The role of the ‘Public’ in Public Relations

I’ve always been amazed at how much public opinion is synonymous with the stance of the nation’s media – perhaps that’s what drew me to working in PR. I challenged my friends recently to explain what I did and they couldn’t answer. For the fear of the unknown they went with stereotypes – “don’t you feel as though you are working for the devil?” and my personal favourite “so are you like the bloke from Thank You For Smoking?” These questions are usually accompanied by labelling PR as being “slick press agents”, a “hidden persuader” or the all famous “spin doctor.”  Just like H+K’s founder John Hill, I’ve stopped being surprised by these generalisations and do my best to manage the rep. But I still question whether PR as a practice has an image issue.

The simple answer is yes.  John W. Hill’s book ‘The Making of a Public Relations Man’ gives some good insight into why the stigma exists. He says that like any profession or organisation, there are inevitably going to be those that give PR a poor reputation; “just as there are too many pettifoggers in law and quacks in medicine” there are also PR practitioners who will always set out to purposely mislead the public.

Fundamentally, PR should set out to do almost exactly the opposite which is to help the public reach conclusions by providing it with facts and interpretation of facts. Whilst public opinion can sometimes be confused, obscure and unpredictable, it is also the ultimate ruling force in the free world.

I know you are thinking two things: the public is not “confused” or “unpredictable” and that “interpretation of facts” is not facts. But to say this, is more a compliment if anything, as unpredictability has helped shape the society we live in today – The unpredictable New Zealand public with the help of the Gay Rights Advocacy Group, recently helped pass legislation which allowed homosexual marriages be legally recognised. To the point on “interpretation of facts” – if there were simply just ‘facts’, then such a discussion about marriage equality would not have existed, because the definition of marriage would have been accepted as ‘fact’.

I’m conscious that these criticisms exist because there are those who deliberately mislead and lie to the public and as a result of those individuals, we all get tarnished with the same brush. This is unfortunate given that the news cycle that none of us could imagine being without, revolves around communications professionals working tirelessly to tell great stories and share astounding news. PR relies heavily on trusting the public to digest the news and make informed decisions based on the presentation of facts.

I’d like to think the same is true of the way that PR as a profession is viewed, rather than – as some of my friends have – concentrate on stereotypes without an informed and unbiased opinion.

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