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  • Writer's pictureKahmile Reid

Beyond Nitwit Territory: The Role of Public Relations Counsels

Practicing international public relations will expose you to many views on the role of a Public Relations Counsel (PRC) and whether or not being a PRC is a profession. The characteristics of public relations are appropriately described in this comment by its father, Edward Bernays in 1923:

No single profession…within the last 10 years has extended its field of usefulness more remarkably and touched upon intimate and important aspects of everyday life of the world more significantly than the profession of public relations counsel (Bernays 1923, 81).

More than six decades later, he had a grim view; in 1992 he told journalists that

“Public Relations today is horrible. Any dope, nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner” (The New York Times 1995).

Before we go any further, the context in which Bernays spoke must be acknowledged. You may or may not know, but he was a staunch advocate for the ‘licensing’ of public relations counsels and even though he lived until the age of 103, he did not live to see this come to past. I agree with Bernays in this regard, but I would take it a step further, I would also suggest the profession of journalism be one which requires a licence.

Our society operates on an understanding that there is division of intellectual labour, but there is no division in relation to the field of communication (journalism, PR and marketing). Businesses (the HR Dept. in particular) tend to believe that if you fall into any of these categories, you can perform any one of those functions. This is not the case. But that’s for another write up. Back to PR.

Because the features of what constitutes a profession are fluid, a single definition would not do it justice. Scholars have instead given lists of qualities or criteria that can be useful. What they have agreed on is that periods of change create areas of contention about time, across cultures and across disciplines (Broadbent, Dietrich and Roberts 1997). In Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World David Cooper offered four qualities of a profession:

1) it should have exclusive esoteric knowledge that is theoretical and technical;

2) it should show a commitment to social values;

3) have national organisations to set standards, control membership and liaise with the wider society, and

4) strong moral commitment to support professional values.

Sriramesh & Hornam in Public Relations as a Profession: an Analysis or Curricular Content in the United States further offered several qualities directly related to public relations, these include:

1) maintaining a professional code of ethics, values and norms;

2) showing committment to serving the public interest by being socially responsible;

3) having an esoteric body of knowledge along with standardized education, technical and research skills;

4) providing a unique service to businesses and the community;

5) having membership with a professional organisation and having some level of autonomy in an organisation to make communication-related decisions.

Scholars have warned against the over-simplification of what a profession should be and are encouraged to instead recognize diversity based on the conditions in which they operate. Some are specific, for example doctors, accountants and dentists have specific jobs to do. Others tend be less specific, rather they are based on informal norms and rules. The norms are embedded in wider social practices, and hence reflect the ways in which we differ. Public Relation’s situational nature fits into that category.

Nevertheless, PR Pioneer, Ivy Lee, conceptualised his role as a public relation counsel, as that of an advisor. For him the client should be his own publicity agent, taking responsibility for the act or event while the public relations counsel advises on how to go about it (Hallahan). This conceptualisation appears to place trust and people at the centre of the relationship.

Public relations is the fluid situational science of communication. At the heart of this discipline, is change in relation to people and their environment. In light of the ongoing discussions about public relations being a profession or not, we ought to be aware of the dynamism of the current era which suggests that there is no single set of professional practices, especially when one considers two things. Firstly, the landscape has changed, what is accepted as professional progression and traditional career path now, was not the case years ago. Secondly, the rise of the digital age has changed the communication landscape, it is now about dialogue with scores of tools for the public to communicate with institutions and organizations and vice versa.

I can’t say this enough: the value proposition of public relations counsels changed the moment businesses had to contend with public opinion, made possible by mass communication. Their expertise became a need-to-have rather than a nice-to-have!

In the 20th century, the media created public opinion on national and international scales with public relations counsels using the press release, the press conference and press-worthy events as their tools. In the 21st century and the rise of digital communication, traditional media became one of many spaces in which public relations counsels had to operate. With the advent of social media, the practice is split into traditional public relations, advocacy and social media; however, these moving parts dear not operate in isolation. They must operate strategically over the long term with one goal in mind, trust.

Interestingly, at the foundation of one of the most comprehensive and brief definitions of public relations is trust. Consider the definition offered by Stephen Waddington: “public relations is a management discipline that relates to planned and sustained engagement designed to influence behaviour change, and build mutual understanding and trust”.

The limits of knowledge require an abundance of trust, therefore, rather than engineering consent, public relations is really about engineering trust. Chief among the factors that encourages trust in professionals, agencies, and organisations, is: expertise. The limits of such competence must also be recognised as having two sides, one of which is - knowing, and the other - knowing the limits of one’s knowledge (Sjoberg).

Bernays dissatisfaction was with persons who were practicing PR who added no value to the profession, and by extension, the client. They practice ‘punk PR’. For Andy Green, this is an he described as ‘a public relations exercise’ designed to address situations of communication with no substance within it, can more accurately be described as a ‘pseudo-relations’ exercise.

We are all equals in the eyes of social media, its one man, one tweet. There is arguably a democratization knowledge and public opinion. This extend, not only to public relations, but almost all professions. The website , WebMD is populated with medical information available at the click of a mouse, it is accessed by millions on a daily basis, replacing the need to get simple medical advice, years ago, people would visit a doctor. The trouble with this is, self-diagnosis can be inaccurate.

In the context of public relations, merely Googling how to craft a communication or a public relations plan is one thing, but strategic application is beyond nitwit territory. When Bernays helped Lucky Strike to increase sales of cigarettes by making it acceptable for women to smoke in public, this was not on a whim, it was the result of his specialised knowledge of public relations, social science and strategy.

In conclusion, PRC is one of those professions that will not only stand the test of time, but will thrive over time. While the laws of gravity do not change for physicists and the function of the heart in the human body remains the same, reputation management requires more than a textbook approach. The professions that tend to fade away with time and technology are those anchored in logic for the most part, what we are left with are the professions that require intellect, judgement, people skills, emotional intelligence and experience, like public relations.

I could go on forever about this issue, but I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading!


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