The Whole Truth: PR’s Many Functions Essential to Information Exchange

What is public relations? Our own Society has been wrestling with that issue for decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the profession as several billion dollars in size and employing thousands of professionals in the United States. But many outside of our profession (and some inside) don’t know the scope of the practice. Like the ancient parable of blind men describing an elephant by touching only a leg, ear, trunk or tail, who form their understanding of the elephant without understanding the whole. The blind man who touched the tail, for example, says “the elephant is much like a rope.” To many, public relations is publicity. To others it is community relations, or communication with stockholders and financial analysts. To some it is communication with employees or an organization’s membership. And, of late, the list includes social media — blogs, YouTube, Twitter. But the common thread is communication, sometimes simply to disseminate information and other times to motivate specific stakeholders.

Incomplete information is not only a problem for our profession, it is the reason our profession is necessary. The mission of public relations is to provide the whole picture. If the blind men could suddenly see the entire elephant, they would immediately change their narrowly defined opinions. Detractors have called our work “spin” or “stunts” and labeled professionals as “flacks.” Among us, those who are less than professional, deserve those labels but most our profession are honorable people serving a valuable role in our society.

When the designers of the First Amendment to the Constitution created the guarantee of “freedom of the press,” the press was inherently charged with objectivity, balance and fairness in its reporting. News was rooted in the facts of an issue or event. The business of mass media has changed that lofty mission somewhat. Dull, fair, objective stories don’t sell newspapers or airtime, and biased reporting and even chicanery have entered journalism. So, while the popular media (newspapers, magazines, television) have traditionally acted as watchdogs of society, some have abrogated their original responsibility to the point where they’ve lost public trust (see the “Press your luck” graph on Page One of May, 2008 Tactics (PRSA Newspaper).

The relevancy of public relations, then, is to offer points of view to ensure that we see the elephant as a whole and, along the way, earn the public’s trust in the communications they access. It’s a good system because somewhere in all these opportunities for information gathering, the truth, the facts, the whole picture will emerge and the public will reach informed decisions and act or behave accordingly.

Our own PRSA activities such as monthly meetings, conferences, professional chat rooms, and pieces like this in Tactics, The Strategist and PR Journal are perfect venues to ponder questions like, “What does the expansion of Internet mean to the First Amendment?” “How do we, as communication professionals, ensure the public receives and trusts the messages sent by any or all media?” “How do we help the public remove the blinders to better understand our world?” RKB

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Musings About the Business of Organizational Communication

The Whole Truth What is public relations? Our own Society has been wrestling with that issue for decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the profession as several billion dollars... More

The Ham in the Sandwich Why is it that, after decades of getting the same answer, employee surveys still list better communication as one of the top five on their wish list... More

Where Are We Going? Time magazine put you and me in charge of our own “press releases” by naming us “Person of the Year.” The reason, they say... More

Media Are People Too Even though the press has been under attack of late because of a number of "rigged" or false stories, the power of the press is very much alive and businesses... More