Public relations being hurt by public’s cynicism about business

There were more than a few cringe-inducing moments in last night’s diatribe against public relations on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC. It is illustrative of the populist sentiments of the moment fueled by the tsunami of bad economic news and unfortunate business practices.

I hear and understand what Ms. Maddow and others who are raising their voices in criticism of investing in PR are saying. She is not alone by any stretch. Chicago Mayor Richard Daily thisweek took steps to cancel 11 PR contracts with the city. His administration had come under criticism for wasteful spending and PR was the poster child.

It is important that we as a profession listen to these scathing critiques. It is clear that there is a difference between what we believe we do and what the public believes we do. That is a fact.

So what did Rachel say? Take a look:

 

Rachel Maddow does her best impression
of Keith Olberman

Well, at least I’m not part of Burson-Marsteller! I’m sure they didn’t like to see their brand linked to virtually every bad thing that’s happened in this decade.

Michael Cherenson, who heads the national board of the Public Relations Society of America has written on this subject as well in his post, “An Ill-Considered View of AIG and Public Relations,” on the PRSAY blog.

“I…doubt very seriously that AIG is engaging public relations firms to soothe the taxpayers’ souls, or portray the company as just another innocent victim in the current economic meltdown. My guess, as it would be in any crisis, is that the reputable and highly qualified public relations firms working on AIG’s behalf are tasked with explaining what happened, what AIG is doing to fix it, why such steps will be effective, and why those steps will prevent future such occurrences. Only then can the process of rebuilding AIG shattered image begin.”

Even with the laundry list of “evil” that Maddow read, public relations can play an important role — not in seeking to manipulate or distract attention — but in helping an organization understand how it needs to change in order to rebuild trust. We help organizations align what they do with what they say they do. And we provide a clear understanding of what the public wants and needs from them so they can make the necessary adjustments in their attitudes and behaviors.

In times of trouble, organizations have a tendency to turn inward, which is almost never in the best interests of their communities. Public relations can be a catalyst for positive change and greater openness. How do we get that point across in an era of growing cynicism and distrust?

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