Blind Men, Elephants, and Public Relations

UnknownThere’s an old proverb about  blind men describing an elephant. One strokes a leg and says “it’s a tree.” One touches a tusk and says “it’s a spear.’ A third grasps the trunk and declares “it’s a snake.” And so on.

All are offering somewhat correct descriptions of what they experience. But they don’t see the big picture. No one points out they are touching only a part of an elephant.

Such is the nature of describing and defining the field of public relations.

The problem has existed for years, but I’ve noticed it in increasing instances recently:

  • a dialogue with a practitioner on LinkedIn who characterizes public relations as pitching reporters;
  • a New York Times article about Facebook’s “PR firm.” But upon upon careful reading  the firm, Definers Public Affairs, is NOT a PR firm but a political opposition research firm. They do talk about earned media, but even so it’s only a limited aspect of PR.
  • An article in Forbes that purports to predict the future of PR, only to characterize the profession as merely media relations and the future as digital storytelling. Most professionals and academic programs are well into the digital future, and storytelling is one aspect of what PR professionals do.
  • a business publication article characterizes PR as “putting your organization in a positive light,” which is cringe-worthy for its unethical implications and the ability to be synonymous with “spin.”

In short, characterizations of public relations–by the news media and, sadly, even by some who work or claim to work in the profession–either demonize what we do as dishonest or minimize what we do as mere publicity. They are blindly describing the only aspect of something huge, the one thing they touch.

What is really frustrating about all of this is that we are 100 years beyond PR being hucksterism or mere publicity seeking. I wrote a journal article about this some years ago, recounting how early practitioners like Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and Arthur W. Page proclaimed they were beyond news releases and focused their time counseling management about their relationships with their publics. This was in the 1920s!

We still have a media-cultivated view of PR. The articles I mentioned above are bereft of any reporting that seeks out a comment from a PR professor or a professional organization such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Arthur W. Page Society, The PR Council, the Institute for Public Relations, or others. These organizations would provide a much more accurate and complete characterization of the profession of public relations. They would describe the whole elephant, you might say.

So what is PR? It is many things. That’s the point. But here’s the key–don’t define “PR” by a tactic, but by the publics and the objectives. Public relations is essentially about relationships between an organization and ALL of its publics, also called stakeholders. “Stakeholder Theory” is a model taught in many public relations programs to stress the ethical nature of public relations being responsive to all people affected by an organization.

So public relations could be called any of the following focused on specific publics–consumer relations, investor relations, employee relations, donor relations, and yes, media relations–the media are both a public and a channel to other publics.

Public relations also involves all aspects of communication tactics, including but not limited to media relations or ‘earned’ media. Many in PR discuss the PESO model to emphasize that a PR campaign could use any and all tactics available–Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned. PR writing classes in the curriculum where I teach cover all of them.

Here are some more body parts of the elephant:

  • PR is a management function, all about counseling the CEO and others in the C-suite about the organization’s relationships with its various publics, all in keeping with organizational  mission and objectives.
  • PR is two-way–it is more than “getting the word out” or “raising awareness.” It involves emphatic and ethical listening to publics and adjusting to maintain mutually beneficial relationships.
  • PR is strategic. See above bullet. Many communication theories are vital to not just informing but developing understanding, positive attitude and motivation to action among publics with whom PR professionals communicate.
  • PR is inherently ethical. There is growing research that asserts that many PR professionals embrace the role of the ethical conscience of their organization, because PR is the one management function that considers ALL publics in terms of mutual relationships.

I could go on. But suffice it to say that PR is–and has been for a century–far more than many journalists and even current practitioners make it out to be. It’s not that hard for self-proclaimed gurus in the industry to take off the blinders of their solitary experience and see the whole elephant. My hope for the future is that people who don’t will be laughed at, or stepped on.

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