It really, really unnerves me whenever a journalist or talk show host — especially on the radio — while criticizing or making fun of a politician’s discourse, event or photograph in the news media, almost always identifies the action as a “public relations gimmick” or “public relations stunt.”
Let me assure you — without any doubt in my mind — that no true professional public relations practitioner would ever suggest, recommend or abide by most of the gimmicks or stunts politicians use to drive the voters’ favor. As in any profession there are excellently qualified, skilled and proficient experts in the field, but too few of them are managing public relations for government officials or agencies (or perhaps not that many relacionistas are willing to work for them.)
As in any professional environment there are the “relatives,” who are good at public relations because they really like people (they should try getting a job at K-mart); the “followers,” loyal party members who are jack-of-all-trades; the “newbies,” fresh out of school but able to accept a lower salary than an experienced practitioner.
There are also the journalists, appointed for their experience in the news media, which does not necessarily translate into a qualified public relations practitioner. And, of course, there are the “friends” or “friends of friends” who are hired without any concern for their education, their aptitude or competence.
As someone who has been a relacionista for more than 30 years, I resent this generalized lack of respect to my chosen profession, especially by people who do not have the faintest idea of what the discipline entails. Do they ever wonder why at least three fourths of Fortune 500 companies have a department, division or unit dedicated to public relations?
Public relations permeates everything
The introduction to the third edition of the Dartnell Public Relations Handbook, one of the often-cited bibles of the industry, notes: “Every organization, institution, and individual has public relations whether or not that fact is recognized. As long as there are people, living together in communities, working together in organizations, and forming a society, there will be an intricate web of relationships among them.” Building that intricate web of relationships is what public relations is all about.
While it is hard to imagine a political campaign without publicity and persuasive messages, the fundamental partnership between politics and public relations at its highest level goes far beyond that — but perhaps not in the way many people might think.
This use of public relations has nothing to do with making things appear other than they are, no connection to negative campaigns aimed at denigrating the opposition. It includes no week-before-the-election dirty tricks designed to shift voters’ attention from the real issues. In fact, all of these things serve only to corrode and corrupt channels of communication — the exact opposite of the most desired outcomes of any public relations program.
Critical to both voters and politicians is that most elusive of concepts — public opinion — and that’s the place where well-done public relations really shines. Reading public opinion on the issues that matter most and crafting political positions and communication based on that public opinion is the real contribution that public relations can make to the political process.
This two-way approach represents the practice of public relations at the highest level — one that is inherently ethical. With change possible for both public and politician, neither puts the other at an unfair advantage.
Adjustment and adaptation — the give and take that is essential in today’s world — are the key concepts in this balanced two-way approach. Public relations at this level allows for persuasion of the voter and modification of the politician, all done with an eye to bringing both to that most valuable of outcomes — mutually beneficial relationships.
Now, come and tell me that what politicians are doing in Puerto Rico is public relations. Anyone?