Public relations and the public interest: a matter of opinion
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.
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.