Alternative Flacks: Sean Spicer & Kellyanne Conway

In the past two weeks, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) have issued public statements reaffirming their commitment to honest, ethical public relations and decrying deliberate efforts to misrepresent information.

The unfortunate irony of what precipitated these statements—the unethical behavior of public relations professionals—is not lost on me.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer kicked things off by hosting a “press conference” (read: press statement) in which he restated inaccurate information about the size of the 2017 inauguration day crowds. His performance understandably generated a plethora of comical social media memes. It was when Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway told an incredulous Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that Spicer’s statements were not lies but, rather, alternative facts, that public admonishments began in earnest.

It is my contention that unethical public relations practitioners like Spicer and Conway share the blame for the consistently negative way in which we are depicted in the media.

1. These public relations practitioners convey a false impression of what is involved in public relations work. Public relations professionals use strategic communication to advance client perspectives.

2. Such practitioners represent the antithesis of public relations. Ethical public relations professionals build coalitions by engaging with multiple publics.

3. By becoming the story, these public relations practitioners take reporting time away from news of value to the public interest. Public relations professionals foster relationships with media professionals to facilitate fair client coverage.

4. These public relations practitioners widen the credibility gap that already exists between the media and public relations. (Remember when the Associated Press used the pejorative, adjectival form of public relations to clarify proper usage of alt-right?)

Sure,  Sean Spicer is not one of us, but folks like him certainly share the blame for continued media misrepresentations of the public relations profession.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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