Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pres. Obama Misunderstands Public Relations as a Profession (but he’s not alone)

By Stephen Abbott

During Pres. Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech in Washington on Tuesday, he stated that, “We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR but of hard work and discipline.”

In the midst of an admirable message for children, PR has unfortunately been used in a highly visible event as a derogatory term. It was portrayed as a way to cheat at becoming successful; a way to get up the ladder of success without actually accomplishing anything. PR is made out to be the opposite of hard work, or even discipline – and such a comparison came from the VERY MOUTH of the President of the United States!

This, of course, is a baldly false analysis of what public relations – TRUE public relations – is, or should be. And yet, it highlights long-held stereotypes of what people believe PR to be.

PR professionals have long known that public relations must be based on several factors or it simply won’t “work its magic” in the way their clients hope it will.

First and foremost, honesty must be at the core of any PR campaign. Without that, people see through it and label it for what it is: lying. Worse for the PR professional, exposure to perpetual lying in the name of PR means that some begin to see ALL PR as a synonym for bamboozling the public. This is the sin Obama committed, and inasmuch as others have actually said the same, he can be forgiven for piling on.

Secondly, PR must have at its core pure motives. People, contrary to what we may have heard, are smart; or at least they’re quite savvy. They can see through BS, and attempts to BS them. Clients who want to use PR to make yellow appear blue will make only the targets of their campaigns see red.

Finally, in a PR campaign in which a client is seeking to convince others that its behavior has changed had better have a client that is actually changing, and changing for the better.

When Paris Hilton claimed in a Larry King interview that she would, following a very brief but self-described “horrible” jail term, commit her life to charity and “helping others,” she was believed by some. But in the years since that promise, that hasn’t panned out, and she has been widely reported to be committed only to partying and gratifying herself, not serving others. She has hung her PR people out to dry, along with her fans.

Likewise, when a company is caught doing wrong, if it commits to doing good “from now on,” it had better do just that, and it’s the PR professional’s job to not only spread the promises, but to continue reporting those good deeds. That of course implies monitoring the client to ensure that promises are kept.

When a client’s promises and good deeds cease, a wise PR professional quits the charade and leave the client.

Luckily this hasn’t been my personal experience with clients, but sadly, it is for many others, leading to the misconception parroted by Pres. Obama during his State of the Union address.

Let’s hope that the positive actions of many PR pros begin to drown out the negative perceptions PR has in the minds of so many.

Stephen Abbott is principal of Abbott Public Relations.

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