I first contacted Tony D’Angelo when a PRSA press release landed on my desk. It was about a combination of PR and communications professionals, and their associations and representative bodies, taking a stand for a free press. In an era of fake news, when the public has difficulty identifying what is real and true, it seemed like a great idea to interview him on my radio show.
By the time we got to chat, the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate, and the PRSA had issued a follow-up statement, this time with the endorsement of, primarily, associations and representative bodies from the press sector.
The PRSA stands for ethical public relations practice and actively encourages a free press. It is not something that the general public would associate with PR. The Association promotes truthfulness, by its clients, and accepts the validity of a free press whose job is to “provide a transparent view of the facts” as Tony said on the show.
Thomas Jefferson said that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers, such is the value of true and honest reporting, putting a spotlight on issues which are important in a democracy.
There is a job of work to be done by the PR community to change the perception of the industry so that people think not of spin, and clever cover-ups, but of honest attempts to behave in the public interest.
I am always fascinated by the word spin. Tony said that “professional PR is not spin”. I disagree. I think it certainly includes spin! By spin I mean the ability to ask someone to focus on what is happening on the left and not on what is happening on the right. To see things from the PR client’s point of view, and not from the perspective of the activists or dissatisfied customers. Provided that you are not lying in changing the focus, I think spin is a skill that PR people should be proud of….. but we’ll park that argument for another day!
Tony said that the job of PR people is to certainly take a side – you would be of no use to your clients if you did not – but also to advocate for them to “do the right thing and behave in the public interest”. That whole area of ‘public interest’ is one that always fascinates me. It is another area where the public needs more education! The public is rightly or wrongly interested in everything – including all of the salacious details of a marriage break-up, or a company collapse, or a sexual-harassment claim. But the information is not, necessarily, in the public interest. The public, in my opinion, is entitled to truth – but not all of the truth, all of the time. Others are entitled to their privacy – the couple whose marriage is disintegrating or the person who has been harassed and does not want a media spotlight on them. We need to respect the right of the public to know that these things happen, but also respect the right of the PR professional to mediate the amount of information which is issued. Acting in the public interest ensures that the public is not in any way mislead, but also preserves the integrity of the client. That’s a difficult balance to get right, and most professional PR people get it right most of the time. No mean achievement!
In our conversation, Tony identified one of the challenges facing PR as the increasing polarisation of people and the fact that “attention spans are getting increasingly shorter”. That is undoubtedly true. PR skills are needed in order to tell a story in the shortest and most visually captivating style to an audience that wants ‘the whole story’ in under a minute.
On the other hand, journalists want more detail in order to flesh out that story, and that is a job that PR people also perform with absolute professionalism. However, while PR people are vociferous in support of a free press and respect their right to investigate and spotlight issues which might be unfavourable to the client, I haven’t yet seen the press defending PR people – and I think that is the next great challenge.
Journalists who work with PR professionals will thank them for making clients available for interview, for providing deep background information, for gathering and presenting information which helps to put a story in context. Its about time the press associations issued a statement in support of professional PR and recognised that they are doing a good and worthy job. They should stop focusing on spin-doctors and start focusing on communications professionals who provide a service to their clients, the media and the public.
I won’t hold my breath for the statement though!!