Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Time to Switch Shoes

Amanda Wilcosky

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

This arguably overused concept is relayed in a variety of situations and contexts. One area in which it should be of central concern is public relations.

David Martinson, in “‘Truthfulness’ in Communication Is Both a Reasonable and Achievable Goal for Public Relations Professionals,” writes about reversibility, which conveys the question: “if the practitioner were the receiver of the particular communication rather than the transmitter, would he or she still believe it was substantially complete?”

This inquiry must be kept in mind not only by PR professionals but also by journalists of all types. While one cannot let the idea of hurting someone’s feelings or garnering criticism affect his or her coverage, the way that he or she portrays events, ideas and people can be altered to ensure that the communication is honest, factual and comprehensible. PR practitioners have an opportunity to build trust with the public (often for free!), which will ultimately help them with future campaigns and awareness endeavors. The PRSA’s Code of Ethics even lists HONESTY as one of its core values.

Additionally, as Martinson points out, untrustworthy communication by PR professionals directly impacts print news media, which have a responsibility to produce unbiased and truthful content for readers. I remember how, during my first internship at a small suburban news outlet, my editor would hand me a stack of press releases each day that I would rework and rewrite to better fit the publication. Looking back, I paid little attention to the source and seldom questioned the accuracy/honesty of the content, figuring it was "just PR." I now know that the source and content of press releases are just as important as adjusting them to fit journalistic standards.

Lastly, I agree with Martinson that not all persuasion is bad and that a certain amount of strategic communication is expected and actually welcomed in our social and product-oriented society. However, I do feel that the importance and credibility of the source of communication must be analyzed by both public relations practitioners and those receiving the message. The same exact press release or video news release can be interpreted and should be received much differently depending on the source.

Side Note
With a mission “to promote transparency and an informed debate by exposing corporate spin and government propaganda and by engaging the public in collaborative, fair and accurate reporting,” the
Center for Media and Democracy has an interesting Web site devoted to blogs about and reports of unethical PR practices.

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