Up front, I need to point out that I am not thin skinned about words used to define public relations. You know them as “flack,” “spinmeister”, “media guru”, etc. But to the extent that those words are true for a professional, I am bothered.
If a public relations professional puts the “spin” on a story to merely advance the political candidate’s career, without concern for honesty and ethics, we have a problem in our society. It happens too frequently.
The most flagrant examples of “spin” come in the form of “hype” as witnessed by the dot com phenomena we have all witnessed. Company after company has been “spun” out to a money-hungry, gullible public who want to be the next millionaires. Lots of people have become rich, but the sad fact is that many more will lose their money because there is no substance to the company they invested in recently. When the dust settles and the hyped companies emerge and show their true worth, somebody should start asking the public relations professionals for accountability. Obvious exaggeration, hyperbole, whether or not it is legal, is unethical in my mind.
Spin not only effects the pocket-book, it also can affect reputation and the overall mission of an organization.
On more than one occasion in my career, school systems have talked to me about using public relations techniques to advance the mission of the school. Do schools need good public relations? (Or, is that rhetorical hyperbole?) You know the answer to that question. Yet, time after time I am told that it would be inappropriate to use public money for public relations counsel. Why? Why is it inappropriate to employ the public relations skills to communicate the mission of the school system to a public that has a vested interest (whether they want to or not) in that very school system?
I don’t blame school authorities or the governing bodies that oversee them for seeking political shelter on the topic. I blame my profession for not taking a stand historically on “spin” and related tactics.
The public relations profession is moving forward nicely and installing systems to advance the profession. The Maine Public Relations Council, for example, is promoting the Universal Accreditation process and encouraging members of the profession to take the exam that leads to accreditation. When you see “APR” after a name, you know they have taken this national exam and received accreditation. (The passage rate, by-the-way. hovers around 50%.)
Maybe I am thin skinned, but I believe all organizations deserve the opportunity for quality communications with their publics. I also believe that vested publics, or those considering vesting, don’t deserve hype or spin or any similar tactics. Ultimately we all suffer when poor public relations happens.
Originally published in the Kennebec Business Monthly in June 2000 as part of a monthly guest series on public relations and marketing.