PR: Public Perceptions?

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The acronym “PR” is now a popular term, but does anybody wonder if the general public knows what it actually means?

Unfortunately, the public notoriety of this acronym is based on merely a handful of the PR industry’s many other services. The now widely perceived reputation of PR also indicates that the Public has been actively scrutinizing anything that can be construed to be ‘Public Relations’ as well, and propagating negative examples that extend the reach of these memes.

So even without a clear understanding of what PR actually is, the public is now willing to form quick opinions that are often less than complimentary, often based on only the most inflammatory examples. This suggests that an entire industry that prides itself on shaping public perceptions might actually be in dire need of doing some serious some public relations work upon itself! Lest it entirely lose control of it’s own perceived identity, and disappear deep into the corporate and government structures that it serves. Retreating from a public visibility that has been progressively exposed, one brand at a time.

PR Spin

Historically, “media spin” and manufactured “events” seemed to have been the most recognizable traits of PR. What should now be of greater interest to PR pros, is that the industry has also been clearly associated with damage control and crisis management as well. Unfortunately, most of the clients who need such specialised services are often and already less than well-regarded to begin with, as evidenced by the many pre-existing negative public perceptions that need to be re-framed or better-managed to move forward.

This aspect of PR reminds us why an entire industry has seemingly (or at least historically) preferred to fly below the public radar to begin with. Lest it be seen as an artificial source of “truth” and painting itself with the same brushes that it uses to cover-up (erm, manage and reposition) notorious fumbles, scandals, or man-made disasters. In the end, a handful of PR firms that specialise in damage control have seemingly ruined it for all the rest, by exposing the underlying machinery of used to manufacture consent within increasingly savvy and well-networked ‘public audiences’.

As a result, the Public now seems quite ready (if not over-eager) to label any constructed media messages or cultural memes with such popularised monikers as “PR spin” or “astro-turffing”, regardless of any positive social results that might also arise. Worse yet, even reasonable arguments or counterpoints, from private individuals in the socialmedia space, are being increasingly dismissed as the work of PR flacks. Thus neutralizing a healthy discourse for everyone because of this increasingly negative view of PR.

So where can things go from here, as the pros try to map out a PR2.0 approach to managing our perceptions and gaining our permissions.

How Does the Public Know PR?

What’s intriguing about this rather selective scenario, is that the general public hasn’t actually come to recognize the term “PR” as a result of its own personal participation, usage, or experience in the industry itself. Rather, these public perceptions have been derived through an acquired and subjective understanding of the perceived effects of PR upon the world around them.

So this derived understanding could be considered mildly ironic, since PR has historically been a profession that has preferred to operate from behind the scenes of the public visibility that it creates for it’s Clientel.  Especially ironic for an industry that labels itself with the word “Public” in it’s name, yet strives to remain under the radar for lest it lose it’s effective edge…But I’m digressing into the semantics of Client-side terminology.

So anyhow…Now that the cats’s out of the bag on the heretofore invisible activities of PR professionals, where does the PR Industry see itself going with the management of it’s own Public Image?

Especially now that there are these very strong yet often inaccurate cultural memes floating around out there, which are loosely tying Public Relations back to it’s roots within government endorsed propaganda methods, and the work of venerable PR pioneers such as Edward Bernays, without offering any contextual value to the work.

From that historical point of view, it’s a rather quick slide back to the groundbreaking work of Political Propagandists, and the slippery stigma of mass control during wartime .


Of course, with so much genuine social value to communicate in this day and age of Corporate Social Responsibility, and the larger “Green Movement”,  nobody wants PR getting (re)associated with the now sullied and explosive term like “Propaganda”.

So, the only way to move away from this possibility is by moving forward…Not in spite of the fact that PR work is visible to an increasingly jaded Public, but rather because this challenge is actually an overture to PR becoming more overt and trustworthy Public resource. Thus establishing the groundwork for genuine Public Relations 2.0 in the 21st Century.

Perhaps this process is simply ingrained within the nature of PR though, as it seeks to beneficially present it’s Clientele to a receptive audience, in a meaningfully engaged manner, without its own methods becoming a point of discussion and attention in and of themselves.

How did the Public become so sensitized to both the obvious and perceived effects of PR work?

Perhaps it is because the Public has so often correlated the results of PR to the work of  Publicity and Crisis Management, that they’ve now attached this self-limited scope and meaning to the term PR. Unfortunately this meaning has come to represent the “spin doctoring” of important issues, and the “handling” of people, or most importantly of creating “talking heads” in order to act as the voice for an otherwise faceless corporation. Meanwhile these are but isolated factors in what could become a much better ‘socialised’ version of PR (ver.2.2?) which new and evolving methods can not only better address but actually help reform for a greater Public good.

Regrettably, the Public knows almost nothing of the fascinating complexities of effective PR, and even less about the immense value that could be derived from this branch of Marketing, and/or Corporate Communications as things may turn out to be. That is, if the Public were indeed more engaged within the process. That is to say, this latent value would be more obvious to the Citizenry if the PR industry itself were to successfully reach out to the Public more directly, rather than perhaps adhere to outdated methods and models.

Time will tell if the ideals of PR2.x turn out to be as progressive as they sound, or simply get co-opted into serving as just more industrial spin.


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