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.