On social change and the role of the PR professional

Photo from opendemocracy.net

Photo from opendemocracy.net

When the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, I was a 37-year-old grad student studying social change. Hey, I was a late bloomer!

Each week, as our seminar convened, my classmates found something exciting to discuss as we dutifully applied our sociological theories to the events unfolding in Europe.

Two decades later, I don’t remember much about those theories. But I do remember wondering precisely what prompted the citizens of East and West Berlin to grab their hammers and tear down the wall. Surely, a small group of activists triggered the action in much the same way rebel colonists arranged to toss tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

Behind most social movements is a core of committed souls who,  depending on their actions, become the heroes or villains of history. The effective ones use tools of public relations to influence opinion and drive action.

Unless you spend time with the literature of sociology, you probably don’t think of  PR professionals as “change agents.”  But that’s precisely our role: to influence and ultimately change human behavior to the benefit of our clients. When it works, it’s a powerful thing to behold, but comes with great responsibility.

Enter the role of ethics. If you believe PR people are, in fact, “professionals,” it follows that you must believe in a strong code of ethics. Ethical conduct is the imperative of every “professional,” by definition. And nearly every professional code of ethics stipulates a duty to client, but also a duty to society and its rules.

As we support those who pay our salaries and fees, how can we ensure the plans we implement serve both client and public? Or is it simply not our problem? And what happens when client interests conflict with public interest, as they so often  do — like here:

Burger2Marketing the Boffo Burger. Would  you resist if asked to promote the newest double bacon burger deluxe? After all, no one forces customers to eat these artery-clogging monsters, right? But have you studied the statistics relating to heart disease and obesity lately? I’m a libertarian at heart, and I like a good burger, too. But I also know that fast-food burgers have a negative impact on public heath. How much information does the client owe the public? And what price will society eventually pay for this gluttony?

Community relations. Imagine opening a new store that offers low prices (always) and a range of choices to serve low-income shoppers. Great economic news? Perhaps. But you know the impact Big Wally’s will have on the smaller merchants in the community. They can’t compete. You also know how a “low prices always” philosophy drives manufacturing jobs off shore. Does having another Big Wally’s down the street really serve the public interest? I’m not so sure, and I wonder if Wally’s PR firms ever raise such questions.

yo3_300_090908Public affairs. Tomorrow is Election Day, and I’m betting Ohioans approve casino gambling. PR and marketing types working for Issue #3 say it’s all about jobs. And since our rustbelt economy is in the crapper, voters are listening. The body of evidence showing the negative impact of casinos on families and communities has been cast aside this time around. I couldn’t work on behalf of Issue #3, as the long-term negatives outweigh the positives. But then again, I have a job.

Considering consequences of our work. Ethics wasn’t part of our discussions in Dr. Stone’s “Theories of Social Change” class. I brought that baggage with me. In public relations, our work sometimes has real and lasting impact on society. But I wonder how many of us think about those consequences when we collect our fees. Or do we simply shrug our shoulders and do the client’s bidding? How about you?

If you’re among those who insist that PR is a “profession,” then you’re obligated to consider the impact of your work on the public interest. We won’t all agree that a Boffo Burger is a threat to society or that a casino in Cleveland is the devil’s work. But we all know that both will have plenty of negative impact down the line. Does it matter?


5 Responses to On social change and the role of the PR professional

  1. […] On social change and the role of the PR professional « ToughSledding toughsledding.wordpress.com/2009/11/02/on-social-change-and-the-role-of-the-pr-professional – view page – cached When the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, I was a 37-year-old grad student studying social change. Hey, I was a late bloomer! — From the page […]

  2. Judy Gombita says:

    Bill, besides its research-based development for a new definition of public relations (Flynn, Gregory, Valin, 2009), recently the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) rewrote and augmented its Mission and (particularly) Declaration of Principles.

    I think you might find the Principles of use and interest for your class and this post (which is excellent, by the way).

  3. Bill Huey says:

    The conscientious practitioner can get fairly neurotic thinking about all the ways his or her work serves or disserves the public interest, and the adversarial/advocacy nature of public relations makes it difficult to adopt the Buddhist definition of the right occupation, i.e., that which pleases the practitioner and harms no one.

    For example, the issue of Goldman Sachs’ (and now Warren Buffett’s) desire to purchase Affordable Housing tax credits from Fannie Mae, which doesn’t need tax credits because it is broke and not making a profit.

    You may believe that the Affordable Housing program is a good thing, and should be supported with public funds in the form of tax credits. Conversely, you may believe that corporate America has gotten such an enormous suck of the government teat lately that permitting a government-owned outfit like Fannie to sell tax credits to the likes of Goldman Sachs is downright scandalous.

    But lo and behold, mighty Goldman calls up one day and puts you on the spot: they want to hire you to advise them on this tricky situation, because if they can pull it off they stand to make returns in the neighborhood of 30 percent at a time when the average CD pays near the freezing point Celsius. Do you put your beliefs aside, rationalizing that this serves a larger public interest, or tell them no thanks, better hire someone else, knowing full well that someone else will leap at the opportunity?

    I say you tell Goldman to take a hike, but then I’m a poor schlump who reads PR blogs.

    Bill Huey
    Strategic Communications

  4. Judy Gombita says:

    Oops. Just realized I pointed to the wrong document. It is actually the CPRS “Recommended Values” that I find the most interesting and beneficial (and relevant to your blog post). (They were published in the recently received 2008/09 Annual Report, which is how they came to my attention.)

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