Manipulation, guidance, openness; what is the role for public relations?


The start of the trial in the UK of former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, her husband Charlie Brooks,  Andy Coulson (Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications director and former editor of the New of the World), and others, prompted interesting comments from the trial judge.

Public relations 001Mr Justice Saunders noted that the jurors must ignore past media coverage, current on-line coverage that includes content produced by “well-known actors, musicians, politicians and others”, and more.

Perhaps more than any other event, certainly legal event, public relations in all its forms and meaning is at the core of what’s now being discussed in court.

This includes, as seemingly alluded to by Mr Justice Saunders, the motives of those who might comment on the trial right now, and the motives behind such comments.

It’s surely an irony that the effects of all this activity, public relations surely even if of an unacceptable nature, should now be formally required to be ignored.

Was, we may ask, it all worth it?

This trial marks the reckoning (whatever the jury’s final verdict) of an extraordinary collision of media ownership, manipulation and power projections (surely the most extreme form of public relations), the direct and indirect manipulation of public opinion by media, the use of money to exert media and public relations influence beyond the clear and accountable payment of fees, and more.

If public relations is the relationship between an organization and the public, then we might have expected that relationships between News and the public, and the media more generally, have now foundered.

Yet I’m not sure they have. We are (I think) still buying newspapers and consuming media (some of the time).

We all understand the commercial context for public relations. The word ‘commercial’ does not mean solely business or commerce. There is by definition always a case being made, always an angle being projected, always a result expected in any PR campaign.

That is the point of public relations.

But for it to have any meaning and context beyond venality on the part of those commissioning the public relations programme (and usually paying for it), and therefore ultimately any point or benefit, then everything we do must stand up to scrutiny.

Everyone in the chain of command must be accountable for their part, and be prepared to be held accountable.

We have to be open. If what we do and what we say relies on being overt, there’s an implicit problem. Not everyone will agree with what we or our clients or employers say. If we’re not up for the debate, we shouldn’t play. If we fear discovery, think again.

We need to be responsible, act responsibly and take responsibility for our actions.

We have to be aware of how things might appear to others. That many, all even, of the main players in the News of the World affair weren’t, beggars belief, and is symptomatic of an arrogance that only now is being stripped away.

Finally, we do have to be honest.

Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

And having said all this, imagine the opportunities for practitioners and firms, in-house teams and consultants, who act this way, who are seen to act this way, and who practice according to this sort of code. Those opportunities would seem to be endless.

The relationship and connections between policy and the law, the media and those feeding into the media, including public relations professionals, have altered, and in some cases fractured.

We on the PR side need to take a lead in helping with the formation of these new relationships and connections.

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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