Never before have I felt that the profession of public relations is under siege as it is now. For one who has been in the profession for more than 25 years and teaches at the university graduate level, each week I face students who are uncertain about how to think about their chosen field as they make their way in their studies and contemplate their next steps in life.
We hear half-truths and obvious lies as terms such as alternative facts get bandied about as if they are acceptable standards. They are not. We witness vital media outlets being shut out of press conferences, eroding the foundation of the free press, which has always distinguished us as a country, dating back to our Founding Fathers. Fake news has become almost banal as we try to sift through the real and the unreal and people in high places question any news items they do not agree with and call it fake. We struggle with the reasons we chose this profession in the first place. Why it is important? Does it matter? What has it come to? How can we make sense of what we are seeing around us?
In reflection, there are a number of truths that I hold up as reasons to believe this profession is one worth pursuing. Lately it may not feel that way, but it is. And so I write this for the students I have had, do have and will have in the classroom who I hope will achieve great things in their careers and not be daunted by what they are witnessing currently in contemporary society.
Words Matter: PR Professionals Live by this. We understand the value and importance of each and every word. Accordingly, we work hard to effectively represent the sentiment of what we are trying to get across to our audiences and that each word has implications. We know the value of simplicity as words get translated across cultures and languages. Importantly, we recognize that it is not just what we say but also where we say it. Not all messages should be conveyed in 140 characters.
PR has deep historical roots. Our work dates back to the ancient Greeks beginning with Isocrates, Plato and Aristotle analyzing rhetoric. And, Aristotle’s creation of the fundamental concepts of persuasion, ethos, logos and pathos provided a construct that we still rely on today. Throughout history, government and leaders have advanced these theories and supported the development of new ones.
PR holds us accountable. This is a profession in which we have to continually respond to what is being said, answer for what we have done and provide the flexibility and tenacity to see each and every issue we deal with to the end. In crisis, we are reminded of Lanny Davis’s book about his White House days, “Truth to Tell: Tell it Early, Tell it All, Tell it Yourself”, which are important watchwords for us to live by.
PR seeks out the truth. Just as we are often on the front line being questioned, we also hold others to be accountable for what they have done and demand their answers. We work hard to surface what we need to know and ferret out falsehoods and innuendo that are not backed up by facts (and oh my the way a fact is something that is indisputably true, the other side of that is fiction).
PR continually raises its own standards. Since the advent of social media two decades ago with the first site, Six Degrees, social media has transformed the PR world and life as we know it. The number of people actively participating in social media is staggering, with over 4.5 billion monthly visiting just the top social media sites. What does this mean for us? The conversation has turned two-way and we are no longer engaging in monologues but in dialogues. Through these platforms, PR professionals must be able to respond in real time to issues, challenges and inquires that come about on a 24/7 basis. And be able to do this globally.
PR embraces innovation: The media has never been this front and center. As such, PR professionals in order to be relevant must embrace technological innovation and understand next generation applications in order to resonate with our audiences. It is an exciting and often uncertain place we live in this profession, trying to understand the technology and then applying it. Whether it is through the use of data visualization to tell stories or the use of Virtual Reality to connect with our stakeholders, we live on the cutting edge.
PR demands left and right brain thinkers. As PR professionals we have to have the creativity to seek out new ideas and at the same time use our critical thinking skills to analyze the best course of action in this complex media world. We need to ideate AND we need to come up with effective ways to actually implement them. Often times we only get one shot at doing it right. PR is an exacting profession and stretches our thinking and imposes us to go beyond our limits.
Our profession is more important than it has ever been. As PR professionals we owe it to our stakeholders to revisit the reasons why we chose this path to begin with. Creative. Intellectually Stimulating. Meaningful. Important. It is for all of these, among others, we get up each morning and do it all over again. And while each of us represents the interests of the clients, companies and organizations we support, we have an inherent responsibility and obligation to execute on our jobs with accuracy and integrity. Without that we are lost.
Is it a demanding, unpredictable and ever changing profession? You bet. There is nothing routine about it. But little compares with the satisfaction we get from the many lives we touch with the work we do advancing (and protecting) the reputations of the organizations we support, the communities we live in and the causes we care about.
Jacqueline Strayer has served as the Chief Communication Officer for three global publicly traded companies, has a private consultancy and is a faculty member at NYU and Columbia teaching a range of subjects in PR, communications and marketing in three graduate programs. Follow her @jfstrayer.