Public relations and the public interest: a matter of opinion

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Recently the phrase “public interest” started an offline debate between two PR Conversations stalwarts, Toni Muzi Falconi and Heather Yaxley. This blog exists to encourage discourse about public relations and its role from a variety of perspectives, although normally, conversations are stimulated by a post, and then move into the comments section or onto Twitter. This time, we start with a private conversation, and invite you to expand the discussion further with your own comments.

Heather Yaxley to Toni Muzi Falconi:

You’ve mentioned the phrase “public interest” a few times recently on PR Conversations, but it is a concept that I’m not convinced exists or has much value in public relations. Why do you feel it is so important?

Toni Muzi Falconi to Heather Yaxley:

In a western democracy there are organizations such as the judiciary, the parliament, the executive (ie elected government) who are there (more or less supposedly) to protect the public interest.

Yet, private interests (even those for example of the UK National Health Service) are today advocated by lobbyists in order to modify proposals that try to (in the view of those interests) enhance the public interest beyond what is stated in the existing norms. This is lobbying and it is a legitimate tool in principle.

There is however a recognized imbalance in the power of the various conflicting private interests that tends to lean public policy processes in favour of those private interests that are stronger than others, regardless sometime of how much they are in the public interest.

And this is where active citizenship tries to intervene to reinforce those private interests, which it believes to be more in the public interest than those advocated by the stronger interests.

In this give-and-take public relations activities, by strong or weak interest, play a central role.

What I am trying to say is that the public relations professional is bound not only by the private interest of his/her employer but also by what I call the public interest.

In other words, when the professional detects there is a conflict between the represented private interest with what he/she believes is the public interest – existing norms summed with active citizenship expectations – he/she will be more effective operationally, all other things being equal, when the PR practitioner attempts to shape the represented interest in a way that can be interpreted by the public policy decision maker as a public interest.

I have addressed much of the above in previous posts on this blog, in 2009 and 2010.

Heather Yaxley to Toni Muzi Falconi:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines public interest as, “the benefit or advantage of the community as a whole; the public good”. My problem is how do we decide what is good for everyone?

Are we talking about the interests of the majority or protecting minority interests? Isn’t this what you mean by an imbalance of power? Did the big brand companies (including FedEx, AT&T, Whirlpool, KPMG) on the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who opposed legislation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, act in the public interest in supporting the democratically elected state legislature?

You acknowledge the legitimacy of lobbying – and many activists go further in championing a cause and challenging current norms by breaking the law. That’s how the rights of women and ethnic minorities became acknowledged by the state, which previously didn’t see these as in the public interest.

Professor Dejan Verčič argues PR only flourishes in a democracy, supporting your position that official state bodies should act in the public interest. But these bodies engage in debate on public issues; with politicians and judges, often with different viewpoints, each believing they reflect public interest.

At what level do we consider public interest? The elected Greek government is being challenged by its population to default on its massive loans – but that’s not in the wider public interest of Europe or globally – if another economic crisis is triggered.

How do we balance the private interest of our client and the interests of anyone else? Is it in the public interest for BP and other oil companies to continue deep water drilling? Or for international drug companies to make profits (albeit reduced ones) from the United Nations Children’s Fund vaccination programme? What about the UK council which is saving ratepayers money by outsourcing local jobs to India?

In their classic PR textbook, Cutlip et al argued that the diverse mosaic of society makes the concept of the general public “of little, if any, value in public relations”. Society does not reflect a cohesive, homogenous, static public opinion. And don’t we expect civilised societies to be more than mob rule?

And, finally, let’s not forget how the defence of “in the public interest” is used by those with secrets to protect.

Toni to Heather:

Public sector institutions in all countries exist to represent and protect the public interest and many private and social sector organizations today also claim the same.

Your last argument of course occasionally stands, yet one could also say, with certainly more examples, the exact opposite: the defence of the public interest being invoked by, at least any of the three constitutional powers (judiciary, parliament and executive), to explain to the public at large the transparency of public policy processes.

The challenge for responsible and effective public relations professionals is to apply their knowledge and intelligence in advocating policies that strike a balance between three groups of interests:

  • the interest of the employer;
  • the interests of often conflicting key stakeholder groups;
  • the public interest.

Clearly, the most immediate representation of the public interest lies in existing norms, but the undisputed legitimacy of lobbying activities adds a further variable to a correct interpretation that, as I said earlier, is the sum of existing norms and the expectations of active citizenship.

As professionals, we are required to always consider the consequences of our actions on all constituencies, and this not so much for ethical reasons, but for the very effectiveness of our action. I am convinced that the utilitarian ethics paradigm fully applies to our activities. This is in no way a “paralysis by analysis” path and, quite the contrary, is a wake-up call to organizational leadership to ensure that all those interests are known and taken into consideration before it exercises its primary responsibility to decide a specific policy.

If you agree that, today more than ever, public relations activities by all organizations bear substantial impacts on individuals in every social, economical and political decision they make, and if you believe that professional associations do not include more than 10 per cent of individuals operating in these areas on behalf of private interests, and that even these 10 per cent are rarely questioned in their operational practices, I cannot see any rational reason for us not to invoke that the public interest be better served by a public regulation of our activities.

This, not to protect responsible professionals from those who are irresponsible, but to protect the public from what we see every day undermining the values and the legitimacy of that very representative democracy we believe nurtures effective public relations.

Heather to Toni:

With so many factions all claiming to represent and protect the “public interest”, you present a minefield in which PR practitioners should seek a balanced position. I’m not even sure there’d be a safe place for them to put one foot, let alone both.

Even if we can find a foothold for “public interest” in existing norms, this is not a static place to rest our recommendations, because we have to consider the “expectations of active citizenship” – which may be a vocal majority or a minority that struggles to be heard. And what about latent publics who may be affected but don’t know it – or those who don’t have a voice in the public debate protecting their interests?

Lippmann wrote “public interest may be presumed to be what men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently”; presenting a normative concept. How can, or ought, we offer counsel on the basis of how things should be in an ideal world?

Of course, consequences are important to consider in decision making. We should also be responsible in recognising asymmetry in communications and power imbalances in society. With relevant knowledge, PR practitioners can provide ethical guidance, but the utilitarian ethical paradigm is problematic in implying effects can be predetermined. Are you sure which actions will lead to a “good” outcome? In reality, we live in a complex, chaotic, world of Sophie’s Choice, where we may need to make decisions against one set of interests and in favour of another.

Rather than seeking some fluctuating point of balance in the minefield of interests, shouldn’t we work within our organizations or with our clients to establish and ensure clear values are an integral component in decision making?

David Phillips recently considered Return on Values, writing: “An organisation can be described as a nexus of values and, to extent that they chime with the values of people or groups, there is a coincidence of interest.”

He suggests pertinent questions for practitioners to ask of their organizations/clients, which I believe could also be asked of PR practitioners (and our professional associations):

  • What do we (those working in PR) really care about? Let’s look candidly at what we do and what we say.
  • How do we communicate our values to the paymasters and other stakeholders of PR?
  • Do we – indeed, should we – have a clear set of well understood, well lived values that epitomises public relations and establish a reputation of which to be proud? Or do our values suck?

In advocating value-driven public relations, I believe practitioners don’t need to be governed, judged or regulated in the public interest. Belonging to a professional public relations body, recognising legal constraints on what I can and cannot do, or working in a representative democracy does not influence my behaviour anywhere near as much as my own conscience and values.

PR practitioners do not need to find a footing in the field of public interest – if we are to manage our collective reputation, we need to be guided in our behaviour by a clear set of common values.

And these need to connect with those we are advocating for the organisations with whom we wish to associate our own personal reputations.

20 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very useful discussion. I tend to agree more with Heather than with Toni. I think it would be arrogant of PRs to pretend to know what the public interest consists of. Of course, it would be dumb of them to wrap their client’s interests up as being in anything but public interest. In this regard we are a bit like lawyers…we represent clients first and foremost (involved in all sides of issues and disputes) and we do so in a partisan manner. But the connections we make with the court of public opinion in order to advance our client’s interest have to meet common standards and levels of acceptability both legal and social. In that sense we move our client in particular directions, or we take on the harder job of re-defining public opinion (though democracy gives people and firms the right to be unpopular and to function freely so long as what they do is legal…so, sometimes, to hell with the common opinion…the media can drop dead, too).

    Juggling this stuff presents a professional and ethical challenge, which is in itself one of the things that makes whatever we do in the public interest; assuming we do our job properly (the same goes for lawyers, even when they are defending mass murderers). However, a PRs’ success does not depend upon resolving all conflicts of interest as such, or upon anybody being certain what the public interest actually consists of. That’s what makes PR so challenging and such fun.

    Toni’s position makes the mistake of assuming that PRs can serve more than one master, which is a claim and position that I find ethically and morally unsustainable.

    Again, I say we need to go back to basics and to look at the relationship between private and public interests, the private and public spheres, not least at privacy etc.. This discussion goes to the heart of what modern society is about. And we need to read Aristotle to make much sense of any of it as professionals bent on being ethical.

    • Definitely agree that the Ancient Greeks are the ultimate read in terms of understanding ethics. Far too many people cite what is and isn’t ethical without understanding that this is not an absolute concept.

  2. Heather,
    experienced and senior pr professionals are valued in the organizations they work for more for their listening than for thier speaking ablities (the reflective strategic mode of public relations).
    Listening implies not only being well aware of their key stakeholder publics expcectations but also, through the application of issues management and boundary spanning, understanding the expectations of active citizenship groups related to that specific issue.
    This is the abc of public affairs and one major significant change in this century compared to the last one is the increasing role of active citizenship that, by the way, often also claims to interpret those who are not yet born…

    I believe the only real difference between us is that while I am anxious and very preoccupied by the increasing evidence that public relations plays a decisive role in forming public policy decisions, and that this pratcie is mostly opaque in all countries (inlcuding, although less so, in those where lobbying is so.called regulated..), and that we should take the lead in ensuring that the public interest be protected from our opaque activities, you do not seeem to believe that this is so.

    You are surely aware that the number of regulations and norms related to specific aspects of our practice (from media, to legal, from safety to health, from environment to research etc..) are sprouting up in many countries just about every day. All this happens in the quasi total absence on interest, of arguments, of advocacy by professional associations who not only do not monitor but often are not even aware of them.

    Paul,
    there is no question about our partisanship and clearly there is no question about serving different masters.
    You have defintely misinterpreted me (so what else is new?).
    As I hoped to have made clear is that by considering the interests of key stakeholder publics and the public interest as I suggest, one is clearly better serving one’s master. The client or employer. As long as the mandate is within the limits of existing norms and within the basic principle that I say to my interlocutors who I am, I say who I represent, I explicit my objective and -but only if exisitng norms allow me to (in financial pr you cannot usually do this..)- how I plan to get there…

    • Toni,

      You make some sweeping statements (without evidence) that PR practitioners are valued for their listening abilities etc. As David Phillips confirmed when talking with 65 PR practitioners at a conference I’d organised earlier this week eather, we are good at monitoring but rather poor at providing useful intelligence for management. I actually doubt the majority of those involved in public affairs are involved in listening other than to practice better persuasion and not to reflect this balanced interest position you seem to believe is the norm. I also disagree with you that active citizenship is something new in the 21st century – there is certainly more potential for those with various interests to champion their cause through social media, but the public was never quite as passive as Bernays and others liked to make out.

      But none of this addresses my points about the difficulties of the concept of “public interest”. Instead, you focus on whether or not PR can lead in ensuring the “public interest” is protected from PR’s “opaque activities” in forming public policy.

      You can have all the codes and licensing that you like to govern professional lobbyists (which seems to be what you are really discussing in one part of your comment) but would that stop people seeking to promote vested interests that stretch or bend any codes or laws? You’ve only got to look at issues around corporate governance and the stockmarkets to know that legislation and controls tend to follow the rule-breakers not prevent them in the first place.

      On the other hand, you then mention that PR is increasingly being controlled by regulations and norms without any apparent lobbying back from the PR professional associations. Ironically you then claim they are not monitoring such issues (which kind of counters your argument that PR is valued for its listening ability). Which way do you want it? Controls on PR or not?

      Frankly, that wasn’t what I was discussing in the post. My issue wasn’t whether or not PR is or should be operating in the public interest, but that there is no such thing as “the public interest” for the reasons I have explained above.

      You seem to be looking more at issues around the governance of public relations – so it isn’t that we disagree necessarily but that we have been discussing something totally different.

      • I don’t understand what you mean by sweeping statements.
        Certainly I can testify that some of my major clients in these last ten years have exactly that role and are very effective.
        Whether this ‘sweeps’ or not you can tell.

        I don’t think I said that active citizenship is a phenomenon of the 21st century, what I said is its ‘increasing role’ and I would be surprised if you would not agree.

        As for the regulation issue: if I referred this to only public affairs and lobbying.
        I would be making the same mistake that has been done to date: i.e. piece by piece in an unrelated, incoherent and nation by nation way.
        There is no contradiction, as I advocate controls on our whole profession through a very simple set of norms on an international basis.

        But I imagine that on this last point we simply agreee to disagree….

        • This is a sweeping statement: “experienced and senior pr professionals are valued in the organizations they work for more for their listening than for thier speaking ablities (the reflective strategic mode of public relations)”. It wasn’t qualified as “some” but implied this was the norm and hence it is a generalisation.

          I still maintain that you are being entirely idealistic in advocating controls on “our whole profession” to protect a “public interest” which is a normative, ever-changing concept that is difficult to determine in an increasingly pluralistic society. And, I’m happy to disagree over this point.

  3. Our democracy is facing difficult times and this discussions is quite relevant in the light of the present times. I would like to offer three thoughts on this:

    1. In our current world, the first link between PR and public interest is that “public interest” seems to be the result of a continuous process in which many private definitions compete for consensus either in the parliaments, multilateral organizations, mass media, etc. It’s a little bit like the recurring discussion about public opinion(s) being the most popular out of the “published opinions” which, in their nature, are private opinions (Ferdinand Tonnies)

    2. In our current network society, PR should definitely be able to shift from the bilateral governance models (in which it sought mutual benefits for the organization and the stakeholder, or network of stakeholders) into trilateral governance models in which decision making is not only oriented to reach win-win solutions between ‘private interests’ but effectively ensures (through some new thinking and new tools) that wider interests of ‘broader society’ are factored in the decision making.

    3.One of the reasons why current democracy is failing, and why it is so difficult to define ‘public interest’, is the erosion of a critical institution in society played by “regulators” “watchdogs” or “public scrutiny organizations” (a new book about the biggest scandal in American economy since Watergate is spot on http://tinyurl.com/3d3rbcp). PR should regain a role in this process through directly helping to create autonomous judgment by a wide range of publics who can effectively create opinion and partially balance the erosion of those key institutions

  4. I think that while many would like to be idealistic, myself included, it is hard to come to the conclusion that PR practitioners are ever about “public interest,” whether it exists or not. They are hired by corporations, private and public, and are employed to provide services that provide growth for their business. This is not to say that PR practitioners cannot act in the interest of the public–if that is what they were hired to do by the company or individual who signs the bills.

    Essentially, the PR professional has signed an agreement (in contract) to provide specific services to those who offered the employment. If that professional wishes to do anything in opposition of the employer, then they must either have a legal foundation on which to argue or resign their position.

    I would also like to make the point that the judicial system and representative government does not exist for the public interest. It exists to maintain order and provide justice and protect individual liberties. What the masses perceive as the “public interest” will inevitably be different than those who both have more global knowledge and more vested interests (read: politicians, lobbyists, and all those associated), not to mention individually different perceptions of public interest.

    Public interest, then, must be considered to be non-existent; it is an idealistic word that we wish to exist, but whose existence is impossible. It is a word with no definitive meaning.

    I do hope that those points are clear (and relevant; I’ve come in on the middle of a discussion, it seems).

  5. Shad,

    Thanks for your comment. Whilst of course, I support your arguments re “public interest”, there is another side to your observations that PR practitioners are hired advocates and therefore beholden to do the wishes of the client (or resign). This is to consider where the organization needs to receive counsel that may challenge its existing operations because these may result in media or other public criticism and potentially loss of reputation or even license to operate.

    I also wonder if we take the attitude of considering legal responsibilities, that means thinking of those who are the ultimate public rather than necessarily the management who employs us. It has been interesting to see on several occasions where share/stock-holders (who are the legal owners of a business) have challenged management decisions. Should PR be thinking of the interest of this strategic public?

    Likewise in the public sector, it may be that PR practitioners need to reflect the interests of the electorate rather than the vested interestsof politicians who are acting in a partisan manner. This also applies in the not for profit sector – where PR may counsel in the interests of those who fund or benefit from a particular cause rather than the management who may be thinking of their own interests.

    I would also suggest that if the judiciary and government exist to ensure order in society – they can only do so with the “permission” of the public. As we’ve seen to some extent in the Middle East recently – losing public support turns a government against its people. That cannot be right.

  6. I’ll move paragraph by paragraph for sake of simplicity:

    If the organization were intending to do something that would ultimately harm their desire to grow, it would fall under the PR professionals job description to oppose and wouldn’t inherently go against their will (even if it is against their idea). I might have stated that more clearly or should have considered that more carefully in my first comment.

    What was the intent of that challenge, though? Was it for the public good, completely divested of self-gain? When I think of the public interest, or good, I think that someone is going against the interests of his company to save the public from potential harm. This, I think, is a rather rare event, if it ever happens. In any case, the PR practitioner is still following the money. Management alone does not provide the money–stock- and shareholders do.

    I did state that it was entirely dependent on who hired the PR practitioner and what the aims of that organization were. It is always where the money is that the PR must be loyal. Or, if there is no money, to the cause or organization that they have aligned themselves with, then out of their own interest.

    It is a Machiavellian system I’m hitting on, I suppose. Which clarifies these last two points, I think. The people will revolt only if too much harm has been done to them. They are generally complacent when not terribly affected.

  7. I wouldn’t disagree with you over the enlightened self-interest perspective – and will consider the Machiavellian dimension tomorrow as there is a presentation on this at the History of PR conference I am attending. Follow #ihprc on Twitter for live comments!

  8. Heather and Shad..here’s another view. We live in an age of self-denigration, in which pursuing a positive self-image too often becomes self-destructive. So, PRs regularly and deliberately undermine their clients’ self-interest and they often do so with the full cooperation of their clients. For instance, BP with its Beyond Petroleum branding was an oil company that said it didn’t like the business it was in. Instead it tried to position itself alongside its critics who hated Big Oil etc.. Another example is the dominant crisis management PR mantra: grovel regardless of the facts because perception is reality (even though you know it is no such thing).

    Hence, I maintain that enlightened-self-interest is not really an adequate definition to describe what is going on today – unless one really believes that Beyond Petroleum was really in BP’s interest, or that it was in anyway an enlightened corporate strategy… a delusion that was first rocked explosively in Texas and then sunk forever in the Gulf of Mexico.

  9. […] It is debatable whether codes of conduct (as seen in most PR professional bodies) offer sufficient guidance to answer such questions.  A shift from a rules based approach to ethical practice should be replaced by virtue ethics according to Harrison  and Galloway (2005); although this has issues being connected to the notion of PR serving the “public interest”. […]

  10. I feel compelled to jump in on this discussion which I only caught up with today. Having persuaded the CPRS to adopt a PR definition that concludes with…” in the public interest”, I find this debate fascinating.

    Of course we can almost always reconcile our client’s objective or position as being in the public interest.

    The operative element for me is in the function that we need to perform for our client and that is to make sure that all voices are heard in the pursuit of a client objective. If that gives some operational meaning to the albeit normative concept of public interest as expressed in posts above, I think this is what it is meant to achieve. We can and should balance our client’s objective and the views of opposing or different positions in order to achieve an optimum level of public interest. It is a question of degree and is not an absolute.

    I do subscribe to Dejan Vercic’s notion that PR and democracy are and must be linked. Working in the public interest to ensure an optimum or ‘best possible’ level of public interest in each mandate we have is I think worthy of having (just as we strive for two way symettrical communication) as an aspirational or real aspect of our work.

    • Thank you Jean. I can definitely see the usefulness of the concept of “public interest” in ensuring that organizations recognise the wider world than their own private interests. As you say, the notion is not an absolute and hence needs consideration on a situational basis.

      I struggle a little with normative or aspirational aspects of PR work as this can be simply a way of making those working in the field feel better about the less attractive aspects that also fall under the label. For me, they also set up a single ideal which ends up being a holy grail perhaps at the expense of realistic reflection of what can best be done in everyday situations.

      As to PR and democracy, our recent debate on PRC about lobbying raises some interesting points I feel. PR in the public interest would seem at odds to a great deal of lobbying which concentrates on vested interests.

  11. Here are some more thoughts I posted on this issue.in another blog questioning why the CPRS defintion of Public relations includes”…working in the public interest”.

    I felt strongly about including such a statement in the CPRS definition even if I fully recognize it is a matter of debate and controversy. Webster’s New World Dictionary, defines Public interest as: “the people’s general welfare and well being; something in which the populace as a whole has a stake.

    To work in the public interest or towards it means that you are ‘ex ante’ or from the outset, striving to work in the best interest of a majority of the public. Many choose to see this interpretation only as ‘ex post’ meaning after the consequence of an action is clear or becomes a fact, it is then interpreted as in the public interest or not.

    I believe practitioners should and must aspire to work in the public interest. Granted, It is debatable that working on tobacco campaigns for example is in the public interest, but as long as the product is legal it deserves a voice in the public domain. Moreover, those legal or public policy yard sticks can and should move over time when society and law makers adjust policies which can conceivably mean that one day tobacco could be illegal for sale and therefore be NOT in the public interest. Individuals who have difficulty working on such campaigns- and I would be one of them- can always choose NOT to work on such campaigns if their own ethical framework is compromised.

    I believe the vast majority of the work of our profession should at the very least aspire to if not choose to work in the public interest. It reinforces the notion that we should work in an ethical fashion while respecting and fostering open discussion of issues. Historically, the approach can be traced to John Stuart Mill, who in his letter to George Grote, explained: “human happiness, even one’s own, is in general more successfully pursued by acting on general rules, than by measuring the consequences of each act; and this is still more the case with the general happiness, since any other plan would not only leave everybody uncertain what to expect, but would involve perpetual quarrelling….”.

    I am in the camp of those who thinks that ‘working in the public interest’ should be part of our professional endeavour. To leave it out opens the door to unethical practice which I would argue is not and should not be viewed as public relations but as propaganOur profession is much mailgned, more than other professions. That is why I felt strongly it needed to be part of who we are so that we can call out bad practice as NOT being proper public relations when it does happen. Someone not working in the public interest is involved in at least propaganda or something else which I don’t want to be associated with in the practice of public relations.
    We are not alone in that belief since the research we did before we wrote the CPRS defintion (see http://definingpublicrelations.wikispaces.com) found many definitions have already adopted such languge for reasons that are similar to those I outlined. That is why as a team of co-authors we felt it had to be there and our colleagues at CPRS agreed.
    Another aspect of our profession is also aspirational and that is that two-way symetrical communication is the best way to communicate and gain respect and trust. Does everyone practice it that way today? Not by a long stretch but that doesn’t stop the practice from encouraging practitioners to do so.
    Defining who we are and what we do is pregnant with intent. I hope it is for the greater good as it should be.

  12. Jean, the writing of John Stuart Mill simply contradicts your viewpoint on the public interest end-to-end. He wrote and worried about the tyranny of public opinion. If he were alive today he would be waging war on those – like you – who wrap themselves in the public interest. He would back those who claim honestly to be one-sided advocates. The late great Walter Lippmann wrote in his book Public Opinion: “There is no point in toying with any notion of an imaginary plebiscite to discover the public interest.”

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