Why the Public Doesn't Understand Public Relations
(Or, Where Did We Go Wrong?)

By Craig Miyamoto, APR, Fellow PRSA

This paper was part of a presention at the November 1997 national conference of the Public Relations Students Society of America in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ask anybody you know -- business leaders included -- about their impression of public relations, and I guarantee the reply will focus on publicity. Or, they will look at you for a second or two, scrunch up their eyebrows, attempt to mumble something, then completely give up.

Then, what if they ask you the same question? Very few practitioners can answer in plain and simple language, very few can define public relations in 15 words or less without describing the tactical things that we do.

And in that simple little exercise, you have the answer to the question, "Why don't people understand what we do?" Something obviously is wrong if (1) nobody understands what we do, and (2) we can't explain what we do so our own families can describe our work to others.

As public relations practitioners, we've all had to live through what others have said about us. At times, it sure does rankle to have our profession maligned. Do any of these sound familiar?

Does the public have a basis for criticism? Maybe. Let's look at some reasons why:

Societal changes have something to do with the way we're viewed. People seem to be a lot ruder and inconsiderate these day. Examples abound: At a recent Public Relations Society of America national conference, a video address by U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was booed down; people are shooting each other on our freeways; national news magazines write cover stories on the new intolerance.

Watergate probably has something to do with this. People no longer trust government. The news media has become more cynical and intrusive. The national psyche underwent a traumatic transformation during the congressional hearings.

We are all under tremendous social pressure to succeed in an era of reengineering and downsizing, having to do more for less, being required to prove their worth, wanting to keep up with the Joneses, wanting bigger homes and nicer cars -- money, money, money!

We worry about our health and safety. The era of sexual freedom came crashing down with the rise of herpes, young people now have to worry about HIV and AIDS, older people are fearful of Alzheimer's disease, cancer is more prevalent, automobile accidents and airline crashes seem to occur more frequently, and there is always the specter of a DUI incident every time we get into a car.

Society is more litigious. The number of product liability suits is going through the roof. Frivolous suits are filed every day by unreasonable people who are "gonna get mine before someone else does."

Are lawyers to blame for this misunderstanding? More and more, lawyers are practicing public relations on the courthouse steps, "spinning" their own version of what's happening in the courtroom. And they're not afraid to lie and manipulate either.

At the 1993 conference of the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication, attorney Eric Naiburg (legal counsel for the infamous Amy Fisher) admitted making up stories and lying to the news media. People see this, and they call it PR. People see this, and they blame us.

Could it be the news media's fault? The news media and public relations engage in a self-proclaimed "love/hate relationship." They assume that public relations diverts attention from the truth, equivocates, deflects and misdirects.

The pretenders -- the charlatans who pose as professionals -- must share some of the blame. After all, they have no training, and are doing our work poorly.

And then there are the corporations -- close-mouthed, anti-media, so untrusting that they'd rather stonewall the media, stonewall the activists who are "in their face," and oftentimes, even stonewall the local community. What is THAT all about?

On the other hand, is it our fault? Should we look in the mirror and point the fingers at ourselves?

(Reply 1) Hell NO! We're not to blame! We're trying our best, we're ethical, we're professional, we're dependable, we're knowledgeable, we provide value, we're competent, we improve society. It's not our fault!

(Reply 2) Hell YES! We're trying to live down our roots in propaganda, we often cannot prove our bottom-line worth, we use hyperbole, we're often incompetent, we manipulate facts, we peddle our influence, we've been caught at insider trading, we post no counter-offensive, and our ethics codes need beefing up.

Is this misunderstanding so important that we should care? The first questions we need to ask in anything we do in public relations are: "Is there really a problem to fix?" and "Does anybody care?" Well, somebody does care -- those who are trying to make the public relations profession great, those who believe our counsel is indispensable, those who are proud of the work we do.

The profession's future effectiveness and existence depends on its practitioners caring about why the public doesn't understand what we do. The vast majority of our colleagues is ethical and competent. We have a tremendous source of knowledge, influence, power and collegiality that if focused, can make this point.

Public relations provides a natural atmosphere for business partnering, arbitration and negotiation. And, we have an obligation to the public good because of the power we wield. We work from the inside, complementing the work that the good-intentioned news media attempts to accomplish from the outside. We have the ability to influence policy that will benefit society. We work better from the inside.

Why should we care? Because it's the right thing to do.

Let's face it. It's our own damned fault that the public doesn't understand what we do. And we should care. So, what can we do? Here's a starter list:

  • Stop distributing misleading information.
  • Wield our power judiciously.
  • Forget hyperbole and exaggeration.
  • Practice candor and forthrightness.
  • Get involved in policy decisions.
  • Be willing to be held accountable.
  • Contribute to the bottom line.
  • Put our jobs on the line.
  • Eliminate conflicts of interest, remove ourselves from decisions if necessary.
  • Don't give in to temptations of money, influence and/or power.
  • Keep our values intact.
  • Increase our personal credibility.
  • Do our work with the public interest in mind.
  • Don't over-promise.
  • Work to beef up codes of ethics, abide by them.
  • Serve the "Five Masters" well -- self, client, employer, profession, and society.

Why doesn't the public understand public relations? Because we haven't given them a good reason to, that's why.

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