I’ve done this, that and a bit of the other working in different jobs in what some people (including me usually but not always) call public relations. My branches of PR have been political campaigning, public affairs and corporate communications.
I’ve done stuff which harvests votes for political candidates, persuaded people to change (or not) laws, regulations or policy, and helped business leaders to keep out of, or get out of trouble caused by a negative reputation issue becoming a crisis (ie: somebody found out about it).
My responsibility has always been a contract of employment. I’m paid money and I look after the interests of the person or organisation who paid me. These people hire a “PR person” because they need help.
They don’t usually hire somebody like me unless that help is needed because they have either done something wrong and have been caught out, or that they are innocent of negative accusations but know that mud sticks.
My job is to clean up the mud or make sure it is thrown at somebody who hasn’t paid me.
I’ve commented on this in different contexts in other blog posts here, but I’m fascinated by the continued Twitter twatter and other social media commentary on the subject, not least the assertion made that many PR people think they have a “duty to the public.”
I do not understand why anybody would hire someone to look after their interests and be happy that the employee or consultant is acting against their interests in the case of those interests not being shared by “the public.”
That is on the assumption that anybody knows what those interests are better than somebody else.
It has always been a maxim of PR practice during my career that “The public” is never a stakeholder audience, unless it also coincides with a public sector audience for a service provider. The simple reason for this is that there has never been and can never be a single and absolute public interest.
The public is always sub-divided into other stakeholder groups whose interests can reasonably be defined. For example these could be any mix of employees, investors, customers, consumers, partners, government, political parties, special interest groups, NGOs, and more.
Different audiences will matter more or less to different employers and clients of PR people at different times and in different circumstances. The first job for a PR person working in issues/crisis/lobbying activity is nearly always to analyse that stakeholder map.
Most stakeholders matter, but some matter a lot more than others. Some don’t matter at all.
Most ethical positions taken by “the public” for example are born of political prejudice/opinion/preference. There is no shared view of practically anything beyond the law, and sometimes not even then.
I am a member of the public. But my opinions as a member of the public are irrelevant to anyone working in PR because my opinions on practically anything will be different from some other members of the public.
As a libertarian I am opposed to the state doing most things it does in the UK. If my interest as a member of the public were to be the reference for a PR person who believes in public duty then their responsibility would be to work towards the dissolution of statism.
I am in favour of Brexit so my definition of the public interest is for the UK to leave the EU. Should a PR person campaigning on related issues to support me as this is the public interest and their public duty?
If I am working for a busines to help them to get rid of a regulation which restricts their license to operate, but in removing the regulation it damages another competitor business which benefitted from the protection of the regulation, how could I define my public duty? Is it to the competitor as much as to my employer as they are both corporate members of society and therefore that could be a public duty? But which is the duty, to support deregulation or to oppose it?
In a crisis situation I might become aware of information which could damage my employer or client’s interests, but could be seen to be important to reveal to a section of “the public” who oppose the business I work for. Is it my duty to give that information to one sectional interest to the detriment of another?
In a campaigning situation, say you were a PR person hired by a person or organisation with a “Remain” supporting political, special of commercial interest.
How would you determine your duty to the public if you believed PR people have such a thing?
Would you act against your Remain employer because you note that the majority vote in the referendum and the two main UK political parties with MPs representing them support Brexit, or would you act in the interests of Remain ignoring the majority of voters?
In an employment situation it might be that one PR person would think that positive discrimination is a good thing but another would think the opposite. Personally I regard any form of positive discrimination as unethical, but if I was working for somebody who advocated it, I could not challenge it.
The root of the conundrum for those who believe in a public duty for anyone not working for the public sector is two-fold. First, how to define the universal public interest. And secondly to resolve the personal and professional disloyalty and likely breach of contract involved in acting against the interests of your employer or client.
And perhaps a third consideration to throw in – why would anybody employ you if they thought you owed a duty to anybody except them?
It maybe that what is in a sectional interest is also “a” public interest, but I dispute that there can ever be such a thing as “the” public interest because that presupposes that we all agree on what that interest would be. Generally speaking one person’s gain is another’s loss. For every winner there is a loser.
If a commercial interest is also in a public interest that is a means towards the commercial objective not the end.
Please try to change my mind – join in the debate.