Is public relations in the public interest?

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By Francis Moran

My valued colleague, and an associate here at Francis Moran and Associates, Caroline Kealey, drew my attention yesterday morning to a Twitter disagreement she is having with McMaster University’s Dr. Terry Flynn, an assistant professor and interim director of the Master of Communications degree program in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia. Flynn and a colleague have developed what they say is the first Canadian definition of Public relations. According to them:

Strategic public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.

Caroline doesn’t quibble with much of this but does question the last bit that says public relations is supposed to serve the public interest.

“I can’t believe it makes any sense to state that PR is by definition in the public interest,” she wrote in an email to me yesterday morning. (It was Caroline herself who suggested I had the makings of a blog post here so I am quoting her with permission.) For example, she said, how can PR efforts on behalf of the tobacco lobby or a gun manufacturer be in the public interest?

“My view is that certainly, the mandate of public relations should be in the public interest,” Caroline wrote. “My quibble is with the notion of public interest being intrinsic to the core definition of the function.” In fact, Caroline was of the view that “the effort to inject ‘public interest’ in the definition of PR itself smells of doing PR on the PR function which I think does more to muddy than to clarify the nature of the discipline, which is already subject to significant confusion.”

I’ve worked with Caroline on a number of projects and a big part of our interest in working together is that we agree on many things when it comes to the practice of communications and public relations. But I think I part ways with her on this.

My view has always been that public relations practitioners are advocates in the court of public opinion. And so, even when our clients are undesirable, they still deserve vigorous representation. Insofar as the advocate is not conflated as the client — which, I concede, is not usually the case — and insofar as the advocate herself or himself operates ethically — which, again, does not always happen — then the representation even of the tobacco industry serves the public interest.

By way of comparison, consider a local lawyer I know, a paragon of the Ottawa defence bar. He clearly relishes the rare experience when he has an innocent client to defend, and often goes to considerable and creative lengths to satisfy himself that his client is, indeed, innocent and truthful. The diligence of his efforts, however, are diminished not one whit when he believes his client to be guilty, and the guilty client gets the same rigorous defence as the innocent one. My lawyer friend could never be accused of acting in anything but the public interest so long as his personal behaviour is ethical and above reproach.

I believe the same ought to apply to PR practitioners. I believe that if we were seen as offering the same public interest service as lawyers do, even when our clients are “guilty,” so to speak, our profession would be held in higher esteem. To that degree, I don’t mind if the “public interest” bit of Dr. Flynn’s definition is “PR for the PR function.” Quite frankly, the PR function can use all the PR it can get. As can the legal profession.

What do you think?

Photo: JH5

/// COMMENTS

7 Comments »
  • Jean Valin

    September 30, 2011 12:17 pm

    Hi Francis and Caroline. Terry alerted me to this debate. As one of three co-authors to this defintion- it is not “Dr, Flynn’s defintion’ by any stretch of the imagination I feel I need to chime in.

    I felt strongly about including such a statement even if I fully recognize it is a matter of debate and controversy. Webster’s New World Dictionary, defines Public interest as: “the people’s general welfare and well being; something in which the populace as a whole has a stake.

    To work in the public interest or towards it means that you are ‘ex ante’ or from the outset, striving to work in the best interest of a majority of the public. Many choose to see this interpretation only as ‘ex post’ meaning after the consequence of an action is clear or becomes a fact, it is then interpreted as in the public interest or not.

    I believe practitioners should and must aspire to work in the public interest. Granted, It is debatable that working on tobacco campaigns for example is in the public interest, but as long as the product is legal it deserves a voice in the public domain. Moreover, those legal or public policy yard sticks can and should move over time when society and law makers adjust policies which can conceivably mean that one day tobacco could be illegal for sale and therefore be NOT in the public interest. Individuals who have difficulty working on such campaigns- and I would be one of them- can always choose NOT to work on such campaigns if their own ethical framework is compromised.

    I believe the vast majority of the work of our profession should at the very least aspire to if not choose to work in the public interest. It reinforces the notion that we should work in an ethical fashion while respecting and fostering open discussion of issues. Historically, the approach can be traced to John Stuart Mill, who in his letter to George Grote, explained: “human happiness, even one’s own, is in general more successfully pursued by acting on general rules, than by measuring the consequences of each act; and this is still more the case with the general happiness, since any other plan would not only leave everybody uncertain what to expect, but would involve perpetual quarrelling….”.

    I am in the camp of those who thinks that ‘working in the public interest’ should be part of our professional endeavour. To leave it out opens the door to unethical practice which I would argue is not and should not be viewed as public relations nut as propaganda. That is why I felt strongly it had to be part of the CPRS defintion.

    Jean

  • Caroline Kealey

    September 30, 2011 12:29 pm

    Well done, Francis.

    I really found Dr. Flynn’s proposed definition very thought provoking and appreciated the opportunity to bounce it around with you to test the premise with a seasoned practitioner for whom I have a great deal of respect.

    I think that fundamentally, what doesn’t sit well with me with the proposed definition is that it is part of a general ethos among the PR (and communications industry more broadly) that somehow we have to constantly defend the “goodness” and value of what we’re doing which can, at times, get us into trouble.

    PR is a professional function, like, say, lawyers as you cite, or accountants, architects or IT developers. Why do we tend to have this sense that we have to justify or defend our existence so consistently? Does one have to work in the public interest to work in those fields?

    I’m all for public interest – don’t get me wrong. But I remain of the conviction that just because we should work for the public interest doesn’t mean that it is de facto part of the intrinsic definition of the profession. If a PR practitioner is not working in the public interest, does it mean she’s not doing PR? Dr. Flynn has suggested she is then doing marketing which I can’t quite wrap my head around if the tactical work is in the discipline of PR, even if the efforts are misguided.

    I respect the value of sound definitions and applaud the work of the team that’s working on one. I’d merely suggest that public interest be part of the description of the practice of PR rather than trying to jam it into the core definition of the work, where I humbly suggest it does not fit.

  • Francis Moran

    September 30, 2011 12:54 pm

    I’m so glad, Jean, that someone who worked on this definition with Terry Flynn has chimed in; as I tweeted to Dr. Flynn this morning, I wish I’d had the time to interview one or you before posting this. Your comments add welcome context and detail to the debate.

  • Terry Flynn

    September 30, 2011 1:13 pm

    Dear Francis,
    Thank you for continuing the conversation that Caroline and I had on Twitter yesterday, although I wouldn’t describe it as a disagreement, rather an important and healthy dialogue on the role and nature of public relations in a democracy. As my colleague Jean Valin has so articulately stated already on this site, the definition that we developed with Fran Gregory, was part of a research endeavour (see our research efforts http://definingpublicrelations.wikispaces.com) to understand the key concepts of public relations definitions as a means of attempting to create a global definition. What struck us during our research was the vast numbers of definitions (more than 465 already published) and the lack of discussion or deliberation on how public relations helps to foster a vibrant society.

    The concept of public relations in the public interest was also the subject of much discussion when Judy Gombita published our research on the PR Conversations website in June 2009 (http://bit.ly/cy6oy5).

    I agree with Jean that the addition of “in the public interest” is both aspirational and necessary in order to differentiate marketing and other organizational centric actions from actions that ensure that the organization has a legitimate voice in the public arena. It is after all, the public that gives organizations the license to operate and if that organization abuses that right, the public has the ability to withdraw their support. Again to support Jean’s argument that while I too wouldn’t work for a Tobacco company, the public has given them the legal right to manufacturer and sell their products in Canada. Until that right is withdrawn, they have the ability to communicate to the public.

    In 2009 our definition was forwarded to the Canadian Public Relations Society for adoption (this is the only made-in-Canada definition of public relations) and the Board of the CPRS unanimously approved it and accepted it as their definition as well.

    I look forward to hearing more comments on this important topic.

  • Caroline Kealey

    September 30, 2011 3:54 pm

    Bonjour Jean!

    Great to connect with you on the blog.

    So, I think we are all on the same page — PR should be in the public interest. My sense is that Dr. Flynn’s notion that the definition is “aspirational” is helpful.

    To me, a definition (by definition!) refers to “what is”, not “what should be”. I see that the team behind this work had a different angle, which is fair enough!

    I echo Dr. Flynn’s interest in hearing other views!

  • Jean Valin

    September 30, 2011 4:11 pm

    Bonjour Caroline,

    Our profession is much mailgned, more than other professions. That is why I felt strongly it needed to be part of who we are so that we can call out bad practice as NOT being proper public relations when it does happen. Someone not working in the public interest is involved in at least propaganda or something else which I don’t want to be associated with in the practice of public relations.
    We are nopt alone in that belief since our research, (see link that Terry posted above) we found many definitions have already adopted such languge for reasons that are similar to those I outlined. That is why as a team of co-authors we felt it had to be there and our colleagues at CPRS agreed.
    Another aspect of our profession is also aspirational and that is that two-way symetrical communication is the best way to communicate and gain respect and trust. Does everyone practie it that way today? Not by a long stretch but that doesn’t stop the practice from encouraging practitioners to do so.
    Defining who we are and what we do is pregnant with intent. I hope it is for the greater good as it should be.

  • Dan Rather’s Words of Wisdom for the PR profession | Return On Reputation

    January 21, 2016 12:54 pm

    [...] that you are serving a higher purpose than just serving your clients – you are serving public interest and our nation’s [...]

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