Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Responsible Advocacy in Modern Day Public Relations

In 1947, Edward Bernays defined public relations as “the engineering of consent” (in Parsons, P. 2004, p106) and believed that it was this manipulation of ideas carried out by the elite of society that defined its practice. Whilst Bernays has always been acknowledged as the father of public relations for his subsequent works, it is this statement of manipulation, coupled with disregard for responsible advocacy, which has led the industry to be misunderstood and misplaced in society.

A modern day definition of an advocate is a person that is
“... inextricably identified with that organisation or cause for everyone who sees or hears you or even knows what you do for a living” (Parsons, P. 2004 p106). 

That is to say that, it is the role of an advocate to speak on behalf of, or act in defence of, their cause; and in doing so, are simultaneously demonstrating their moral standing on such an issue. It stands to reason that a vegetarian would not represent a chain of butcher shops; representing a cause you do not believe in is not only unethical – betraying the trust instilled in your publics – but it provides a conflict of interest between the two parties.

For public relations to be successful and useful, it must enhance social utility within society. Public relations practitioners cannot hope to effect a change in public opinion unless they have a positive and credible message to communicate; generally, a message is only credible if it is ethically sound, and conduct has been based on virtuous motives.

Like all corporations before them, non profit organisations use public relations activities to convey their key messages to their publics – acting as advocates for their cause. Their very existence means that they do not have the economic resource to provide outlay for this type of activity, and, until recently, have found it difficult to influence media coverage. Yet there has been outcry in this sector when organisations have been deemed to:

“overstep the boundaries of ethical practice to publicise their organisations’ efforts, yet still achieve positive results because of market conditions that favour low-cost, high-impact public relations materials.”  (Bronstein,C. 2006, p77)

The League Against Cruel Sports were criticised for such practice by releasing graphic video news releases – themselves a product direct from the PR team – portraying a bloody foxhunt. It is a common ploy for those eager to build audience share to use such a tactic, but its execution and airing of shocking footage falls short of what is deemed ethical.  

It seems that whilst economic resource remains scarce and other organisations continue to partake in such activities, the abandonment of responsible advocacy is presented as the most attractive option, and with it brings the risk of organisational reputation and negative public scrutiny.
Justification for such actions by non profit organisations may come in the form that their actions ultimately serve the greater common good – and not for capital gain. This approach is at odds with the teachings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who taught that we as individuals have an obligation to tell the truth under all circumstances, and as responsible advocates, have an organisational responsibility. Losing this integrity leads to a breakdown in trust. As Bronstein states:

“Nonprofit practitioners who employ irresponsible practices must recognise that they run the risk of undermining their organisations’ reputations and accomplishments, and violating the rights and interests of stakeholders.” (Bronstein, C. 2006, p80)  

However, the advent of the Internet has changed the landscape of communication, and according to practitioner George Pitcher exerted a “levelling effect” (in Bronstein, C. 2006, p73) on online public relations, breaking down wealthy corporate barriers and allowing communication to take place where everybody has the same status and equal voice.

“...the advent of low-cost, high-impact electronic communication affords nonprofits an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to public discourse.” (Bronstein, C. 2006, p73)

The use of online mediums goes further, however; speed of delivering information, ease of securing facts almost instantaneously and a broader range of voices and perspectives has put pressure on the journalism industry to “be more innovative and responsive in their reporting, and more wide-ranging in their search for stories and sources.” (Bronstein, C. 2006, p73) Using blogs as an effective public relations tool demonstrates the ability to not only attract an organisation’s publics, but also to influence its influencers – shaping the opinions of journalists and media alike.

Low-cost and high-impact campaigns are the key drivers behind unethical practice – and with the Internet offering this as well as democratising the press, it seems to easily fit into the place once occupied by irresponsible advocacy. 

When high profile or large organisations flout ethical boundaries, they suggest that their behaviour is entirely appropriate; and to those smaller, economically-challenged organisations, exposure and scrutiny seem a small price to pay to achieve their objectives.  

By placing the primary cause or issue ahead of their responsibility to advocate ethically, an organisation is risking reputation, trust and integrity. Since PR is about reputation, it would seem ironic that the industry’s own PR is flawed by its own ability to disregard simple ethical codes. Practitioners must rise above their own self-interest, and question any tactics they care to undertake with Kant’s approach, as opposed to a utilitarianism one – would I be willing to be the recipient of my action?

Unethical practices may feature heavily in the media, partly due to the industry’s inclination towards negative news and scandal. However, ethical practice remains at the heart of good business practice –

“...better than unethical ones when it comes to reputation and public image and enhancing the trust that oils the machinery of relationships between organisations and their publics.” (Parsons, P. 2004, p158)   

Responsible advocacy can be fostered through relationship management by creating umbrella organisations and resource sharing within these firms.  Dialogic communication, the means of interaction between organisations and publics in which all participants have an equal chance to contribute and no participant exercises control over another, in most circumstances using the Internet, means organisations can arrive at shared truths and mutually accepted practices.

The advent of the Internet has caused a huge shift in communication – not only enabling individuals and organisations  “with relatively modest resources to reach a global audience instantaneously twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week” (Hallahan, K. 2006, p108) but providing a voice for everyone, including non profit organisations “...the Internet has potential to equalise power relationships in society and to provide a ‘voice’ to otherwise marginalised groups.” (Hallahan, K. 2006,  p108)

This of course is not to say that the Internet and use of online PR does not face its own ethical minefield – quite to the contrary. The very fact that the World Wide Web is largely unregulated, allowing any user access to anything at any time, and also leading to the dawn of citizen’s journalism, creates a headache of its own. What PR practitioners must observe is ethical codes and the delivery of responsible advocacy in every sphere. Only by following these practices can we begin to nurture those relationships we have spent so long forging between organisations and its publics.

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