“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” — the late Rep. John Lewis
Full disclosure: I’m an activist for social and racial justice. I have marched the streets of Washington, D.C., Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, where I now live, and contributed my professional skills to local chapters of Indivisible and Black Lives Matter.
I suspect that when the workday is done, many PRSA members volunteer for causes about which they care deeply.
Those of us who are activists may be reluctant to go public about our affiliations for fear of losing clients or alienating the boss or C-suite. We’re professionals by day and activists by night, and the two shall never meet.
But the recent tensions and instability in our society due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, protests and polarized politics may make it difficult to avoid hot-button issues in the workplace. Some of us are fortunate to work for companies that tell employees to bring their whole selves to work, that invest in corporate social responsibility and that act as responsible members of their communities.
Others of us are not so lucky and work for employers or clients that, despite our own best efforts, engage in practices that we consider narrow and self-serving. In those cases, do we swallow our discomfort and remain professional above all else, or do we join the employees who are rising up as internal activists? Witness the recent walkouts by employees at Google and Facebook, and by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, over a range of workplace issues.
On July 20, the Strike for Black Lives saw thousands of essential workers walk off their jobs to demand that corporations raise wages as well as provide health care and paid sick leave as part of a larger effort to pressure businesses to confront systemic racism.
Looking to the past
At times like these, it may help to take a breath, look back in time and consider the activist roots of the PR profession. During the 19th century, abolitionists, suffragettes, temperance unions and labor groups acted as strategic communicators, using dramatic events, the news media and strategic alliances to influence opinion and bring about reforms.
According to a 2012 article in Public Relations Review, activists were practicing public relations some 80 years before companies began to appropriate and refine the concept. Companies saw the power of these activist groups and began hiring specialists who could use the same tools and strategies to protect corporate interests.
Scholars such as Dean Kruckeberg, APR, Fellow PRSA, co-author of the textbook “This is PR: The Realities of Public Relations,” say the time has come for the PR profession to think and act differently. They argue that the general public is the ultimate stakeholder, and that our profession should pay greater attention to those with little power, such as marginalized communities — and in the face of climate change, even to the natural environment and animals.
According to Kruckeberg and Marina Vujnovic, his co-author of scholarly papers on protest public relations and activism, PR practitioners must embrace a new model, one in which organizations are no longer the hub from which relationships are maintained with primary publics. In this new model, organizations become part of a larger social system.
In the view of Kruckeberg and Vujnovic, organizations and their leaders should demonstrate concern not just for their “strategic publics,” but for all others in the social system of which the organization is a part.
Perhaps by reclaiming the activist roots of public relations and embracing this new model, we can be more open about our own activism. We can present activist stakeholders less as the enemy and more as fellow citizens with legitimate concerns.
Moreover, we may be able to inspire a more diverse generation to choose public relations as a career path. When millennials and Gen Zers understand that public relations can be used to address the most urgent problems we face as a society, such as the coronavirus, climate change and racial injustice, they may present a more hopeful future for us all.
Until then, if you want to find colleagues who share your views on more controversial issues, tread lightly at first. Rather than assume you’ve found a like-minded colleague, ask neutral questions to gauge his or her perspective on an issue that matters to you.
Here are some tips for balancing your professional PR work and your activism:
- Have courage. If your personal values don’t align with your employer’s practices, then it might be time to find a job at an organization where they do come together.
- Volunteer. Donate your time and skills to a cause that is important to you.
- Go beyond LinkedIn for your job search. Websites such as Idealist.org, workforgood.org and the career center at the National Council of Nonprofits can show you opportunities to follow your calling while also being paid.
- Take a fresh look at the PRSA Code of Ethics, especially the core value of “Loyalty.” Professionals should be faithful to those they represent, while also honoring their obligation to serve the public interest. There may come a time when you’ll feel pulled between these two obligations and are uncertain which one should take priority. Knowing your own values will help you make the right decision.
Margaret Ritsch, Ed.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, will be joining the faculty at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in the fall of 2020. Until recently, she was director of public affairs for Fort Worth Housing Solutions, a large housing authority whose mission is to provide housing solutions where people can flourish.
Photo credit: halfpoint