Last week I had an opportunity to visit the White House as a representative of PRSA. With the upcoming July 4 holiday, it was a timely and moving reminder of the values that underpin our nation, and that fortify our profession.
The occasion was the presentation of PRSA’s Public Relations Professional of the Year award to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, one of several national and local government communicators from both sides of the political aisle to be so recognized this decade. Honored for his role as communications director of the Obama for President campaign, Gibbs made groundbreaking use of Web 2.0 technologies, amassed a vast database of e-mail and text addresses to enable direct communications with voters and maintained a disciplined communications approach, all of which contributed measurably to President Obama’s decisive victory on election night.
Under Gibbs’ stewardship, the Obama for President campaign was marked by accessibility and openness. And as I walked past a young Marine guarding the door to the White House and stepped into the West Wing with PRSA COO Bill Murray and National Capital Chapter President Barbara Burfeind, I was reminded of how important those qualities are — especially in the post 9/11 world.
To be sure, government accessibility and openness are not ends in and of themselves; they are means for citizens to communicate, make decisions and achieve mutual understanding. Whether the issues involve a local school board trying to meet the challenges of a shrinking budget, or the Federal Government wrestling with health care reform, open communications bring public policies and private interests into harmony. As Arthur Page put it, “all business in a democratic country begins with public permission and exists by public approval.”
The founding fathers understood this powerful truth and protected freedom of speech at the top of the Bill of Rights. As professional communicators, however, we have a special responsibility as we exercise our rights to speech.
PRSA members acknowledge that responsibility in important ways. They aspire to uphold the high standards of honesty and openness set forth in PRSA’s Code of Ethics which, like the First Amendment, protects and advances the free flow of accurate and truthful information as essential to serving the public interest. At other times, they yield to regulations that govern commercial speech, such as the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed regulation of blogs, or the existing rules and guidance governing environmental claims, a subject Congress is revisiting amid claims of widespread “greenwashing.”
As I sat lost in thought on the Amtrak train waiting to start the return trip to New Jersey, our departure from Union Station was delayed, until a security sweep could be completed and Vice President Joe Biden allowed to board the train for his short commute up to Delaware.
So in one day, I shared in two great examples of our government’s accessibility and openness: I had an opportunity to visit the White House and to commute by train with the Vice President. Ultimately, though, we know it’s not really about walking through the doors of the White House, nor about riding the rails alongside the second-most powerful man in the world — it’s about how those actions symbolize our freedom to engage our government and one another in an open expression of thoughts and ideas — something that all of us, as PRSA members, take pride in every day.
Michael G. Cherenson is PRSA’s 2009 Chair and CEO.