Given the recent, horrific attacks in Atlanta, Sweden and Bowling Green I’m drawn back to a piece we were asked to write for semester one; we were essentially asked if Public Relations needed a little Public Relations of its own. We were asked to consider truth in media and the role of PR agencies in relation to an organisational definition from IPR.
If this is a little tl;dr let me sum it up by saying that public relations as a practice under considerable strain, mass media, corporations and politicians are challenged by questioned by grassroots campaigns and popular and frequently unpopular messages can be distributed by what can only be described as questionable sources.
So it all started here with the IPR definition of Public Relations.
Public relations is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation (or individual) and its (or their) publics.
The Oxford English Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ its Word Of The Year for 2016.
Toward the end of the EU referendum campaign Michael Gove made a remarkable statement; “people in this country have had enough of experts.” (03/06/15). When we consider the supposed £350,000,000 saving for the NHS and floods of immigrants rushing the borders its hardly surprising that people struggle to find truth amid misinformation.
There is a belief that Trump won the US election based entirely on ‘stories’ generated in far-right publications. When Trump stated to his supporters that “whites killed by blacks – 81%” no one noticed Politifact awarded this their ‘Lie of the Year’ by showing the actual percentage was 16%. This was one of many statements that were unchecked by news organisations and broadcast around the world.
A 2015 Forbes article on Trumps campaign is sobering when considered from the point of view of truth;
“Trump has energized the masses by striking the proper public relations note for an electorate distressed by an uncertain economy and shifting cultural mores”
Striking the proper public relations note… That Trump and the Leave campaign engaged PR professionals puts a strain on any view of the profession. While both cases should give PR practitioners cause for alarm, it would be foolhardy to discount changes in how the public engage with the media; something that is unlikely to change soon.
The current view of public relations and media from those who wished to remain or those who voted for a candidate other than Trump, is something that should be examined at length. Consider PR Week, on the day of the US election they published the thoughts of PR professionals, the majority believed Clinton would win.
Lee Carter, President at Maslansky + Partners wrote:
“We have never had two candidates who were liked or trusted less. So how could the result be anything but divisive? There’s no shortage of lessons from both about communication.”
Carter explores how both candidates engaged with their audiences and stayed on message throughout. He suggested professional communicators were best placed with a greater ability than ever to know what their public wants and how to speak to that.
Was he ever wrong.
In a blog piece, Stephen Waddington, Partner and Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum, explores the comparison between Trump and the Brexit Campaign, namely ‘visionary soundbites’. To ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control’. Both, it could be argued, are bathed in nationalistic rhetoric, a sense of ‘them and us’ and perhaps little else.
While soundbites invite debate on political leanings it should be noted that very few professionals in the PR Week article, or elsewhere for that matter, got the result right. No one grasped the mood of the wider population. Creating and maintaining goodwill and understanding is key to the work of PR practitioners; but, we must examine how so many professionals miscalculated such significant events to such an extent. If we think of maintaining goodwill with our audience we assume that involves an informative two-way process of communication between client and public. Was anyone listening?
If we accept that lies, half-truths and fiction have the power to permeate across media outlets unchallenged, that politicians can lie without condemnation, the search for truth and meaning for publics we communicate with can become challenging. It could be said that publics, the wider world and anyone who to opens a newspaper, might view the messages they receive now in a very different light than they may have at the start of 2015. The reality is that both Trump and the Leave campaigns had a better view of their publics and could create messages that worked. In a world of instant feedback there were questionable messages discussed openly and without interference across news media.
There is a deeper issue here. The question as to whether this is a new phenomenon must be reviewed. In Dark Art, Ex Journalist and managing partner at PR Stockwell Communications, Tim Burt, explores the history between PR agencies and news outlets. In a sector where controlled leaks and media favours were commonplace we must look at PR in a way that explores these relationships and how those are viewed by the public.
From a personal perspective, I was involved in an organisation and regularly sent out press releases on their behalf; these were frequently published without comment. On one occasion I deliberately left errors in one, it was published as it was sent. While I understood the difficulties of ‘old’ media this was still alarming. For the practice of public relations to maintain a significant place in a changing world there needs to be a review of the public’s viewpoint, our understanding of it, alongside the public’s view of the media, organisational engagement with publics and honesty in delivery.
To Quote Burt:
“Given the pressures on newsgathering, promises from PR agencies of both access and information have become increasingly important for news outlets”
It could be viewed that the access and information element of the relationship between politicians and the media could be responsible for the coverage both camps received. Trumps relationship with the media was frequently hostile, outlets challenging his standpoint were silenced, publicly attacked and removed from events, the majority were side-lined, corralled in pens as far away from the speakers as possible.
Those who supported Trump were treated with kid gloves.
When Trump was fact checked much of this was ignored by his PR team, campaign managers and, crucially, his supporters. From 15 September until 8 November, Daniel Dale from the Toronto Star recorded and published 560 false Trump statements, an average of around 20 a day.
“Towards the end, it was crazy,” Dale says. “The only thing that made it easier was that Trump repeated himself: we called him out for lying but he was so unresponsive he just kept saying the same things.”
While many PR professionals and newspapers in the US backed Clinton, no one saw the view from the ground. It is a little remarkable that communication professionals failed to recognise the feelings among their key audiences in one of the most controversial and divisive elections in a generation.
Peace and Goodwill to all men
From a corporate point of view PR remains a ‘planned and sustained effort’ but again, the view of publics and how we engage them is under strain. The recent campaign by Stop Funding Hate has highlighted concerns about how brands engage with the media. Stop Funding Hate began life as an online community horrified by the language used to describe immigration in the UK press. To date the campaign has handed over a 40,000-signatory petition to Virgin Media to ask it to withdraw its advertising from The Sun; forced Lego to end its partnership with the Daily Mail and launched a brandjamming video of the John Lewis Christmas advert.
That video has been viewed 7 million times, with thousands of shares and comments across social media accounts. Stop Funding Hate have 70,000 Twitter followers and 240,000 likes on Facebook, their message appears to be working. The responses from corporate PR departments has been fascinating to watch. Of these, the debate around John Lewis has been the most interesting. The video which Stop Funding Hate released used several of John Lewis’ previous Christmas adverts to highlight the difference between their message of goodwill to all men and the headlines of papers where they buy space. John Lewis are represented by PR First in London, their data shows that year on year coverage has surpassed targets and that the work they produce is considered a benchmark for the industry. However, the response to the Stop Funding Hate Campaign has left staff and customers more than a little unhappy. Two pages of letters from staff were published in their staff magazine The Gazette.
The initial response to the campaign was that John Lewis did not make editorial comments on the brands they advertise with. In one letter to The Gazzette a staff member put it quite succinctly:
“the fact remains that many of my friends and family will not be spending any money with the Partnership this Christmas because they DO make editorial judgements”
In an interesting turn of events, the band who supplied the music for the advertisement published a statement stating that the Stop Funding Hate campaign had an impact on their thinking and that any income generated would be given to the Help Refugees charity.
The campaign has led to a wider discussion around free speech, in an article in the Spectator Brendan O’Neill makes very valid arguments:
“When you plead with Virgin and Lego and huge stores to deprive the rabble-rousing press of funds because they are pro-Brexit, anti-judge and not in favour of mass migration, then you are engaged in naked political censorship”
To return to Burts view on this relationship it is important to note that the three main targets of the Stop Funding Hate campaign (The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail) have all been reprimanded by the UNCHR for their coverage of the Mediterranean refugee crisis.
All language is political.
In ‘Politics and the English language’ Orwell argues that all language is political. If we consider that the actions of corporates and PR agencies can be seen in a political light and that there can be a fallout to much of what we do and say, the definition of PR from IPR comes into stark contrast. Tying that to the fact that PR professionals and agencies have recently been caught up in some testing examples of their work there is much to consider.
As a practice public relations is about engaging in communication with your publics, being in control of the message and responding to crises and criticism of your idea or brand. It is as the IPR defines “the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and understanding” with those you wish to communicate with. But how does it manage in a post truth world where experts are side-lined and the press questioned at every turn?
I would argue that if we agree the media is the dominant paradigm in the world of PR and that most clients see media coverage as the holy grail, we need to be cautious in how that relationship develops. If our publics are wary about where they get their news from that should give us pause for thought. A Gallup Poll in the US stated that trust of the media was at its lowest since 1997. Lower still for those in lower socio economic brackets. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows similar figures for the UK. To quote one statistic from Edelman is to question much of the IPR definition;
“…with trust among Informed Publics plunging to 22% at the height of the phone hacking scandal in 2011…”
All of this led me to believe that the IPR definition is wildly outdated. I would suggest any renewal should be about distancing PR professionals from the unsavoury actions of those who seem content to use alternative media outlets (and facts) as a divisive tool. If public relations is to be seen as a trustworthy outlet for organisations and individuals, it should be considering ways to distance itself from half-truths that have been published in the last 18 months or more.
I believe the most important element of any review is ensuring that the conversations we create are honest and that we consider our publics as equals, consider them in the room when we plan communication. As communication channels become cloudy, the way our publics engage with the media and as trust in outlets decline, we need to re-evaluate the relationship and message.
To quote Theunissen in “Revisiting the concept “dialogue” in public relations” from 2011,
“There is inherent risk in the practice of public relations that when we apply a systematic planning process we objectify the stakeholder (and organization): on the one hand we use our knowledge of human behavior to build relationships and on the other hand we use it to deliberately persuade and gain publicity.”
(Bold is my emphasis)
For me, the idea of deliberately persuading and gaining publicity is challenged by everything that has come in the paragraphs above. Objectifying the stakeholder as a thing rather than an open, willing participant could be a grave error.
As we’ve seen before.