“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.” So said Daniel Boorstin, the late American writer and historian.
It was intended as a witty quote, but does it illuminate whether PR is a force for good or (shudder!) something less benign?
More recently, Richard Edelman wrote that: “We [in PR] have a unique view of the world through a stakeholder lens, valuing reputation over short-term gain. We recognise the connection between brand and corporate reputation.”
It’s a view that the PR industry would broadly endorse. After all, we’re in the business of connecting reputation to brands and brands to stakeholders. QED. PR is a good thing.
Or is it? It was the great Roman orator Cicero who made the point that public relations mainly operates to benefit those who commission it. (A great blog on Cicero and PR from Paul Seaman can be found here).
In other words, if PR is largely about benefiting those who pay for it, what is the profession’s value beyond its paymasters?
There’s no doubt that it does have a value. According to one report, by 2008, the UK had more PR people (47,800) than journalists (45,000).
Even if you dispute those figures, the intervening years have seen an exponential growth in communications, driven by digital and social media.
In a 24/7 media world in which every one of us can be a blogger/journalist – able to promulgate truth, lies, or the downright offensive – where now does PR lie on the spectrum between good and bad, and does it matter?
It’s worth remembering that, while we think of PR as something relatively new, the dark art of PR has been around since time began. To politics and prostitution as the oldest professions can be added PR.
After all, PR is about persuasion – whether persuading a reluctant populace to support an unpopular monarch or, nowadays, persuading a cynical public to buy a particular brand of hair conditioner.
It was the ancient Greeks who coined the term sematikos, meaning semantics – how to get people to believe and do things. In 50BC, Julius Caesar wrote about his military exploits to persuade the Romans that he would make the best head of state.
Or, to take a more proletarian example, in the Middle Ages you were hung for stealing a sheep or horse. Harsh maybe, but in an age without newspapers, it got a social message across. Maybe the history of PR is simply that everything is PR.
Some argue that the first known examples of PR date back to Babylonian inscribed tablets almost 4000 years ago. Others point to our great religious texts that clearly set out, often with audience segmentation, how to behave, what to eat and – of course – what to believe in.
It may not be PR as we know it today, but the subtle art of persuasion is as old as humanity itself. What’s changed is the profusion of platforms on which to communicate and how we, as consumers of media and messages, relate to them.
Someone credited as a founding father of PR is Edward Bernays. In a 1928 book, he wrote that "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."
Unseen mechanism? Invisible government? Ruling power? Bernays did not consider this a bad thing, and nor would many of today’s PR practitioners. But it throws into a historical context how PR was, and can still be, owned by those who can afford to pay for it. (Bernays is also credited with popularizing smoking among women – a good example of big business badly influencing public opinion).
Most of us in PR are probably guilty of something. For example, I am still unhappy by a public affairs assignment I took on a few years ago on behalf of a large developer. The brief was to win planning approval for a shopping centre in central Scotland, adjacent to two small towns.
The economic impact analysis that we commissioned suggested conclusively that there would be no detrimental impact on those surrounding towns. We won the argument, the shopping centre was built, and the two nearby towns were severely affected.
Maybe, of course, in the balance between new jobs created and old jobs lost, the shopping centre was a good idea. But I remain troubled by how big business was able to win over hearts and minds by having a bigger wallet.
I believe passionately that PR should be a force for good, and tilting the balance is the rise and rise of social media and blogging. In the new age of digital democracy, we are all able to be publicists.
Gone are Cicero, Edward Bernays and Julius Caesar. In their place has come a new world order; a new world without order. We can say what we like and publish it for free. PR is no longer in the hands of the rich or powerful.
Social media has rewritten free speech, and given everyone a voice. It’s now about engagement and interaction; generating two-way conversation rather than one-way press releases.
What hasn’t changed is our appetite to persuade, for good or bad. You decide.