Me and Harold and Jack and some final (I promise)
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Me and Harold and Jack and some final (I promise)

Paul Holmes

In his recent blog post about the PRSA’s egregiously inadequate new definition of public relations, Harold Burson comes down on pretty much the same side of the fence as me, and for pretty much the same reasons. The difference is that Harold manages to do it in a post that provides some impressive historical context, and without sounding nearly as old and cranky as I fear I must sound when I jump on my “public relations is not communications” hobby horse for the hundredth time this year. Harold says “A major problem for us public professionals nowadays is that too many of us believe the communications part of our job is the totality of what we do.  Many of us fail to realize public relations consists of two major components.  The first (and most important) has to do with influencing our employer’s behavior.” He goes on to argue: “Appropriate behavior in the public interest underlies every successful public relations initiative.  This means that the public relations ‘process’ starts with behavior.   Acting in the public interest is an absolute essential for long term success; that’s why the public relations professional must have a voice in the decision making process; it’s—or should be--part of the job.” Yes to all of the above. My view of public relations was shaped in conversations with people like Harold, and like Edward L. Bernays (whose definition Harold cites approvingly in his blog post) and with leading thinkers in the UK public relations business like Tim Traverse-Healy and Peter Hehir, all of whom—20, 30 or even 50 years ago—understood public relations far more broadly than those practitioners who voted on the PRSA definition. Meanwhile, in the comments to my earlier post on this topic, Jack O’Dwyer raises an important issue when he points out that “if PR people are going to set policy as well as publicize it and explain it, then they are responsible for bad policies.” Again, yes. When companies enact bad policy or behave in ways that—to Harold’s point—is clearly not in the public interest, then there are only three possibilities: first, that the senior PR professional was not consulted; second, that he/she was consulted, and gave good advice that was not accepted; or third, that he/she was consulted, and gave bad advice to contributed to the bad policy. In this third scenario, the company needs a new PR person; in the first two, the PR person needs to find a new company. Of course, it requires a good deal of courage to offer advice that prevents your employer pursuing a course of action that the rest of the senior management team favors. And it takes a good deal of courage to put yourself in a position where you are responsible for the decision itself, and not just for spinning it. Perhaps the lack of that courage is the reason we end up with definitions like the one the PRSA is now stuck with.
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