Public Relations: Perception Predicament


There is no end to the irony of the situation: Public Relations has an image problem.

Negative portrayals in the media (i.e. Entourage, Spin city– no offense to Michael J. Fox, yes offense to Charlie Sheen) and misrepresentation contribute strongly to this problem. Public Relations is primarily associated with public scandals and corporate emergencies, leading to a warped perception of the field in general. According to W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry J. Holladay in their book “Does Society Need Public Relations?”, the 6 major themes of PR criticism are:

  1. The public is ignorant of public relations because they are ignorant of what is really going on in the world
  2. PR can never escape its “wicked roots”– think propaganda and WWII
  3. PR is to blame for the power of large companies and more sinister organizations. This comes from a rise in distrust of big corporations– i.e. tobacco companies, Enron
  4. PR is undemocratic because only rich companies can hire PR– blatantly false! Much PR is done pro bono or for non-profit organizations
  5. Society must teach people how to resist the power of PR– while I won’t argue with the benefits of teaching a basic understanding of the media, there is truly nothing to combat about PR. It promotes open discussion; it does not brainwash publics into a singular belief.
  6. PR is only publicity

I would add to these themes that many people are frightened of PR. Often used in comparison to Advertising, the simple fact that while people can actively recognize an advertisement, they cannot always recognize an act of Public Relations. This fosters an idea that PR has some nefarious master-plan to plant subliminal messages in the minds of the masses.

But perhaps more than a fear, the public simply does not understand what Public Relations is. As mentioned in the themes, most individuals assume that PR is all publicity. The press-agentry model is most often discussed in the media, conjuring up images of P.T. Barnum and his sensationalized circus. But PR is so much more than publicity and press coverage. Most people fail to understand the scope of PR.

Since my very first classes in the subjects, my professors have insisted on one particular definition of the word. Public relations is a “management function that establishes mutually beneficial relationships.” To expand upon this, PR is about promoting positive interests and feelings. It involves managing and counseling. Rather than telling the public what to think, PR encourages the free flow of information. There are no devious or underhanded attempts to exploit the naivety of a group. PR specialists believe that the public should be critical thinkers, not mindless drones. I’ve always been taught to encourage the “human component” of PR– we want to push people to think, not implant our own thoughts and opinions.

For a number reasons–the economy, interest in social networking and media– Public Relations is gaining popularity. Even in comparison to advertising, many companies and individuals have embraced the effectiveness and cost efficiency of PR. Because of this increased usage, I feel it is even more important than ever for individuals to understand what PR truly is about. I hope this article clears things up a bit, or at least makes you pause in reflection.

So what do you think? Will PR always get a bad rap?

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