30 June 2008

The value of public relations

Two events, considerably far apart in both space and substance, have given rise to a public discussion across the world about the value of public relations.

Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's recently published memoir and the admission he lied about certain events prompted a scathing commentary by CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen.

Closer to home, the Cameron Inquiry has shown to all the inner workings of government and one of its major agencies.  Good will come of the examination from the inquiry, however, in the short term, some of the information disclosed during testimony has permitted local commentators - the Telegram's Bob Wakeham is one example - to do nothing more than trot out their old prejudices against public relations.  Wakeham's column is not archived on the Telly website unfortunately.

As far as the local opinions go, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the critical views of public relations offered by reporters often are aimed at people who once earned their crust of bread sitting in the same newsroom as the people who now slag them off. 

Back in March, Geoff Meeker started what has become a series of posts on the phenomenon of reporters crossing the street to communications jobs. It's worth considering that point in the larger issue of public relations, ethics and the value of PR.

To put it simply, Cohen's comments are about as cogent and insightful as the simplistic view of lawyers as hacks and ambulance chasers.  His observations don't really deserve much more attention than that.

They got rich attention though, in a blog post by no less a figure than Harold Burson.  Burson is the founder of Burson-Marsteller, one of the leading American public relations firms. He's a senior practitioner by any measure and, as an aside, people should note that, as evident from his blog, he is as current as they come in his thoughts and approach to the craft.

As Burson writes:

Increasingly, news media are in the business of interpretation and commentary, areas once confined to the editorial page. Many if not most newsmen forget that we in public relations are not surrogates of journalists or media. Rather, we are the paid advocates of clients who have a point of view that may be questioned by affected parties. Our interpretation in serving our clients may differ from how a reporter reacts to the same set of facts. But this is nothing new in the world of journalism; editorial writers frequently have differing points of view than those expressed in a publication’s news columns.

Heather Yaxley uses the CBS commentary and some other similar issues to make some observations about the value of PR to society and on whether that value can be measured. She raises questions and does not attempt to answer them, but the questions and their implications are worth pondering whether you are public relations practitioner or somebody else.

We may come back to this issue in a future post, but for the time being there is the start of a discussion if anyone wants to have it.