The two-faced god and our cusp catastrophe

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News that celebutante Kim Kardashian is to produce a ‘reality’ show on public relations sent shivers of dread down my spine this week. More than anything else, it highlighted (for me) the fact that as a profession, we are in the midst of a cusp catastrophe that requires attention from us all.

For several months now I have been pondering this phenomenon, evidenced by the multiplicity of practice ‘realities’ that surround us – of which Kardashian’s subjects will demonstrate just one.  Sadly, my hunch is that it will do our professional reputation no good whatsoever.

I know nothing of Command PR, the named subjects of the show, other than their gatekeeper website that invites phone calls but gives no other information. I also know nothing of the intention behind the show other than the boys are reported to be Kardashian’s TBFs (true best friends), but in my experience, reality shows have less to do with reality and more to do with creating controversial stereotype-driven telly that sets out to wreak as much reputational damage as possible, something Heather Yaxley discussed on her own blog a while back. Put it this way, I am not expecting an accurate reflection of today’s public relations profession.

Analysing thousands of blogs and conversations on public relations I have found so many perceived realities of what we do that a cusp meltdown would not surprise me, an occurrence that would leave the profession directionless, aimless and, us, well, jobless. Not a good place to be mid-recession.

Before the news of Kardashian’s latest escapade broke on Friday, I had actually been contemplating the Roman god Janus (of ‘January’ fame) as an illustration of where we are. The reason he came to mind – not just because he also served as god of gatekeepers, gates, beginnings and endings – was because of the memorable image of his two faces pointing in opposite directions. I also thought of Batman’s long-time foe Two-Face, but more on him later.

Public relations is without doubt on the cusp of a new beginning as well as the ending or abandonment of older approaches and styles (like celebrity publicity). Any cusp catastrophe worth mentioning sees the direction jumping from one solution to another – and back again – in an increasingly unstable environment. There is no mistaking the instability of our environment or the variety of public relations practice models, from the ‘celebrity pr’ to those stuck in an old-school media relations rut, to some still sending out one-way information and others who see the main purpose of public relations as building and sustaining relationships.

The CPRS definition that Judy Gombita posted here some weeks ago was very cheering because it acknowledged the business of building relationships (although I still have reservations on the wording), but, as in many walks of life, official recognition of purpose and outcome often lags behind the reality – or maybe just sits in the middle somewhere.

Because for many practitioners, the reality of today’s practice is not banging on about booty in the celebrity mix or servicing mainstream media. In today’s socially driven world, it is not even enough to build and sustain the relationship. The cusp, if you like, is the position where the practitioner determines and sets the values for the organisation on which the future relationship will be based.

We know the consequences of actions instantly reverberate around the world. We know that, as never before, individuals can create a collective voice loud enough to demand and affect change – only this week in New Zealand, Cadbury went ‘Fairtrade’ (much later than elsewhere in the world), just days after bowing to consumer pressure to remove palm oil from its Australasian product. Thankfully, as the long neglected art of listening gains credence, many organisations are facing the reality of change based on stable values supporting consistent ethical practice.

If we are charged with building the relationships and navigating the reputational tides, and if we are to be ‘institutionalised’, surely the practitioner must be involved in auditing and setting the organisational values? This in itself creates further points of motion on our cusp catastrophe. If an organisation proves resistant to ethical operation, then practitioners could find themselves simultaneously in breach of and adhering to the majority of ethical codes. What do they do? Maintain confidentiality or whistle-blow in ‘the public interest’ and (I’ve asked this question before) in which ‘public’s interest’ do they make the noise?

Once upon a time and certainly when following older approaches to public relations such a situation might have seemed impossible. However, if the practitioner is setting values and acting as the ethical conscience for the organisation, such a situation becomes a distinct possibility. Suddenly, like Janus, we face both ways at once.

Equally, the social media environment demands absolute transparency from an organisation. Failure to tell the truth or obfuscation of the facts results not only in instant and far-reaching reputational damage but in a failure of trust and engagement – and ultimately, the relationship. How then does the young practitioner deal with a situation in which immediately telling the truth conflicts with the clause in the code of ethics which forbids confidential information to be revealed?

When explaining the social media environment to clients and organisations, it is apparent that once leadership understands the implications of direct unfiltered channels they opt to become either a closed system or an entirely open one. Where they opt for an open systems approach, the first step is internal change, most frequently navigated by the public relations practitioner.  This means that we must not only equip the practitioner with the skills necessary to advise and train others, but provide them with the skills needed to deal with the complexities of change.

Which brings us back again to our cusp, with its curve peppered with co-existing points of practice. Each has its own perceived reality, but few peer over the curve with any sense of vision as to where we are headed next.  The new practice reality that sees the ethical practitioner guiding organisational values has already begun and is being driven by rapidly evolving technology. Take augmented reality. Only this week, further applications for the iPhone were released, so we can overlay our absolute image of reality with computer generated information and ‘improvements’ to real-life places. The communications technician charged with implementing such augmentation will need clear ethical practice guidance if realities and reputations are not to be distorted or embossed.

I don’t know if a universal reality of the Janus practitioner will ever come to pass; after all, the challenge of simultaneously looking deeply inside and outside the gate, then applying the wisdom of the gods to determine the nature and values of the organisation, and then getting on with the job of building the relationships is a big ask. It might be, like old Two-Face, who flipped a coin to decide whether to undertake a good or bad action, it proves impossible to do without distorting one vision or another. The value-setting ethical practitioner does exist and, even if it takes some time, I think that is the reality that lies ahead.  If we are not to be left flipping coins, or to be ever viewed through the lense of older realities, such as might be evident in the E! programming schedule, then I suggest  we review all the codes of ethics, be precise in our determination of ‘the public interest’ and then use the reviewed codes to guide us away from the cusp catastrophe deeper into our new beginning. Otherwise any future reality we find ourselves inhabiting may leave us uncertain as to which way we should face in order to enact social good.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Since some years I have been intrigued at how an increasing number of public relations professionals in many countries endevour to change the public perception of professions they represent for a fee, by collecting minds and resources in order to produce and distribute via television fictions depicting the lawyer, or the doctor, or the investigator or the policeman…..in ways which improve that reputation.

    Also I have often wondered why, well knowing how powerful these things can be, they (we) never did anything like this for them(our)selves and their (our) profession.

    I am told (and report to my students..) that in the early nineties in China a popular television fiction program called Miss Public Relations left a very strong perception of public relations being a profession practiced by attractive young girls who receive clients in hotel rooms.

    And it’s too easy to cite Amanda in Sex in the City (I actually think she comes out very decently…but I am sure I am in a minority).

    I was also made aware recently by Jon White at the recent Bled Symposium of a research report by K Miller, PR in Film and Fiction, 1930 — 1995, published by the Journal of Public Relations Research, 11 (1) 3 – 28; and also of a new report by another author with the title PR Goes to the Movies: Public Relations in Selected Flims, 1996 to 2008 which has yet to be published.

    Very interesting reading as there is no doubt, as we know very well when we practice for others, that popular culture has a strong and durable influence in establishing perceptions of professions.

    It appears also that the second paper will basically say that the situation of our public perception in popular culture has actually improved since the mid nineties.

    Whereas we were then only fickle and useless, now we are very mean and use our increasing power to actuallly deceive….with the only exception that the increasing feminilization of the profession supports the worst overlappings between looks and practice (Larissa…will you ever forgive this male chauvinist?..).

    We have often discussed these issues in conferences and association meetings, but we have never really gotten down to envisaging what we could really do in this area.

    Surely the subject of public relations is a popular one and there sould be not too many difficulties in gathering sufficient resources and brains to put together something which is at the same time realistic and entertaining while counter balancing some of the worst stereotypes of pr which are abundant in the public perception?

    Has anyone out there ever tried to do something like this?

    Reality shows, such as the one Catherine refers to in this suggestive post, are of course something different and we can certainly expect the worst… so we might even be favourably surprised by the actual outcome…

    Yet reality shows have one thing for them (in our case…) is that as much as you fictionise (?) events the individuals come out more or less as they really are.

    I have just very recently suggested to a politician, preparing a six month long electoral campaign, to install video equipment in his campaign headquarters and diffuse via web a reality on the campaign.

    People believe that the most terrible things happen during a campaign, much worse than what really goes on…so it might even work…

    As for the real issue that Catherine states: which, after all is said and one, boils down to: ‘what do I do when I am required to do things that I do not approve of, and who may I turn to to seek some sort of professional/self protection..?’

    Once again, if we insist in the majoritarian position that our profession should not be regulated (as many know I do not agree on this..as I once did) then we must turn the question to professional associations.

    Regulated professions have built in mechanisms (which work rarely however..) to protect their members from client or stakeholder abuse…

    In my view this could be an argument to raise with the regulator once it is con-vinced that we do seek regulation principally to protect the public interest (you know Cathy, in what sense I use this term: the integration of the existing norms with active citizenship expectations.., as it would be only rational that, such being the objective of regulation, the obligation for the professional to always consider the public interest in actual practice, along with the client’s and that of the stakeholders which are being dealt with, would require such a protection….

  2. I, too, am worried about what harm Kardashian’s show might do to the perception and reputation of public relations.

    My fear is that the show will create the impression that all we in p.r. do is plan and attend parties, wrangle celebrities, hang at the “in” places and befriend editors so they’ll automatically give coverage to our clients.

    I doubt if they’ll show the creativity and planning that goes into a good campaign, the hard work that goes into writing a good piece, and the understanding and knowledge of communicating to various audiences through the appropriate venues.

    Maybe we can only hope the show fails quickly so it can do minimal damage to our profession.

  3. Such programmes aren’t particularly new – we have one in the UK at present focusing on The Celebrity Agency which represents Z-listers. There’s been others before – reality or fictional (eg Absolutely Fabulous).

    It isn’t just the “press agentry” approach either that has been caught on film with the darker side of political “spin” cropping up regularly.

    Does any of this matter? It is in much the same vein as general media reporting on PR which shows a very limited perspective or a stereotypical view that fulfils public perceptions.

    I think it can have a negative impact – but only if this is someone’s only experience and understanding of PR. Most journalists will admit there are great PR practitioners as well as the annoying ones they parody.

    Such programmes can dissuade some students from taking a PR degree if they think it will be all fluffy party-organising – whilst those who sign up for those reasons will be disappointed by the strategic underpinnings and theory (and probably transfer to event management instead).

    Perhaps we need to begin to see media relations (and similar tactics) as simply a tool rather than a strategic discipline. It can be used for marketing and other promotional means (as per advertising) but also for more serious and informed reasons. If Public Relations is really more than media relations, isn’t it time to convey that media relations isn’t the exclusive preserve of PR?

    Shouldn’t we be defined by more than a tactic?

  4. I agree, Heather, that we should be defined by more than one of our tactics. But there are many people in business who might have occasion to utilize the p.r. discipline who don'[t know much more about what we really do than those stereotypes. Anything that reinforces those stereotypes cannot be good for the profession.

  5. As always, your comments have got me thinking more about all this, although I have been temporarily distracted by your observation Toni on the forthcoming research suggesting that feminisation of public relations ‘supports the worst overlappings between looks and practice’. Seriously? Grrr and double grrr. But I will keep my powder dry on that one until the research is out.

    David, I share your doubts as to what will be shown and thank you for your observations. Thinking and planning does not make for absorbing reality TV which is characterised by set-up conflicts, inane ramblings and arguments, fake dramas and – inevitably to add a soupcon of darkness – dodgy ethical choices by at least one of the participants. Unless Kardashian is set to revamp the reality genre, I am braced for the worst.

    Heather, I do think that these things have an impact because for the ‘wider audience’ it is often their only ‘experience’ of the occupation in question. Content is dressed up and exaggerated for maximum impact – in the same way that Saturday afternoon TV wresting in the UK used to be – and people will believe what they see. It is not ‘a report’ it is ‘reality’. We know the producers are looking to maximise impact to increase viewer numbers. Unfortunately viewers, as a general rule, don’t.

    I think I missed the jump to your observation on media relations though. Media relations is a tool and always has been. I don’t see it as solely the preserve of public relations, any more than I see adverts being the sole preserve of ad agencies. In building and sustaining relationships we use a whole range of tools appropriate to the agreed strategy. If I have read your comment correctly, I don’t think the difficulty here is being defined by tactic. I think instead we will end up fighting off being defined by ‘type’. You mentioned Absolutely Fabulous. One of the most ridiculous things ever done by the then IPR was to award the AbFab duo a major prize – from memory, it might even have been the President’s Medal – for their ‘services to PR’. Yeah. Thanks. We really didn’t need that one. The ‘recognition’ supported, for years after, the reflected image of practitioners as drunken, inept, needy no-hopers comically bungling their way from one champagne shopping trip to the next. Stereotyping is much harder to shift than tactical delineation and where the AbFab team were mainly pathetic in their portrayal, subsequent programmes have – as Toni suggested – portrayed public relations as mean and deceptive. And that, on behalf of all the hard-working, clever and ethical practitioners who are by far the majority, worries me more.

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