I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion regarding ethics and social media. I was asked to represent the field of public relations. While preparing I wondered, how many people really know what public relations is?
Oddly enough, the public relations industry does a terrible job of public relations. Very few people, both inside and outside of public relations, can explain what people in public relations actually do.
One of most common misconceptions is the confusion that exists between public relations, marketing and advertising. Although there are similarities, there also are key differences.
The most significant distinction between marketing, public relations, and advertising is the primary focus and goal of each. Public relations emphasizes the cultivation of relationships between an organization or individual, and key publics, for the purpose of managing the client’s image. Marketing emphasizes the promotion of products and services for revenue purposes. Advertising is a tool used by marketers in order to get customers to act.
Some would point out that effective public relations results in earned media. But what does that mean? Again, most people don’t know. Earned media refers to positive, intentional mentions in the media that are in fact earned, as they are newsworthy, and are not paid for. It may include quotes by experts, news about a business or individual that was “pitched” to the media via press releases or solid contacts, event promotion, or other positive references. Advertising is, well, paid for.
With the advent of social media, things have gotten a bit muddied. There’s a perception that self- published blogs, videos, or Tweets are comparable to mentions in the New York Times, the Boulder Daily Camera or the Longmont Daily Times-Call. Don’t kid yourself. Social media may augment public relations efforts, and help to amplify messaging, but it’s no substitute for the credibility obtained through strategic public relations efforts. Social media also has some bad actors with no ethics.
Thus, the ethics discussion. The public relations industry has a code of ethics designed to guide practitioners to ensure that, when effectively done, it doesn’t harm society or individuals. That’s how powerful public relations can be when successfully implemented.
Edward Bernays, often cited as the father of public relations, was hired in 1930 by the American Tobacco Company to encourage women to start smoking. While men smoked cigarettes, it was not publicly acceptable for women to smoke. Bernays staged a dramatic public display of women smoking during the Easter Day Parade in New York City. He told the press to expect that women suffragists would light up “torches of freedom” during the parade to show they were equal to men. It worked. The event made front-page news with both photos and text and opened editorial debates in the weeks that followed in publications from coast to coast. When, years later, smoking was found to be harmful Bernays was haunted by the campaign. He remained so until the end of his life in 1995.
I had the pleasure of meeting Bernays shortly before he died. He personally impressed upon me the profound importance of ethics in our chosen field and I’ve never forgotten it. Public relations, after all, is the “Persuasion Business”. It’s about promoting ideas, influencing decisions, garnering support for your positions or recognizing accomplishments. Public relations people are storytellers. We create narratives to advance agendas. It’s utilized every day to protect, enhance and build reputations through traditional media, social media, and other means of communication.
So, true professionals must be honest, transparent, and most of all ethical. Anything less simply isn’t public relations, no matter how you define it.