Does the public relations profession hinder or enhance our democratic institutions?
This question, proposed a few weeks ago in a debate format at the Annual General Meeting of UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations, has been around for a long, long time within our global community (in its professional, research and educative segments).
The only possible diplomatic answer, in my view, is….
‘it depends on what we are talking about’ but, in all fairness, I would say that, if we take a good look at what we actually do day-in and day-out, it is more likely that the majority of our activities hinder, rather than enhance democracy.
And this is, of the many others we are constantly faced with, undoubtedly the major challenge today for our profession.
Let me explain: when in the best of worlds and with the best of professionals, we operate on behalf of an employer or a client, we are confronted with at least three different categories of interests:
°the interest of our client/employer,
°the many and often conflictual interests of our different key influential publics with whom we are required to relate, and
°the public interest.
The most effective public relations activity is clearly the one which succeeds in matching the public interest with the employer/client’s interest, and at the same time reaching the best possible equilibrium between the inevitably conflicting interests of our different key influential publics.
This being so, the question then becomes: who defines these different interests?
In the first case it is obviously the employer/client who decides.
But does the public relations director have a say?
A recent analysis conducted amongst the top 100 companies in Italy indicates that this happens only in 25% of them.
In the second case it seems reasonable that the public relations director, with her/his reflective-reflexive role hat on, listen to and understand expectancies of influential publics and interprets these to management before decisions are actually taken.
So, it is presumable that the employer/client’s decision takes these expectations in consideration before deciding to go for a certain activity and most certainly will prefer to listen to some publics, rather than to others.
Finally, in the third case the public interest is defined by those decision makers who control the public policy process.
Mostly, these are elected officials and/or career-ocrats operating in, or nearby, the public sector.
Thus it often happens that the employer/client, in his effort to adhere to the expectations of one or more specific influential publics, and appropriately advised by the public relations director, may decide to disregard the overall public interest represented by public policy makers, rationalizing that:
a) they do not really represent the public interest, or
b) they are not awake or aware of this specific issue, so why bother to wake the lion?
To sum it up, it is rare that the public interest comes upfront in the priorities of our organizations, while it is more likely that the interests of key influential publics are, and the two do not necessarily tend to match.
Does this process hinder our democratic institutions?
If we accept that, in this last decade, the very basic fundamentals of democracy-as-we-learned-in-school are far from being in good health, and also that never before has there been such widespread social criticism, albeit for different reasons, of both democracy and public relations… it is fair to say that the public interest does not seem to be in pole position of our worries.
And this is truly one hell of a risk for the future of our profession. Your opinion?