Public Private Relations

If You Don’t Want To See Something You Said Appear In The Newspaper, Then Just Don’t Say It.

I used to tell my public relations students that if they were being interviewed by a reporter, and they didn’t want something to get into the newspaper, they just shouldn’t say it. My concern was what was known as “talking off the record.”

One might say to a reporter, “This is off the record,” but there is no guarantee that the reporter, the newspaper editor or a judge will not decide at a later date to put it on the record. So, my advice was that if you don’t want to see something you said appear in the newspaper, then just don’t say it. That is the only way to be sure.

Now I give my students the same advice, only it doesn’t apply only to reporters. It applies to everyone you meet. Social media and a broadening range of acceptable subject matter for traditional print and electronic media have made everything we say and do subject to potential mass distribution.

Consider the Impact

Consider the impact of the internet and phone videos made during the Arab Spring, or the protests and debate caused by YouTube videos of police officers shooting suspects. These aren’t anomalies, they are part of an expanding universe of public information.

No need to get paranoid if you have a job that doesn’t put you in the public eye, but if you are high enough on your organization chart that you are publically associated with your company, then you may find yourself being scrutinized by people in and around your organization the way politicians are scrutinized by news media and the voting public.

This probably should be a concern for anyone with even a managerial position. Someone in a meeting might have a phone on record, and even if there is no recording, people can put out a YouTube or a meme quoting and criticizing something they claim they heard or saw.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas coined the phrase “public sphere” in 1962. He said that most of our lives are spent in a private sphere of family, neighbors and coworkers. When we enter public space and make public utterances, then we are operating in the public sphere.

The public sphere could be an auditorium hosting a speech, a television news show, or a call-in radio program. When Habermas identified these two spaces, they were separate entities. One knew when one was stepping from the private sphere into the public sphere.

Public and Private

The notion of private and public space allowed us to be different people in private than when we were in public. Private conversations might be earthy, slangy confessions sprinkled with four-letter words; public pronouncements would be limited to socially approved topics and using proper English. This is no longer the case.

The recently publicized video and audio recording of a presidential candidate making a lewd comment while wearing a microphone is emblematic of the new ultra-mediated environment. The candidate was on a bus at the time; yes, he was wearing a microphone, but he was off camera when he made the comment that he described later as “locker room conversation.”

The bus was a private space, but 11 years later the video of the outside of the bus and the audio with the comment were being distributed via the internet to millions of viewers. The private conversation became one of the most talked about issues in the 2016 presidential race.

The mobile recording devices we all carry in our pockets and the internet have vaporized the wall separating the private sphere from the public sphere. People in the public eye, or people expecting to one day be in the public eye, need to carry themselves at all times as if they were in public.

When Socrates said, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear,” he was offering a rhetorical strategy. Today it is a requirement for survival.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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