Why publicity is public relations (and it’s all inherently amoral)

It is ethics month at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and to mark the occasion I finally got round to reading Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’.

As Stuart Bruce suggests in his review, it’s a book about much more than public relations – consumerism, sustainability and modern politics, to name a few monster themes.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Waddington also points out, it usefully rehearses the big challenges facing public relations as a consequence of media fragmentation and important changes to the way we defer and trust (of which, as a former Edelman consumer CEO, Phillips is well versed).

However it repeats two important fallacies about PR – one relating to how it is practised, the other to ethics. These also happen to be the source of much modern criticism of public relations. So, in defence of practice, I was spurred to write this post.

Affirming the consequent

Phillips’ central theme is that PR is a servant of unchecked consumerism and ‘hard wired to promote wants over needs’. He says many other negative things about PR but this one is particularly hard to swallow because it’s patently not true. (Just take a look at War on Want’s description of itself – working in partnerships to empower people, running campaigns, mobilising support, building alliances, raising public awareness. Sounds suspiciously like public relations to me.)

But Phillips has already played his get out of jail free card on page 5. By PR he really means consumer public relations, the suggestion* being that consumer PR is so dominant as to be synonymous with PR and other types of activity are a minority sport. His Jericho Chambers chairman pithily equates PR with ‘blowing smoke up the jacksy of late capitalism’…which leaves one to wonder whether, with old friends like these, does PR need any enemies?

This is a version of an old argument – cited by Phillips and made by Tom Watson in 2013 and much earlier by Tim Traverse-Healy in 1988 – that public relations and publicity, particularly editorial publicity in support of a brand, are different things.

Phillips’ points about the ills of ‘late’ capitalism seem very sensible. Contemporary measures of economic and societal well-being are, by and large, nuts.  We equate increasing levels of consumption with success but our resources are finite. Equally Professor Watson is a leading light on evaluation and measurement and Tim Traverse-Healy wrote the Credo for public relations, which for me is about as wise an aspiration for the PR profession as anyone could wish for.

But they are wrong about brand publicity. We might read about Sweatygate and wish they were right, but that doesn’t make it so. Editorial publicity, media relations, in the service of whatever sector or industry, is part of the public relations tool kit whether we like it or not. And just because it was traditionally the dominant methodology of practitioners working for organisations trying to sell us things we don’t really need does not alter that fact.

The argument about brand publicity involves a common error which, in the language of philosophical logic, is called ‘affirming the consequent’. An example of which is:

All London buses are red.
This is red.
Therefore it must be a London bus.

(When of course being red isn’t a property exclusive to London buses).

In this case the argument goes:

All bad PR is brand publicity.
This is brand publicity.
Therefore it must be bad PR.

Not necessarily, as any press officer for a ‘big brand’ charity would no doubt point out.

That’s not to say that Professor Watson’s wider point about differentiating (via membership criterion, say) between types of practitioners is wrong. He rightly points out that the majority of PR practitioners are not (and presumably don’t want to be) members of any professional body. We also know that the majority of CIPR members, sadly, think that professionalism is above all about pleasing clients. But in these trade versus profession tectonics, brand publicity is not the fault line.

To assign ethics to a discipline is to make a category mistake

Phillips also makes some very astute points about honesty, accountability, trust and empowerment and in doing so shines a light on the dishonesty, evasion and abuses of trust exercised by public relations practitioners in the service of, typically, corporate masters. The book is peppered with (partially redacted) anecdotes of unethical behaviours. Yet to assign ethics to public relations in itself is to make a category mistake,surely? I might use a hammer to help build a home for refugees. Alternatively I might use it to hit someone on the head and steal their purse, but in neither case does the hammer have any ethical properties. It is amoral.

There’s not enough space here to argue about definitions of public relations but (as in the CIPR’s) it is commonly described in terms of a discipline or an effort. The CIPR goes further and says that, to be public relations, that discipline should be used to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics. There’s nothing intrinsically ethical here. I might use my public relations skills to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between my International League of Litter Droppers and its members, for instance.

We should call out bullshit and lies because they are a) unethical and thus disadvantageous to clients and/or the wider public b) typically bad PR and c) tarnish the reputation of our profession.  We should abide by the codes of conduct for the same reasons. But the prescriptions and proscriptions enshrined within those codes apply to our behaviours in the practice of public relations and not PR/public relations per se.

*(I use the term ‘suggested’ above as it is never wholly clear which target – PR or public relations – Phillips has in his sights. He purposefully uses the term PR as a proxy for consumer public relations in order to support his main premise, that it is a prop for the ugly architecture of capitalism. But the marketing for the book takes a very different tact).

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