Some thoughts about the changing nature of public relations

Just when I was pondering the thoughts presented in Houston by PR father Harold Burson (see crisisblogger post and Force for Good post), a co-worker gave me a copy of the New Yorker article on Howard Rubenstein, the well known New York PR man.

There were things that bothered me about both of these deservedly much-honored gentlemen of the profession. Let me try to explain.

Ken Auletta in the New Yorker quotes Alan Harrington who said, “Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so that the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.”

Then Rubenstein was complimented by former Governor George Pataki who said that “had Howard Rubenstein been around to represent rats during the bubonic plague the headlines would have read ‘Rodents Unfairly Accused of Mild Rash.'”

Now, I could attribute this to the general antipathy that reporters feel toward PR people, flacks, as they say. But most PR people would agree with Rubenstein when he suggests there job is to put the client’s best foot forward. And that is largely how I have understood my job with clients as well, particularly when there are those who are insistent on either putting the client’s worst foot forward, or making up a story about how bad their feet really are.

But, I must say I am increasingly uncomfortable with this view of PR. No, arranging a pretty bouquet is not untruthful or unethical. But it reminds me of a package of strawberries I bought at a high quality grocery story a few years ago. The berries on top were all pretty and red and big and delicious looking. I opened the package and found rotten, gray, small ugly berries underneath. I was not happy. I felt deceived. I lost trust in a grocery story that had an excellent reputation and high prices to go with it.

And that is my concern. In my view, particularly in this day, PR should be primarily about building trust, not putting a best foot forward. If there are rotten berries in the package, I’m not suggesting put those on top. I’m saying get rid of the package. And the best PR advisers have access to the people who can make those kinds of decisions.

What is strange about this way of thinking, and I’m even hesitant to suggest it but I think it is right, is that if there are wilted flowers, they should be visible. And perhaps it is the PR person’s responsibility to help make sure they are visible–because when they are discovered trust will be lost. And any time trust is lost, the organization loses. I have found myself on more than one occasion advocating strongly to a client that the bad news come directly from us. “But the press may not find out about, why should we give it to them?” Because if we don’t and they do find out about it, it will be that much worse for us. Trust will be lost. More than that, an opportunity to build trust by saying, we found something wrong, we are sorry, it should not be like this, is also lost.

Does this mean the days of putting best foot forwards is gone. Yes, I think so. Today’s stakeholders want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If something is wrong, fix it. Tell them that you are fixing it. Tell them you understand their perspective on it and what you are doing about it. That is called transparency. Being transparent, even when painful and difficult, is what building trust is all about.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts about the changing nature of public relations”

  1. Great post. I’ve been lucky/unlucky enough to experience some of the best and worst of PR. At its worst, PR is about pure spin, propping up wilted petals and hiding squishy strawberries. At its best, PR doesn’t even look like PR because it is a part of the fabric of an organization and helps nurture the petals before they wilt and find the strawberries before they get mushy.

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