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A “Madd” Opinion of Public Relations

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Several industry colleagues have sent me the video clip of Rachel Maddow casting broad aspersions at one of public relations’ leading firms and, by implication, the profession itself. I sure wouldn’t mind having an opportunity to educate her about public relations and the positive role it plays in society.

Maddow took AIG to task for engaging multiple public relations firms to help it manage the crush of media, government, and employee interest in its situation (as if it were on a drunken spending binge on the taxpayer’s dime). But she tarred Burson-Marsteller — one of the firms hired by AIG — with the same brush, painting it as an immoral minion to “evil” causes the world over.

Now, Harold Burson has spent most of his life building a formidable legacy by, among other things, counseling his clients to be open and honest. I don’t know of anyone who would describe him as evil, and I don’t know that he would characterize his firm as being in the business of explaining away the sinister deeds of nefarious clients.

The Burson-Marsteller I know guided Tylenol through one of the most serious product recalls in this nation’s history, in what is still considered today to be the text-book example of fast and transparent crisis communications. The firm also has used its considerable public relations expertise to bring to market a vaccine for Rotavirus, an intestinal infection that claims the lives of up to 600,000 to 800,000 children in developing countries each year; helped Bacardi wage a campaign to raise awareness about responsible drinking and discourage drunk driving; and paid tribute to a generation by raising $195 million for the construction of the National WWII Memorial.

These examples illustrate just a fraction of the immeasurable public good that public relations agencies, independent practitioners, and corporate communicators have served the world over. Our profession has changed attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, such as obesity, smoking, HIV-AIDS, childhood immunization, breast cancer, and drug abuse. It has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes, and worked pro-bono for institutions who needed our help but could not afford it.

Public relations also helps individuals reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to an open exchange of information that fosters mutual understanding among groups and institutions. It aids businesses, governments, and other organizations in understanding the attitudes and values of different audiences in order to further the achievement of their institutional goals. Public relations practitioners are counselors to management and mediators, helping to translate private aims into reasonable, publicly acceptable policies and actions, and to mitigate risks.

The sad reality is that public relations firms are often called upon when companies face difficult challenges. And many times, we’re called upon by companies whose products, politics, or actions we may disagree with.

Public relations did not trigger the financial meltdown currently taking place around us, and any suggestion that the industry is profiteering at the taxpayer’s expense is absurd on its face. Still, we can be part of the solution. Simply put, there is no other communications discipline equipped to help the nation’s financial system begin the healing process and move forward.

Are Maddow’s comments just “link bait” intended to draw controversy and viewers? Maybe. But if her comments represent her true feelings and beliefs about our industry, I have two words for her: Call me.

Michael Cherenson, APR, is 2009 Chair and CEO of PRSA.

About the author

Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Mike,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post, and for being the voice of the profession on many of these issues. The more we can educate the general public the more our profession will be understood by others.

  • Public relations for a privately owned company is different from public relations for an organization in which the taxpayers are the owners. It is unfortunate that Rachel Maddow turned this into a blast against the pr industry, but we as an industry must recognize the difference between public relations for private companies and public relations for governmental agencies. As soon as these companies received bailout funds- and AIG has received some of the most – they and their pr team – starting with their internal one, must acknowledge they are now beholden to the taxpayers. As a public relations – we call it public information and community outreach – firm which focuses on taxpayer owned projects, there is a niche which I would like to see PRSA acknowledge in a more formal way.

  • Very nice post and I appreciate you sharing it. Now pushing this out on Twitter to share with others. I like Maddow sometimes, but she can be rough. And I feel she says whatever she feels like saying whether right or wrong or has merit or not. And she extremely opinionated, ya think?


  • “But if her comments represent her true feelings and beliefs about our industry, I have two words for her: Call me.”

    I’d suggest you call her. I honestly believe she would have you on.

  • Mike;

    Thanks for the post – well said. You continue to be a thought-leader in our industry, and your guidance and leadership is greatly appreciated.

    Bonnie Upright, APR

  • She was blasting AIG for taking OUR ( YOUR) hard earned cash and turning around and paying a firm to spin AIG’s image back to US. AIG has done enough. We don’t need our money spent like that. Nothing against the PR firms helping AIG or the industry. The fact was/is AIG is spending our cash to spin themselves against us. Sadly she painted a bad picture of BM in the process. Oh well some things are messy.

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