The Nature Of Public Relations

Most folks believe they understand the true nature of public relations. Some see public relations as a half-baked attempt to restore a reputation; thus, public relations professionals are worthy of blame when their clients fail. Ironically, other folks see public relations as a panacea, capable of erasing any ill will as would a Hate Mulligan (h/t Anand Giridharadas). To wit: The New York police department has announced intentions to spend $4 million on an outreach campaign to improve its image in minority communities.

Public relations professionals must alternately defend, explain, and reject societal constructions of public relations, particularly those equating our work to spin. Television representations can sometimes perpetuate the spin-master moniker. In the Rock Never Dies episode of the drama Supernatural, a publicist discovers that Satan has possessed her client. She hardly bats an eye. After all, she says, she’s worked for racists, sexists, and even politicians.

As a public relations scholar, I have been grappling with the true nature of public relations since at least 2008. That year, one of the questions for my PhD Program Comprehensive Examination was the history of public relations. In a post-exam discussion, a professor urged me to always think critically about public relations. Public relations has indistinct limitations and capabilities, he said, so we must avoid applying it where it does not belong. His other assertion? Public relations is not everything.

I use semester breaks to catch up on non-academic reading. Last month I read “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” in which a character is described as attractive, manipulative, and perfectly suited to her job as a publicist. The lead character in “The Girl on the Train” is similarly problematic: She is a self-destructive alcoholic who has lied about getting fired from her public relations job.

No, public relations is not everything. Nor is it everything negative that has been ascribed to it—in fact or in fiction.

Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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