What role should PR play in the Trump/media war?

Public relations heavyweights weigh in on how the industry stands to lose by staying on the sidelines, along with what approaches might benefit itself and public discourse as a whole.

The Trump/media war continues.

The latest elements include barring live coverage of White House press briefings and a video showing him tackling and beating someone wearing a CNN logo.

The PR community has long been aware of this battle, which is doing neither the participants nor the country any good. Lacking is any PR input, which normally takes the rough edges off the relations that business and government have with members of the press.

At a recent industry event, Dick Martin, a retired vice president at AT&T, sketched a role for PR and its leading trade associations.

The industry, he said, should set up a PR counterpart to the Ad Council, which has created public interest campaigns for 75 years.

Associations must start with themselves

Before lecturing others on good press relations, the groups should look in the mirror and ask how open and cooperative they are with PR and general reporters. They should be setting an example. Several questions arise:

  • How often do they have press conferences that are either live or via teleconferences?
  • Do the chairs of their elected boards take press questions or is that access blocked by staff heads?
  • Can reporters attend their meetings?

In his address, Martin noted that although PR has credibility problems, so do news outlets. “Public communications is at a dangerous tipping point,” he said.

A Gallup poll shows Americans’ trust in journalism is at “an all-time low,” with two-thirds of U.S. adults not believing the news they “see, hear or read,” he said.

“It’s especially frightening when the most powerful man in the world attacks reporters as ‘the most dishonest people in the world’ and calls some of our leading news organizations ‘enemies of the American people.'” he said.

The PR industry can’t stand by and hope the situation will change, Martin said. “Media literacy may be the social issue of our time. Addressing it is in our own interest.”

Time’s Murray urges PR/media cooperation

Urging PR/media cooperation at the event was Alan Murray, who is chief content officer at Time Inc. and editor-in-chief at Fortune magazine.

A problem, Murray said, is that there is “no common currency of facts to form the basis for civil discourse, much less civic action, on any of the very real problems and issues that face our society.”

“We need institutions like the Arthur Page Center, that are dedicated to the truth and to the currency of facts, more than ever before,” he said. It’s the job of both PR and journalism to “fully inform the public,” he added.

Burson outlines four vital PR roles

Harold Burson, a founder of Burson-Marsteller, said PR performs four chief roles—sensor of social change, corporate conscience, communicator, and corporate “monitor” or “ombudsman.”

Following are his remarks:

First, I said, chief public relations officers serve as the sensor (that’s s-e-n-s-o-r) of social change. They perceive those rumblings at the heart of society that augur good or ill for their employers. They signal the early warning, and after detecting the yearnings and stirrings, they interpret the signals for the management team. They must identify the situation as it really is, not as they imagine it to be. They must to able to separate social change from current fad. And part of the job is keeping management focused on the problem.

The second role the chief public relations officer must fulfill is that of corporate conscience. In making this statement, I am not inferring [sic] that public relations executives behave in ways that are either more moral or more in the public interest than fellow executives bearing other titles. In fact, there are likely others in the corporate hierarchy who possess even more of these attributes. But being the corporate conscience is not part of the job description of other executives. But it should be part of the job description of the chief public relations officer.

The third role of chief public relations officer is that of communicator. The tendency—especially nowadays—is to think that communications is their only role. That is hardly the case though it is an important function. Communication for almost all institutions has two main audiences, one external, the other internal. Usually, most emphasis is placed on external communication—especially to the media, both traditional and digital. But, increasingly, internal communication may be even more critical. Remember this: every employee, no matter his or her level, is someone’s expert on the company or institution one works for. The sales rep who is nose to nose with the customer must have answers when he or she gets questions. Remember, too, that while employees want to know what and when and where, they are much more interested in knowing why. Internal communication must do more than tell or inform. Its primary function is to bring about understanding.

My fourth role for the chief public relations officer is to serve as corporate monitor. I am tempted to use the word ombudsman, because I think chief public relations officers should regard their position in that context. There is a constant need for monitoring corporate policies and programs to make certain they match public expectations. If programs are falling short of expectations, their job is to agitate for new programs or new policies. It seems to me quite natural for the chief public relations officer to adopt this posture. When they fail to do so, they are not living up to what their job requires of them.

Jack O’Dwyer is publisher and editor of The O’Dwyer Co. A version of this post first appeared on Commpro.

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Topics: PR

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