By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)
In researching this post, the final of 2017 (a momentous year from a global perspective, but hey, aren’t they all “momentous” these days?), a quick Google search led to an online report from two years ago.
My subject: New Year’s resolutions.
What my search revealed: According to this article, “The History of New Year’s Resolutions,” the concept of committing to a practice or initiative in the upcoming 365 days may have roots with the ancient Babylonians way, way back 4,000 or so years ago. And, two millennia later, Julius Caesar somewhat formalized the practice when he established January 1 as the start of the new year.
Well, public relations (you knew I’d get to this eventually) is not quite 4,000 years old, but I recall learning that the Roman concept of vox populi, Latin for “voice of the people,” may have cemented the foundations of what’s known today as “public relations.”
In the centuries before books and eventually newspapers or almanacs, public discourse in the town square served as a way to share opinions and information. Broadcast, and later, digital forms of disseminating information changed public relations and society significantly and forever. (Well, seemingly on that last point.)
Today, regardless of how effectively the practice of public relations is defined, it’s all too frequently mislabeled. From the most egregious perspective, what’s clearly propaganda (think jihadist online messages originated by ISIS) has been inaccurately labeled as “public relations.” And, from a less erroneous viewpoint, “public relations” is equated purely with publicity and press agentry.
And, then there’s the often blatant total misrepresentation of the profession. Here’s an example. The October 2 episode of the popular NBC drama “Chicago Fire,” featured this scenario: Firefighter Stella Kidd (portrayed by actress Miranda Rae Mayo) receives a suspicious transfer from Firehouse 51 to the Chicago Fire Department’s “public relations department.” After reporting to said department, Kidd — who apparently has no formal communications experience — meets her new colleagues, is shown her small work station, then is immediately thrust into a “media event” of sorts, complete with inquisitive reporters and TV cameras. All this action takes place in around 90 seconds.
Quite an absurd portrayal? Certainly, even for fictionalized television drama. But it’s an example of how public relations is bantered about unfairly and inaccurately as a catch phrase.
Two more thoughts about the “Chicago Fire” portrayal of public relations:
1. Visit this organizational chart, and you’ll see the CFD has a department that addresses Media Affairs/Public Education/Special Events, but not “public relations.” Perhaps the show writers could have had Kidd moved over to “media affairs.”
2. And, the title of the episode in question is “Down is Better.” From my perspective, dumbing down the public relations profession is bad, bad, bad.
So, as the hours left in the year 2017 continue to expire, I make this resolution — and I encourage fellow public relations professionals to do the same:
I (name) resolve to address instances where the practice of “public relations” is misinterpreted, misidentified or misconstrued online, in print or broadcast, or during interpersonal communications. Furthermore, I resolve to correct misconceptions through firm and measured discourse.
There, I feel better already.
Strategic, ethical public relations contributes to and helps guide modern society by fostering the free flow of news and information; I’m convinced the role of public relations will continue to expand in these digitally-driven times. Those of us who practice public relations need to be diligent and commit to rectifying blatantly wrong references or portrayals.
Let’s make 2018 will be the year public relations gets acknowledged fairly and accurately.
And, a shout out to the producers of “Chicago Fire,” a show we watch regularly: Should you incorporate public relations into future episodes, I would gladly offer my counsel to ensure accuracy and fairness.