What is ‘the public interest’?

A run on the Northern Rock bank in the UK this week got me thinking about ‘the public interest’ again, especially after Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England told a House of Commons select committee that he would have preferred to give covert aid to Northern Rock, without the public being aware of the Bank’s intervention, but that would be illegal.

Most of the public relations codes of ethics that I am aware of charge practitioners to act ‘in the public interest’. But what exactly is that? From his comments, Mervyn King seemed to infer that the public would have been better served and panic avoided if they had been able to deal with things secretly – but is avoiding panic (or publicity) ‘in the public interest’?

When we lightly touched on this great big question a few posts ago (in the comments), I dug out a really good paper from Alex Messina* which looks at public relations, public interest and persuasion. He suggests (and I paraphrase) that because ‘the public interest’ is ultimately decided at the ballot box, no third party can decipher ahead of that vote what the ‘public interest’ will be, as the ultimate arbiter in a democratic system as to the nature of public interest has to be the government of the time – until the moment the voters chuck them out because they got it horribly wrong.

Philosophers, political and social scientists have been debating and suggesting definitions of ‘the public interest’ even longer than public relations has been debating its own mot juste – and there still is no agreed definition.

We can all make assumptions about the public interest, but they would inevitably be based on our own values and standards, cultures and paradigms or based on standards cloned from another public, bringing us back to the ambiguity Anne was talking about a post or two ago. Which practitioner is acting in the public interest – the one who advocates on behalf of the pro-abortion lobby or the one who acts for the anti-abortion lobby? The practitioner who operates for the oil companies or the one who acts for the wind farm?

Then move online. Look at the publics that exist there, many with very large populations. The viral Shift Happens that Heather signposted has the interesting factlet that if myspace was a country it would be the eighth largest in the world. What actions or inactions are in the public interest of that community or will a differential concept of ‘the public interest’ emerge for online and off line publics? What if an online community like myspace takes umbrage over something happening off line? Will we have community diplomats and ambassadors from the offline communities seeking space at the UN to make sure their public interest is served?

And if public interest is determined at the ballot box, how will it be determined by a public that does not have a ballot box?

Such a question might seem as if it needs no answer and it might appear far-fetched, but disparities are already appearing. For example, here in New Zealand, there is some draft electoral finance legislation on the table. Should it be passed in its present form, I would, come election time, be severely restricted as to what I could say and spend as part of a ‘public’ making my voice heard. That ‘public’ could be a charity, a political party, a pressure group or simply a bunch of neighbours wanting to protest about the lack of street cleaning. But these restrictions would not, as far as I can see, carry over into the virtual world. How would that be ‘in the public interest’? If I am right (and I would stress here am no lawyer so I could be completely barking) then what is my ethical position as a practitioner were I to help a public make their voices legally heard online during the election period, knowing that to do the same thing off line would be illegal? If the ultimate determinant of public interest is the ballot box, is the public interest served by facilitating advocacy for voices that would otherwise go unheard? In which case is it ethical or unethical for the government as arbiter of public interest to legislates against such expression?

Post-election, the practitioner appears before the association’s ethics committee, prepared for a good slapping, but how is the ethics committee going to judge the situation? How will they determine what was and what wasn’t ‘in the public interest’?

The fact is there are many different publics – not one great big nebulous one. The complexity of our humanity means varying standards of beliefs and behaviours, all of which cultivate other types of ‘public interest’. Should we therefore simply put our hands up, be honest, transparent and ethical and suggest that, realistically, we can only operate on behalf of ‘a public’s interest’ or even ‘several publics’ interest’, with careful regard for the greater societal good and – as the doctors say – first, doing no harm.

And maybe we need to look at the wording on a few codes of ethics? What do you think?

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8 Replies to “What is ‘the public interest’?

  1. Catherine,

    I just wanted to pick up on the reference to Cadburys. The background to the company’s social responsibility lies in the founders’ Quaker faith and so was reflected in similar Victorian companies. For example, Port Sunlight in Liverpool was a “garden suburb” for workers of the Lever family’s soap factory (see http://www.portsunlightvillage.com/). And, Elizabeth Fry (from another Quaker, chocolate family)was a prison reformer.

    Interestingly, there has been criticism that Cadburys funded facilities at Bournville as a way of controlling employees rather than paying generous wages and allowing workers to spend their own money in a way that the family may have disliked. So we should perhaps question the motives of the employers, especially given the social times which as I noted above encouraged “improving” the poor. They certainly didn’t do it for the “brand kudos” as today though.

    Regardless of the original motivations, I find Cadburys today does not reflect this social heritage. It undertook a cause related marketing campaign a few years ago that generated negative headlines as it seemed to encourage children to eat lots of chocolate to obtain sports equipment for schools. Since then we’ve had issues over salmonella problems from factories, alongside not labelling Easter eggs that “may contain nuts”.

    The company has some good strategies, such as commitment to workers in cocoa plantations, but this doesn’t seem to be a driving motivation. For example, the latest advert (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKdQC-hbY7k)is being talked about a lot (for the gorilla playing drums). But there is no link to the brand – not even making a connection between gorillas and social responsibility in Africa.

  2. Goodness me. I’ve had to read all this several times, have two cups of tea and a bit of sit down before I could even think about writing a reply – you’re all so clever it’s a bit hard to keep up!

    Toni – I had put the reference to Alex Messina’s paper on the end of my post, but it obviously fell off, so here it is.

    Messina. A. (2007). Public Relations, the Public Interest and persuasion: an ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management 11(1) 29 – 52

    Benita, I fully appreciate everything you say and would personally agree that all too often the law offers scant protection for the ‘common good’ and that the ballot box is not necessarily the true arbiter of ‘the public interest’, but I offered Messina’s arguments as they were the most comprehensive I could find connected with ‘the public interest’ as it relates to our profession. (Examples of the ballot box not being used in the public interest came when UK Prime Ministers were ‘swapped’ without so much as a by-your-leave from the British public and, more recently, the current situation in Myanmar).

    My original question turned on what is ‘the public interest’ because it is so often referred to and regarded as a single entity – which it clearly is not. What I find frustrating is that in order to further a particular cause or concern *a* public interest will cite *the* public interest as the reason why we should all jump aboard. Governments are fond of doing this, as are mainstream media outlets, which have a great tendency to hide their commercial interests behind the facade of ‘the’ public interest. (This month’s headline on an A-list celebrity’s latest debacle: public interest reporting or merely circulation-boost-by-gossip?)

    I think Heather’s points about hearing the smaller voice are key. For an example of real social responsibility in action, I often turn to the Cadbury* family and the history of Bournville. There, for those unfamiliar with this story, the Cadbury family created a ‘garden village’ for their workers in the suburbs of Birmingham, UK, providing housing, jobs, recreational facilities and health provision. Interestingly, the creation of a community was foremost in the minds of those who undertook this work and the Cadbury family were by no means alone. Many (not all!) business leaders of that time were philanthropists who acted on unselfish motivations for the benefit of their society. They genuinely wanted to see things improve for their communities as opposed to the oft-seen 21st century version that uses marginal/transient ‘good works’ to boost a brand image or leverage a new market area rather than it being an intrinsic organisational value or behaviour.

    There are many debates around the subject of ‘public relations operating at the top table’, yet the top table is often a reflection of the various elites Heather mentions. Too often it is only the ‘top table’ that has access to the best advice, the best tools and the best people, while the smaller voices whisper in vain. João’s quote from Mafalda Eiró-Gomes who described the mission of public relations as promoting human understanding, followed by João’s subsequent observations about empowerment are, I believe, absolutely on target – and at this point I would urge anyone in UK public relations to go and sign up as a Media Trust volunteer adviser – http://www.mediatrust.org – and empower some silent voices.

    As Toni said in his comment, there are huge debates to be had on this issue (and somewhere, not necessarily here, it is a debate that needs many voices) but what constitutes the public interest is of paramount importance to what we do and how we do it, which is why I raised the question of the relationship between practitioners and the codes of ethics which state they must act in ‘the public interest’.

    This leaves me pondering Toni’s three steps as the last step is still framed as ‘the public interest’. I can take that to be the public sphere that Benita referred to, but if I am able and equipped to create a loud voice that shouts and stamps my interest all over mainstream and online media channels, how is the public interest of the ‘small voices’ served?

    Ethically, I believe the practitioner must act and be seen to act as an agent for change. The listening advocate who, as Toni suggests, engages with and balances the conflicting interests that always exist between the organisation and stakeholders but then clearly indicates the areas of behavioural change the organisation must undertake if its permission to operate is to continue in a public sphere. And part of that process is the access to information that Judy highlights. Ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity – here we go again.

    Now I must away as some small voices are loudly demanding dinner, so I’d best go and advocate with the noodles and chicken on their behalf…

    * Cadbury link – http://www.cadbury.co.uk/EN/CTB2003/about_chocolate/history_cadbury/social_pioneers/jcadbury_reforms.htm

  3. This is a great post, Catherine, where you’ve touched on all kinds of issues and questions, including the rights and roles of the general public, the engaged online communities, the individual practitioner and our related PR associations about what is in the best interest of the public/public interest. I won’t even attempt to debate most of the issues in this comment, rather I’ll just focus on the concept of information.

    It seemed the weekend edition of the Globe and Mail was also filled with articles about the public interest (OPP study abuse allegations, an inquiry into Grenville College; a political editorial by Judith Timson called “We assume we’re being lied to” about politicians, etc.) Many aren’t freely available online, but the one about the (Canadian) federal, provincial and municipal access-to (or freedom-of) information requests did, so I’m including it below.

    I think that’s the heart of the matter, to best serve the public interest there needs to be access to as much information as possible, as well as there being as many opportunities as possible for a variety of constituents to provide input. (I really liked Heather’s comment about how children and young adults are often ignored or patronized, particularly galling if the item up for debate concerns them.) Where and when (organizationally employed) public relations practitioners are best suited to this role of facilitator of free and open information remains up for debate.

    “There’s a good reason why David fights Goliath”
    Big stories, from the sponsorship scandal to illegal daycares, began with a single request–even if it meant annoying those in power http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070922.wfoiottawa0922/EmailBNStory/National/

  4. Yum, yum… This discussion is excellent food for thought. Cathy could you supply us with the Alex Messina paper which sounds interesting?
    Taking all the various cited arguments into consideration, we could opt to escalate and take on the huge debate which is going on in social and political studies about the increasing feebleness of representative democracy in real life situations which are becoming more and more complex and which many suggest require other means of decision making processes (deliberative polling, for example, along the thoughts of Fischkin or other paraphernalia).
    However I prefer here to be the public relations professional who tries to relate the argument to his day-to-day work. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in my view a professional when facing a practical situation needs to identify and analyse three different types of interest: a) the interest of the employer/client; b)the interests (often conflicting) of the employer/client stakeholders on that specific issue;c)the public interest.
    An example: I manage a bruxelles based ngo formed by four european automobile clubs which attempts to contribute to public policies promoting sustainable mobility in metropolitan areas. The organization’s interest is to influence policies so that urban congestion and pollution are reduced, keeping in mind the well being of the members it represents (car owners, who are -by the way- also pietons, public transport users, bike riders and are just as affected by congestion and pollution as othe urban citizens). If we identify our major stakeholders on this issue, we may say they are, to name a few: non drivers, public policy makers, weaker segments of urban dwellings, urban planners, other european automobile clubs, environmentalists, transport and infrastructure economic operators….. their interest probably coincide in general with the one I stated for the organization, but the proposed policies will certainly differ (congestion charging, city centers without cars, reinforcement of public transport etc…). Finally the public interest might also be similar in general, but each city, region, state has decided different ways to regulate urban traffic and of course there are competing interests to modify those regulations.
    Given this situation, my role as public relations professional is to be fully aware and updated of this complex situation and suggest to my client/employer to promote policies which take all these different interests into consideration while pushing for solutions which are as close as possible to the specific interest of the organization.
    From a purely ethical point of view, for example, if we say that congestion charging has (as it has) significant undesired consequences (won’t go into details) we must also be ready to prove these undesired consequences and propose other solutions which have less undesired consequences. For example, if only 10% of all less than 4 km. car trips in urban areas were eliminated, the effects on congestion would be probably superior to those of congestion charging. Sure, but how do you convince car drivers to do this? We are elaborating and plan to come up with some convincing arguments.
    Another practical example?
    I work for a huge service organization that is trying to implement a highly advanced social responsibility policy and program. The organization’s interest is to improve overall quality of life for all its stakeholders by improving its processes and services, and by involving in this process some of the weaker segments of society. Clearly each stakeholder group has a similar general interest, but its specific interests are often antagonist, structurally as well as due to limited available resources. The public interest also is to improve quality of life, but there are significant regulatory obligations which my client/employer must respect and which very much constrain operations. My role is to assist the organization in developing and implementing corporate responsility policies involving every aspect of operations considering stakeholder expressed expectations as well as regulatory constraints. From a purely ethical point of view, for example, an advanced program to foster integration in urban areas of different migrant communities (an issue of increasing concern) will require significant investments which are bound to imply reductions in other ongoing programs (cultural or educational, for example) and therefore I will need to anticipate and moderate inevitable disappointments while at the same time pressure other stakeholders (suppliers, business partners etc and the state) to support the program and to modify regulatory constraints which do not harm the public interest.
    The process is much easier when professional issues are less complex.
    A third example: I work for a quoted company who is beginning to involve retail investors in their stakeholder relationship programs (which sofar have successfully involved other internal and external stakeholder groups). The interest of the organization is to attract the loyalty of retail investors. The interests of other stakeholders such as institutional investors, financial market authorities, the banking system… all have different interests related to the development or not of a mature retail market. The public interest is, at least according to the government, to reinforce and grow a huge, aware and responsible segment of retail investors. My role as a professional is to suggest to my client/employer a stakeholder management program which, taking into consideration all the identified interests, will succeed in increasing loyalty as well as increase awareness and responsibility in retail investors.
    From an ethical point of view, for example, financial education is one of the weak points of italian retail investors and if you push them they risk making huge mistakes. So one must be very careful to involve them in communities where experienced, reputed and neutral experts supply them with sufficient information. As there are no neutral institutions that do this it might be questionable that we do it, but it is a risk we wish to run…..
    I might have completely misunderstood the core of this post and, in this case, I fully apologise.. but its seems to me that the three step process I described may be of some assistance. For me it is working well.

  5. Great post Catherine, and great comments. I bring you a more extended view as I have begun thinking on how to comment since this conversation started and found a great deal of related arguments.

    It’s very common to hear people using the expression “public interest” when they are really speaking about “what the public is interested in”. Due to this and other bad using of the word, one can almost say that “public interest” has become a catch-all word, similar to “public opinion”, ending up not meaning anything to the average listener.

    One of the constitutive features of life in society is that it is made up of a variety of interests. And the need of a decisional system that manages the consequences impacting specific interests legitimizes the appearance of government – at least this was Dewey’s interpretation. The primary aim of such a decisional (political) system is to produce balanced Public Consequences (as opposed to private consequences) which can be defined as consequences generated to a specific party which wasn’t directly involved in the decision that created the consequences.

    So, we are all subject to Private Consequences in our own life when we make decisions, but we are also subject to public consequences which impact us – but in which we weren’t directly involved. While in the first case, our private interest is the governing concept, in the second case our interest has to be balanced with a broader range of interests.

    But what defines the “public interest”? Well, according to Rousseau a possible answer could be that a “general will” defines the public interest. However, a “general will” shouldn’t be confused with the “will of a majority” (for example as expressed by polls) since it is beyond that – and even beyond the wisdom of a person or collection of persons.

    Yet, in the context of Public Relations, we should try to agree on what does it mean to work in the “public interest”. Quoting my good friend Mafalda Eiró-Gomes, who expressed it at the World Public Relations Festival in Trieste, the “mission of Public Relations is to promote human understanding”. Inspired by this I argue that Public Relations in the Public Interest – you can read the full paper here http://www.prconversations.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/paper_final_eupr05.pdf – requires finding effective ways to empower publics and promote their own autonomy. And this is certainly one of the most effective strategies for public relators to develop organisational social capital, which may well be one of the most important competitive advantages that organisations of the XXI century can rely on.

    The more wise and autonomous publics are, the better they can present their interests to the decisional (political) system, and thus improve the quality of the decisions (and consequences) that it will produce. The quality of public decisions can be improved if we work in the public interest and thus reduce the arbitrary action by those in the decisional system. This is precisely where new media can bring a great advantage because they allow a greater autonomy for publics to form their own will and effectively make it available for the decisional powers.

  6. I thought the following stats provided by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy (2007) were interesting in view of our discussion:
    28 countries are considered full democracies (13% of world population).
    54 countries are considered flawed democracies (38.3%)
    30 countries are hybrid regimes (10.5%)
    55 countries are authoritarian regimes (38.3%)

    So 48.8% of the world’s population live in authoritarian or hybrid regimes.


  7. Over the past year I have been reading A.N.Wilson’s books – The Victorians and After the Victorians. These have challenged a lot of my thinking about democracy and the concept of public sphere.

    Many of those in the 19th and 20th centuries who sought to improve the lives of others less fortunate than themselves helped create a better society. Through their campaigns, the right to vote was extended to the working classes, younger people and women, and the living and working conditions of millions were changed beyond recognition. Many of us even in an affluent, democracy such as the UK, only have to go back a few generations to find relatives in the workhouses.

    How can we forget those who gave their lives in conflicts, including two world wars – started by those with power prepared to sacrifice the masses? Or at the hands of dictators, uncaring about any public sphere?

    However, this liberal approach came with an agenda of improving people not just their lives. Through the British Empire, this attitude was thoughtlessly extended to those of even wider cultural backgrounds.

    Hence it seems hard to conceive of a public sphere that isn’t battered by vested interests all claiming to speak for and represent others. Charities, NGOs, activists, commercial organisations, governments, academics, gurus, trade unionists and the media seek to use public relations and communication channels to stake a claim to the public sphere.

    But do we really hear the voices of the public? I recall a recent debate in the UK regarding the closure of factories run by disabled people. Nowhere in the arguments were the voices of those working in the factories heard. The “does he take sugar?” attitude prevails.

    Public opinion surveys marginalise minorities. They focus on what the majority wants – which tends to emphasise extremes.

    Children and young people are ignored or patronised – of course, they do not have a vote to cast even in countries with general enfranchisement. The elderly are all but invisible in many societies today. Mental health issues are increasingly common – but those affected are rarely heard and frequently discriminated against.

    We continue to look down on some sections of society whose behaviour challenges accepted norms. Campaigns continue to strive to better people. Government and campaign groups interfere in public diets, sexual habits, parenting skills, dress and even the way others speak.

    In the case of Northern Rock, the public has been labelled as in a panic, a mob of angry customers. The fatcat cityboys who have dumped shares have not been equally labelled. When we have heard the voices of customers, they have been reasoned and concerned.

    Who can blame them for not trusting politicians, the media or banks? The victims in financial scandals are invariably the ordinary people – they’ve lost jobs, pensions, savings; seen house prices collapse, industries decimated.

    Hearing Mervyn King advocate secrecy only heightens concerns that those in power keep matters out of the public sphere for their own vested interests.

    Companies like Mattel cannot guarantee that children’s toys are safe. We are bombarded by food scares and recalls of everything from medicines to cars. Charities take our money but does it reach those who need it most – why are so many victims of the Tsunami still without homes despite millions of pounds being donated, largely by ordinary people?

    Messages from public relations practitioners seek to persuade rather than engage and listen. Whether influencing people to buy more products, sign up to services, vote for this person, donate to a charity, support some issue, start doing this or stop doing that, the public feels overwhelmed with information, yet not better informed.

    How can their voices be heard? Organisations pay lip service to feedback – often seeking our opinions and data to use against us, finding “better” ways to change us.

    How often do we see two-way symmetric communications – let alone the “win-win” zone favouring those without the power of money, media access or other controls?

    Will new media opportunities help amplify the voices who are largely unheard? We can hope so, but there is a huge digital divide that many will remain silent.

    There is a wider context to the public sphere and the power of public relations should not be something understood and employed only by various elites regardless of their motives.

  8. In my comment on Toni’s Philip Morris post, I also raised some of these issues. I do not believe that the law sufficiently protects or the ballot box decides the public interest, aka ‘common good’ or ‘public welfare’. This cynicism might be related to the fact that I was born and bred on the African continent where there often ain’t no law and order, to say nothing about the glaring absence of ballot boxes. (And let me tell you, the presence of ballot boxes in no way means that things are progressing according to law or that the outcome will be order, to say nothing about the public interest). And even in democracies, it takes years before societal standards and norms become the law. Thus, in my thinking, the public interest will increasingly be determined in the ‘public sphere’ by the public (with the blogosphere, citizen journalism and the Internet in general playing a tremendous role).

    However, that brings us to yet another question, namely what is the ‘public sphere’?. I share with you a few thoughts of Prof Inger Jensen of Roskilde University in Denmark. The roots of the public sphere is in democracy – people obtained basic rights such as personal privacy and freedom of assembly, speech and press in order to empower private persons to meet in public to discuss and criticise the government. However, basic constitutional guarantees alone do not preserve the public sphere—its communication structures must be kept intact by an energetic civil society. For the benefit of the postgraduate students ‘out there’ (I know there are quite a few of you), Habermas defines civil society as a “network of associations that institutionalizes problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework of organized public spheres”). Quite a mouthful, isn’t it. But let’s stick to the public sphere for now.

    Although the public sphere was originally thought of as being an assembly of citizens at a certain location or the population in general, it is not so today – yet it is dependent on freedom of assembly, association and speech. The public sphere is not the media, but is dependent on freedom of press. It is not a set of common values or norms, or the results of opinion polls, but can influence institutionalised opinion formation in society. It is not the sum of individual private preferences and beliefs, but still it depends on the protection of privacy and the freedom of belief. It does not normally come to an agreement or decision, but influences decisions made by individuals, associations and government.

    For example: As members of society, citizens are both employees producing products and consumers using products. They are taxpayers, but they are also users of government services. In this dual capacity, they experience failures or problems. First they talk (moan) about it amongst themselves (word of mouth), but later they enter it into public discourse as something that is of interest to everyone and should be known to everyone. (102 million bloggers and an unknown number of activists sure are going to make a contribution towards this cause!!)

    A common trait of these discourses is that they are launched as being of common concern, in principle of everybody’s interest. Discourses thus represent a civilized way of disagreeing openly about essential matters of common concern. Although these discourses in the public sphere seldom provide conclusions, they are a source of social power, trust and legitimacy for organisations in the private sphere and for government.

    Based on these views, I thus believe that we, as PR people, have a tightrope to walk — considering personal and professional and organisational ethics against the backdrop of discourses on right and wrong in the public sphere. But don’t worry. If we make a mistake, we will soon find out. Ask Debbie Weil. And if our companies make a mistake, the world will soon know. Ask Arthur Andersen and Enron.

    (The hyperlinks are not showing: For Debbie Weil, it is http://www.blogwriteforceos.com/blogwrite/2007/07/using-the-backc.html and for Arthur Andersen it is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Andersen).

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