Lamentation on a changing field: When crises call, honesty and objectivity rule

William Swanger, MA, APR, senior vice president of Diakon’s Office of Corporate Communications & Public Relations, offers a blog post about his particular—and sometimes confusing—field.

I am proud of the field in which I work (and about which I teach part-time).

It’s called public relations.

And, yes, I am aware of our reputation for “spin” and for always painting things in the best light.

I would argue that’s not true public relations.

Perhaps it would help if we adopted the term some researchers use for analyzing the field: relationship management.

Get the distinction?

While public relations is frequently confused with media relations or public information (or, unfortunately, press-agentry [that is, promoting something, typically at all costs]), it’s really about helping organizations to cultivate and maintain relationships between the organization and the various publics on whom its success or failure depends.

The added aspect of this approach is that the goal is as much mutual benefit for both organization and public.

I know that sounds utopian but a lot of research shows that organizations get more of what they want when they give publics more of what they want.

Recently, I read of a major survey that indicates public relations is on a path eventually to converge with marketing. While we do lots of marketing communication in Diakon’s Office of Corporate Communications & Public Relations, I think that convergence is not a good thing.

That’s because marketing is, ultimately, essentially about sales. Not a bad thing—organizations have to sell products or services to survive.

But when you combine relationship management with sales, without understanding the distinction, I believe you can lose the objectivity that’s required when developing mutually beneficial relationships—or when dealing with a crisis.

I believe one person or office can, indeed, do both jobs—and even do them well—but only with sound knowledge of which hat is worn at which moment.

Public relations practitioners are supposed to be boundary-spanners. That means we are to have a foot in two worlds—internal and external, so that we can represent the organization to the world and the world (and its interests) back to the organization and other senior management. That role requires objectivity.

I am afraid any eventual, comprehensive convergence with marketing will remove that objectivity—after all, sales folks are focused on the exchange relationship of product for money—and make practitioners suspect in front of media that are all too often suspicious of what we do.

When I worked as a journalist many years ago, I trusted those public relations practitioners who understood how media work and what media’s needs are—and who were viewed as absolutely open and honest about their organization.

That, particularly in a crisis, is one of the key roles of public relations.

We need to keep that role clearly in mind in such situations—so that we do not ultimately cost our organizations their reputations, along with that of the public relations field.

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