and foreign policy.
 
If they are allowed to continue, these practices might have lasting negative effects on academics and legitimate NGOs when large segments of the public realize the media makes little efforts to separate independent voices from PR puppets. Part of the blame will be placed at the door of some of the world’s largest communications firms, especially those that associate themselves with a controversial message for a long period. When people get sick, or global temperatures rise, or the earth doesn’t stop turning, inquiries will be made to learn why so many experts said were so sure about something that turned out being false.  In some cases, the link between the faulty message, PR firms and their clients will be easy to follow.
 
Something to keep in mind in the ongoing discussions on establishing standards for public relations.

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