Political PR might be the root of all evil

Kent State’s ever quotable Dr. Bob Batchelor just gave his “Is PR Evil?” lecture and posted about five minutes of it on Facebook. He says, “yes, PR is evil.”

I disagree. The majority are thousands of practitioners working every day to conduct themselves ethically, and represent their organizations accurately as they support business objectives. To say, as Dr. B. does, that failure to enthusiastically fight the gender gap is evidence of evil, diminishes evil. Al-Qaeda is evil.  Bernie Madhoff is evil.

There are myriad reasons for the gender gap, and sexism does not account for them all, as this report from Education International explains. I do not doubt that pay equity is a problem in many cases, but singling out the PR industry’s perceived inaction as evil is a gross oversimplification.

Dr. B. says that whenever he interacts with a corporation, he winds up using words like diabolical, Satanic, wicked, bad, dark, sinister, infernal, unholy, ugly, vile, slimy… Really? Every corporation?  What is your point, sir? That corporations are evil? That only government can save us from their rapacious ways? Right. Because government is so pure!

If any part of the PR industry might meet Dr. Batchelor’s description, it’s political PR.  Politics requires the basest elements of press agentry — a willingness to misrepresent at best, to ignore objective truth, to lie if necessary.  It’s a bipartisan effort that leaves citizenry contemplating polar versions of events, perspectives and paths.

Witness the discussion on national health insurance — it’s a right, it’s an assault on liberty, it’s an expensive boondoggle, it’s a money-saver, it’s a requirement for a just civilization, it’s a violation of the Constitution.

How about tax policy? It’s fairness for the rich to pay more, because they can afford it. It’s wrong for nearly half the people to pay no taxes at all.  It’s Robin Hood economics, it’s essential to our way of life, it allows us to rebuild the middle class, it’s a zero-sum cash grab that makes government more powerful…

And so on.

The political machine cares only about the perpetuation of government, and they fight over who gets to run things.  By the way, government creates no wealth at all. It exists at the sufferance of those who work in the private sector, and relies entirely on its ability to collect money from the private sphere. That’s not a political statement. It’s a fact.

At least business has a transparent mission: to make money for its owners, which means those of us working for and with business have a transparent mission as well – to help the organizations attain their business objectives. This does not argue for an absolute lack of regulation, however. Even Adam Smith believe business needed to be properly regulated.   So you won’t find me demanding an end to food safety, clean water and many other regulations, which, of course, marks me as an apostate among my more conservative friends.

Name-calling doesn’t help, either, whether it’s Birthers claiming the President is a socialist Muslim or Richard Cohen referring to Rick Santorum as “Mullah Rick.”

If anything, it’s political PR that sets out business issues in black and white terms, supported by governmental regulatory schema. Businesses are cast as the enemy, business people as the scourge of the earth.

Now, what is evil?





15 Responses to “Political PR might be the root of all evil”

  1. Hi Sean,

    I appreciate your thoughts on my “Is PR EVIL?” lecture (I like EVIL in all caps, gives it a bit more swagger!). At some point in the presentation, I explained to the graduate student audience that my position would not be popular and that most professional communicators would respond: “but most of us are ethical and doing our jobs.” In my mind, this is an easy out clause.

    I think one could reasonably (though not universally) enact the “we’re ethical and working ethically” clause on the micro level…maybe. However, on the macro playing field – where I want my students to be thinking – I do not think the clause holds up. Nor, do I see it carrying much sway among academics, most simply presenting a rosy picture of the profession.

    On the macro level, I see a profession and discipline in utter disarray. While this might not be the popular view or one students, professionals, or academics want to hear, PR’s history is filled with countless examples of evil behavior. The mere fact that the word “spin” exists says as much…just as “shyster” means something among lawyers.

    I suppose one might question whether this is just an outcropping of the close ties to the corporate and organizational worlds. This is a safe assumption, but does not negate the “evil” moniker. I focused on the gender imbalance in PR simply to show that not all micro level PR is ethical. What about the manager who allows such salary imbalances, for example?

    It is difficult to define “evil,” so I won’t go into a long attempt at doing so. However, it is stacking the argument by bringing Al-Qaeda and Madhoff into the equation. Yes, both are evil, not the same level of evil as PR, but that does not set PR free. Depending on one’s perspective, the manipulation and deceit at the heart of a great deal of public relations work may get it close to that level. This is up to individuals to decide on their own.

    Personally, I don’t think governments or politicians are any less evil than corporations. They both use public relations and communications to manipulate audiences to their brand of thinking. Neither is dealing in “objective truth.” Both sides exist for “perpetuation” and maintaining their respective positions of power. That’s why PACs fill up coffers on both sides of the political aisle. One exists to keep power, the other exists to maintain wealth…or, maybe in this respect they are interchangeable.

    I’m more than willing (obviously) to take on unpopular positions. Certainly, I want to be provocative, because this is how I get the next generation of communications leaders flexing their critical thinking muscles and not blindly submitting to orders from above. Like I said in the lecture (certainly hedging my position): “PR is EVIL…but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to save it.” In my opinion, the attempt at saving it includes an honest appraisal of the challenges the profession/discipline faces.

    • Sean says:

      @Bob – thanks for your thoughtful reply. Speaking idealistically, PR should be Grunigiana – Two-way, symmetrical. Unfortunately, there are few real cases of it working in actual practice, as you and I have discussed many times. So we are left with persuasion — which seems to have morphed into “manipulation” and “spin” in practice and rhetoric.

      Spin is false, and I condemn it, to the point of calling out a prospective employer who talked during an interview about the need to spin stories. Manipulation also conjures up falsehood, which I always decry.

      Persuasion is a noble art — provided it’s done with truth, facts and data, and with respect for one’s audiences. Perhaps that’s the ethical junction box — don’t lie, use facts, be respectful. How would that change PR?

      As I said, at least in service of a company, you’re motives should be clearer – think well of our company so that when it’s time to buy, you remember us and are willing to entertain doing business with us.

      I agree that making PR a better industry requires an honest appraisal of its faults – that’s why @amandachapel was so valuable. It’s a pity that “her” entreaties fell on deaf ears. But I’m not convinced that referring to the entire practice as EVIL is useful.

      Regarding the government vs business — indeed, no matter which side of the aisle, the perpetuation of power has become the raison d’etre, rather than the service to the country. That’s not a PR problem, it’s a reality problem.

      PR as practiced in agencies or by lowly #solopr people like me, depends on clients. We propose, they decide. We can refuse at the risk of the relationship and the revenue; that’s why AVEs lingered so long. Does that mean it’s EVIL? It’s hard to tell someone they’re not entitled to make a living. We have free will and need to decide within our own ethical context what we are willing to do and what we are not.

      There indeed are myriad examples of serious and obvious ethical violations – but there always are, in any field. We can speak out (and I hope that we will), but I have to think we’ll have more impact if we treat each other with respect…

      thanks again!

  2. Brian Connolly says:

    Is PR evil?

    As a free-for-all pickpocket swarm dressed like nuns and posing as friends, yes. As organized magicians where the amusements however good or toxic are at arms length, and the price of admission is clearly on the ticket stub, no.

    Regrettably, we are not secure enough to drop the habit. With the rise of social media, even less so.

    Brian Connolly

    • Sean says:

      @brain, so good to see you here. Thanks for stopping in.

      Transparency is all – caveat emptor. The problem is not enough caveat, particularly with social media!

      The temptation is as huge as the potential revenue – as I say above, it’s hard to pull back from the cash…

      Bring back @AmandaChapel!

  3. I wasn’t at the lecture, so my perspective may be ill-informed. But I’ll post it anyway.

    I think we make a mistake when we separate evil and the individual. To say “PR is evil” isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s incomplete. It depersonalizes the problem. “Maybe PR is evil, but I’m not, so it’s not my issue.”

    The truth is, the existence of evil within PR–which I will grant–is the result of each of us in the field owning a bit of the dark side. A churchgoer might quote the Bible, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and nod vigorously in agreement … but if he doesn’t recognize himself as part of the “all,” he is a lost soul and, in fact, a contributor to the sin.

    Rather than get hung up on a debate over whether or not PR is itself evil, we should agree that evil exists within it, and that each of us bears personal responsibility in its redemption. That means embracing the highest ethical standards, living them honestly (even if there are personal consequences), and insisting that our fellow practitioners do the same.

    The message here is, “If you aren’t prepared to fight the evil, don’t become a soldier.”

    • Brian Connolly says:

      Again, I think we miss the point here. PR is a function. That’s all.

      HERE: In a free society, it is mine to choose whether to eat wheat and gold, or porn and toxic waste. In that context, PR is evil only when it robs me (the consumer) of the ability to discern. Making a case and advocating a position for anything is fair and righteous. Hell, outright lying is perfectly fine if your audience has been given fair warning. The evil part comes in when one fools an audience to induce a decision and/or uses relationships so as to disarm. In a free society, evil is the stuff that bastardizes the very stuff that makes one free.

      Take lawyers. They too get a bad rap. But they aren’t inherently evil. Lawyers who represent murders and rapists aren’t evil either. Lawyers who unethically plant evidence, get their clients to perjure themselves, bride judges… they’re evil. Again, they’re evil because they bastardize the system.

      The problem with PR is that there are maybe a dozen people in the industry who understand ethics. Of those, there sre only about three who’d dare live by it. And to a person, they’re poor. Most teach.

      It’s that simple.

      • Brian, your last paragraph has me laughing out loud. Seriously, my wife is looking at me like I’m nuts right now. “And to a person, they’re poor. Most teach.” is perhaps the funniest line I’ve heard in years.

        I like your perspective of “PR is a function.” It’s not religion, despite how much dogmatism and brainwashing goes on within organizations and associations like PRSA and PRSSA. I don’t think PR has confronted its place in the world well enough to be considered a discipline. So, it’s a job and people have the choice to be evil or not, or turn a blind eye to evil, which seems to be the more typical choice.

        These are difficult challenges. Does one stick up for herself, an unpopular perspective, etc., and risk getting canned? How about the 50-something white male who holds onto his position, but lives in fear of the ever-present ghost of layoff lingering nearby?

        My thinking is that if we’re not willing to be critical of the real world work, then PR will never rise from profession to discipline or be viewed with such disdain from just about every sector of society.

        • Sean says:

          Let’s pitch “Is PR EVIL” to PRSA, IABC, and any other association we can find. Maybe un UNConference prior to PRSA in San Fran?

        • Sean says:

          Matter of fact, let’s get Dr. Shannon Bowen in on this putative panel discussion. Of course, all these professors… hmmm…

    • Sean says:

      We need more of your voice out here, Rick. Thank you.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Sean, Bob & Brian. I’m reminded of what a good friend of mine in advertising always says to me: “If I lie in my ad copy, I get arrested. If you lie in your PR material, you get a bonus.”

    Outrageous? Maybe a little. But his point and Brian’s are the same. If these “relationships” we build in PR are strictly for the purpose of selling someone a product or idea by getting in their good graces, then we’re not being transparent, are we? We’re being sneaky. I believe Brian’s old friend, Amanda Chapel used to call this “surreptitious selling.”

    Does every PR person engage it in this behavior? No. But we all know how it’s done. To your point, Bob, each person has a choice about being evil, and we both know many who live on the dark side of PR.

    Brian and I have had a few conversations over the years about this topic. He makes some of the best arguments I’ve heard for PR as advocacy vs. PR as relationship builder. His analysis has prompted me to rethink my Pollyanna view of the business. We need that kind of examination.

    • Sean says:

      @Bill, thanks for this! To wit, just to go all totally post-modern (or Clintonian) on you, what is a lie? Is focusing on the data most sympathetic to your cause a lie? Is cloaking your material in the guise of officialdom a lie? Casting aspersions on your competition? (Well, that’s verboten in Ad/PR law, at least according to Dr. Tim Smith.) If we cast this all as a debate, then it’s up to the judges (audiences) to evaluate our claims and decide which is veracious.

      I maintain that lying is unnecessary, provided the facts and data bear our your persuasive claim. Lying also harms one’s reputation, thus, I shun it.

      Are we the “last honest PR people?”

  5. Sean says:

    I’m delighted that we’re discussing this. I want to read these things carefully and respond, so will do so later today. Thanks @Bill, @Bob, @Rick and @Brian…

  6. Bob Batchelor says:

    @Sean — I agree totally about the need to discuss all these topics openly and honestly. Thanks for broadening the scope of the discussion and bringing a valuable voice to it. We have a lot of smart voices here, let’s figure a way to get it out more. PR needs this kind of discussion!

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