Public Relations and Democracy: an intricate affair

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?


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2 Replies to “Public Relations and Democracy: an intricate affair

  1. I fully agree with Jean Valin’s comment.
    Only one item to clarify: when I write that the public interest is represented by the decisions made by the public policy process, I only say that this is what normally happens, and is normally accepted, in a so called democratic country.
    Of course, both your client/employer and/or any of your influential publics out there in the market are fully entitled to, and often do, disagree with the public policy process’s interpretation of the public interest and therefore act to change it. But until there is a certain law or regulation in place, it is our professional duty to consider that as the public interest. And this is where the often conflicting interests of your various influential public comes into the game as it seems to me natural that a good pr professional should convince his client/employer to decide on the basis of:
    a- the knowledge of what the public interest is (as represented by the public policy process); b- the knowledge of what the interests of his influential publics are; c- combine all these in the best possible way and, of course, in coherence with his specific interest at stake. This is where the going gets complex, attractive and challenging. No?

  2. I think you are missing one element in this discussion. The basic premise of democracy is the ‘rule of the people’. It includes free elections, majority rule, political freedom, minority rights, political equality,a representative government and an independent judiciary. At the core of democratic values is the use of free speech to foster changes to society. I think that when ethically practised, public relations is at the core of these values as it helps to facilitate peace order and good government.
    It does not matter that we are serving a client or that there may be a perceive conflict with groups that oppose the view held by our client. It is a democracy and expressing views is at the heart of it all. To suggest that there is one right answer that defines the public interest in a particular situation is to put yourself above all other views held by others. If perhaps, ther is a situation where the public interest is clearly accepeted by a majority and the position of the client we serve is at opposite ends, it does not negate the need for free speech and expression of a different position. It becomes a matter of personnal conscience and the degree that personally- held beliefs are in play. For example, it is clear that smoking is not in the public interest-if only for health reasons. i woudl never represent a tobbaco client because of my own beliefs against the product. However they have a right to speak and be heard.

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