September 15, 2014
Last week the New York Chapter of PRSA held a Mock Tribunal of the PR profession that I was privileged to initiate and organize. The intent was to provoke a conversation on Public Relations and its critics.
Paul Holmes of the Holmes Group played the role of the Prosecutor. In his opening remarks he said: “I believe that when we practice spin rather than public relations, when we try to persuade somebody to vote a particular way, to buy a particular product rather than focusing on the necessity of building a relationship, we cheat not only the consumers, the employees, the communities with which we communicate but also our clients in whose long term interest is a genuine relationship.”
Michael Schubert, our Chief Innovation Officer and the Defense Counsel for the occasion replied by saying that the public relations industry is about giving our clients a voice and that we have a “moral obligation to do our job, which is to bring a company or a brand’s point of view to the public in an honest and transparent way.”
The Prosecutor and the Defense each had two witnesses: Fran Hawthorne and Delbert Spurlock for the Prosecution and Steve Cody from Peppercomm and Jacqueline Brevard formerly from Merck for the defense. The discussion was lively and both profound and entertaining.
You can view the recording by clicking on the link below.
It was my hope that this exercise would help us understand that ethical conduct in the practice of the profession was the best way to eliminate much of the criticism directed against public relations.
David Finn, the co-Founder and Chairman of Ruder Finn has always said that we should engage our critics. Back in 60s, he wrote an article for Saturday Review entitled Business and its Critics. In an article published in MOVE! David refers to his Saturday Review article and writes that he believes that:
“corporations should give more thoughtful, sensitive and responsible responses when there were criticisms of their policies or practices in the media. This should apply to food companies that faced overweight problems, to automobile companies that faced accident problems, to smokestack companies that faced pollution problems, to chemical companies that faced agricultural problems, to nuclear power plants that faced potential disaster problems, and to cigarette companies that faced lung cancer problems. My argument was that corporations should not just dismiss these criticisms as unfounded or unproven. Means should be found to convince the public that business cared as much about health and safety as anyone else. In the course of the article I mentioned that the standard tobacco industry response to new health reports was unconvincing, and I suggested that a more thoughtful statement would be more appropriate. I believed that the industry should show respect for the new evidence and state that it would search for a responsible policy that recognized the seriousness of the problem revealed by the different studies.”
Why are we so reluctant to engage our critics?
I am sure that the reasons differ depending on the situation but could one of the reasons be that we are not so sure, after all, of the validity of our positions and actions? If that is the case, then our reluctance should be an indication that what we believe (or do) may somehow not be the right thing and that we should rethink our approach.
As Winston Churchill once said:
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”