21st Century PR

The Role Of Public Relations Practitioners Is Not Manipulating Communication, It Is Facilitating Communication.

By Thomas J. Roach

One of my students once said that when his father found out he was studying PR, the father asked, “What are they doing, teaching you how to lie?”

I wasn’t surprised. Abuses of power by big businesses and government in the early 1900s tainted the profession of public relations. Muckraking journalists exposed unfair business practices, mainly in the treatment of workers. 

In response, the business community began luring journalists away from newspapers with higher salaries and having them write favorable stories about their new employers. 

One of the early public relations practitioners, Edward L. Bernays, published a book called The Engineering of Consent. The word “engineering” reveals exactly what these practitioners were attempting to do, and it also represents what the public most resented about the profession.

In most cases, the reporters were revealing the truth, and the PR practitioners were obfuscating it. However, as the profession evolved, it took on responsibilities beyond just defending exploitive corporations, and practitioners became experts in handling all the communication needs of business.

Facilitating Communication
Eventually, the role of PR practitioners shifted from manipulating communication to facilitating communication. Today the first task of a practitioner is identifying the organization’s publics – not just employees, legislators and customers but community groups, business partners and neighbors. 

The second is discovering the best channels of communication for reaching each of these publics. The third, then, is facilitating an ongoing dialogue between the company and its publics. 

Facilitating communication is different from engineering or manipulating communication in the same way rhetoric is different from persuasion. In the rhetorical tradition of Aristotle and Cicero, one makes arguments to discover the truth; persuasion is focused merely on winning the argument. 

Early PR practitioners believed what was good for business was good for the public. Their philosophy justified entrenched self-interest and the coercion of the public to adjust to the company’s needs – a persuasive as opposed to a rhetorical stance. 

Wise facilitators accept that sometimes the public can be right and the organization wrong. They also realize the economic benefits of adjusting corporate policy to the needs of the public. 

Facilitation brought about a de-emphasis of one-way communication, like press releases, and a greater investment in two-way communication, like customer surveys, shareholder meetings, advisory boards and interaction on social media.

Adaptive Stance
The change from a persuasive to an adaptive stance is most apparent in political campaigns. In the 19th century, politicians give speeches intended to persuade voters to agree with their own positions. Today candidates conduct focus groups and surveys to discover the public’s opinion. They then campaign on issues and take positions that match the will of the voters. When they give speeches, they don’t persuade their audiences, they speak for them, articulating the public will.

Some quarry organizations are holdouts from the old persuasive era. They have little communication with their publics until there is a problem, and then they argue with them. This is usually a futile approach, since the people they are arguing with are the judges and juries and legislators who will decide the outcome of the dispute.

Because mining and quarrying businesses can operate without interaction with their community publics, they can become isolated. Yet, because they have a potentially negative impact on the environment, they are likely at some point to be involved in public disputes. And when they are not used to interfacing with their publics, they are inclined to make the mistake of fighting with them. 

We need to transition into the era of communication facilitation and develop ongoing interaction with community publics. Then, when conflict situations arise, we can work out mutually beneficial compromises and not be tempted to act like the early PR practitioners who gave public relations its bad name. 

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 Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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