Many years ago, while I was a fresh faced dreamer, taking notes (with a pen and paper!) at the back of a lecture hall, a turn of events occurred, which turned me against public relations and public relations practitioners, and stopped me from finding out any more about what it was all about. But years later, I have seen it in a strangely ironic light (and not in that Alanis Morissette version of irony, which ironically, isn’t ironic).
The story begins with a second-year lecture on cultural theory. I had just returned from a year-out travelling round South East Asia and my idealistic view of the world had been solidified by my experiences. Now, the cultural theory modules were not exclusive to any programme. There were media studies students present, film studies, media production, journalism, and more importantly, amongst others; public relations students.
The lecturer was a popular academic with the student body, he was respected for his views of the world and an inspiration to me, as well as someone who influenced me and others to take certain modules, read books, and experience the media world around us. He is a very cool guy. In other words, his opinion mattered to me, at a time when I was destined to put the world to rights.
During this lecture, one rainy Tuesday morn, on discussing slave labour, and the actions of multi-national organisations, and their damaging impact on the world, he got on to talking about how these companies avoid negative press, and how they manage to maintain a positive image in the eyes of customers, despite their terrible practices in poorer portions of the globe.
A disturbance of the equilibrium
“Anyone in here doing PR?” was the call. Hands sheepishly rise. “Come on! Who is doing a PR degree, and wants to go and work for a big company like Coca-Cola?” The hands that remained in the air were joined by a few more confident extensions of the bicep. “Get out!” Laughter – some nervous, fluttered around the theatre. “I mean it, get out of here!” He added something else about morals, or ethics and the PR students that were brave enough to admit it left the room. The remnants of the group then learned how the Coca-Cola company pays people to say, despite the clearly inhumane conditions and painfully low pay of its workers, things like: “If we didn’t have our factory here, people would have no jobs. We are vital to the economy of this community…”
That was it for me. My moral compass firmly directed towards anything but these objectionable publicists who protect the malevolence of the world for a profit, using the dark arts of persuasion and spin.
Looking back, now I can see that it was he who was partaking in the spin. It was he who, despite his protestations toward the PR students, was performing a huge PR stunt in a public sphere, against PR.
It was successful too, at least on me, because he reinforced an attitude – I had from limited access and knowledge of what PR is (although that is a whole new subject for another day) – and affected my behaviour. The objective was to cause a change in behaviour, and it was achieved, because most people in that room, like me, became very pleased with the idea that they had some kind of moral high ground.
Acting as a third party spokesperson, and using a favourable case study, combined with emotive language, he effectually used PR techniques to dissuade me, and others, from even considering a career in public relations.
The establishment of a new equilibrium
Now that I understand PR, I can see that he gave me one of the best lesson in PR I’ve ever had.
I haven’t lost much of my idealism. I still endeavour to make my world (it used to be the world) a better place to be, and strive to work in a job that empowers me to feel I have made a positive difference to people’s lives. And this is my PR.
Encouraging democracy and two-way communications, giving people a voice, and using social media to promote the equality of ideas are just some of the things I do every day. Corporate social responsibility, an ethical code, and a code of practice engendered by a chartered institute, are all things that are encouraged and promoted to ensure moral integrity of a profession that has struggled for too long against an unjustified condemnation.