One of my favorite sayings is, “Either lead, follow or get out of the way.” There’s so much truth and significance in this statement, especially in today’s hyper-connected communications world.
As PR counsel to clients or employers who rely on our input to ensure that their actions are viewed favorably by the public and the media, proactive ethical guidance is paramount. This, in turn, translates to a mandate that we be constantly attuned to the thought processes of the C-suite and be prepared to offer guidance on both actions and the words chosen to describe those actions.
Our challenge, obviously, is to get the attention of those leaders and help them understand, clearly and convincingly, the very real risks of their remarks or actions. And this can be accomplished only if we are viewed as knowledgeable professionals who have a firm finger on the public’s pulse.
Edward L. Bernays, considered the “father of public relations,” had this to say in his 1961 book “Your Future in Public Relations,” which digs into the personal qualifications of a PR professional:
“In every organization it is the tendency of the individual to bow to the will of the person above him … It is vital that a consultant or advisor be guided only by objective reason, facts, his honest, unbiased judgment, and his ideal of truth, rather than by a desire to agree with a client or to tell him what he wishes to hear. The extent to which one is able to follow this rule will be a test of strength of character.”
This means that we can’t hunker down comfortably in our offices. We have to be “out there,” interacting with both our leaders and the public, listening and observing to make sure that what we think we are communicating as an organization is actually being received as such.
PR icon Arthur W. Page explained it this way in a speech to the Public Relations Conference of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company in October 1939:
“Public relations, therefore, is not publicity only, not management only; it is what everybody in the business from top to bottom says and does when in contact with the public.”
With this in mind, we turn back to our ethical responsibilities. It should be obvious from both Bernays’ and Page’s observations that the description “public relations counsel” does not imply sitting and thinking.
No. Our responsibility — our mandate as the “conscience of the organization” — is to think proactively and act in the best interests of the organization. And this means that we must be ready, willing and able to speak up when our ethical antennae detect actions or words that have the potential to incite distrust or displeasure, or both. And we must be prepared with recommendations to remedy the issue.
Words and actions are magnified exponentially today thanks to the many social media platforms available to both the public and the media. We no longer have the wait-and-see luxury of both Bernays’ and Page’s times. We must be proactive in addressing issues. We must be leaders in thought and action.
When we are prepared to step forward and offer constructive, experience-tested guidance to others in order to prevent what we know is destined to become a public embarrassment, we will have fulfilled the sixth and final “Provision of Conduct” as defined in PRSA’s Code of Ethics: “Enhancing the Profession: Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.”
The challenge is there. As the Boy Scouts say so clearly and concisely: “Be prepared.” Either lead, follow or get out of the way.
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an adjunct professor, communication, at the University of Tampa. He is also ethics officer for PRSA’s Tampa Bay Chapter.