Where's the PR in politics?
I get nervous during campaign season. The ads make me cringe. My stomach is in knots during the debates. It’s not because of what the candidates and their campaigns say. It’s because of what people say about them: “spin.” “Distortion.” And eventually (insert heavy sigh), “it’s just PR.”
There’s a long history of associating politics with public relations. Of course, there is some overlap. But, unfortunately, the public relations profession gets painted with a broad and nasty brush of politics -- the arena in which the term “spin” originated.
I have two reactions to labeling the campaign messaging as “just PR.” One, yes. It is true that there are some PR people working for campaigns who deliberately distort situations or use only partial facts in order to gain any advantage in winning public opinion to their side. But my second reaction is an emphatic No! You can’t label an entire profession by the misdeeds of some practitioners. That also is a distortion. Not all priests are pedophiles. Not all photographers are pornographers.
The larger problem is not just the case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. A lot of what happens in politics is done by people who are not bona fide public relations professionals. They do not have a degree in public relations, are not accredited in public relations (APR) and are not members of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). If any of the three were true, they would be more likely to practice PR according to the mantra of the PRSA Code of Ethics, which is that public relations enables “informed decision making in a democratic society.”
But no, many of these political staffers, both when seeking and holding office, have a background in political science. That makes sense given the landscape, but it is hard to call what they do public relations given their background. The public does so because they are seen talking to reporters, which is part of what public relations people do. But how they do it matters. So after debates, when each campaign talks to reporters in what they call the “spin room,” I cringe. I tell my students spin is a four-letter word never to be said or practiced, because it connotes deliberate lies.
An irony here is that many of the people who practice what is called public relations in politics come from journalism. When I recently read the book “All the Presidents’ Spokesmen: Spinning the News — White House Press Secretaries from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush” by Woody Klein (note the title) I took note of the background of each presidential press secretary. All but two or three were former journalists. So we have political press secretaries who used to be journalists “spinning” and it is called “just PR” by the news media even though it is their own former colleagues doing it.
I have been at academic conferences where fellow public relations professors have suggested the PR profession distance itself from politics. I disagree. I think we need to embrace it and work to educate practitioners and the public about the positive role PR people can play by truly working from a public information model in which the goal is to enable informed decision making and not-win-at-all-costs manipulation of public opinion.
But I suspect we will always have negative ads, accusations, scandal and spin. In fact, it was much worse at the origin of our nation’s political life, according to the book “Scandal and Civility: Journalism at the Birth of American Democracy” by Marcus Daniel. Democracy, as they say, is messy. So it may be necessary and inevitable.
But I would hope people would call it what it is — politics — and then consider what PR really is and should be.