Do modern public relations professionals need to become quasi-celebrity spokespeople?
Karthik S, head of digital strategy, Edelman India, seems to think so. Last year, he wrote a post to convey the point, suggesting that public relations professionals that manage social media outlets on behalf of clients have an opportunity to "be the client."
The discussion evolved from a post that shared one possible model to integrate social media and public relations into a PR-driven communication plan.
I understand Karthik's point. Eighty percent of public relations professionals see social media as a key focus in 2010. And the concept, for public relations to move beyond providing mutually beneficial communication between the organization and various publics and toward providing mutually beneficial communication for themselves and the organizations they serve, has ample popularity and several living examples to propel it forward.
Right or wrong, a significant percentage of public relations professionals believe the field is moving in a direction where public relations professionals take center stage to communicate direct to hundreds or thousands of "fans" on behalf of select clients (preferably those who attract more fans), and that sheer temporary loyalty and enthusiasm from those fans will influence the mainstream media. Is that modern public relations or old school propaganda?
How media relations is sometimes misunderstood and undervalued.
I was reminded this morning of how media relations once worked, and still does in some cases. An objective reporter called a public relations professional after receiving an invitation to a groundbreaking of a public facility. The reporter had a preconceived hypothesis, wondering whether it was prudent for government to open a facility given the economy.
Many people can surmise where such a story was headed. It was meant to be a government waste piece.
But rather than develop a list of counterpoints and credible allies within the community, the public relations professional simply invited the reporter out to the facility. There, he spoke to patrons, employees, and later called various government officials. He asked tough questions.
The public relations professional laid out the facts bare, allowing the reporter to draw his own conclusions. And when the story ran, the reporter had shifted the direction of the story, more or less using the facility as an example of prudent government action that fulfilled the needs of the community as opposed to another example of misappropriation.
The public relations professional didn't need to spin the story, angle for more fans, or pitch another piece (for another client). She merely had to be authentic, engaging, and make it easier for the reporter to assess the facts. Likewise, the reporter, a seasoned professional, didn't need to validate the original hypothesis for himself, his readers, or any other party. Instead, he reported the truth.
For the public reading the piece, there is no other story. They won't suddenly feel compelled rush to the computer to friend or follow her, even if she was quoted. Her focus had clarity: serve both the reporter and the organization, no fanfare needed.
And at the same time, the community was treated to one of those rare examples when government was caught doing the right thing instead of trying to spin the story to appear right. (If only the federal government could learn such a lesson.)
Modern public relations infused with marketing changes the paradigm.
Imagine what might have happened with unnecessary layers of agenda.
The public relations professional would be charged with making themselves and the company look good, with the measure being how many more followers they might add at the end of the day. The journalist would be charged with making themselves and the publisher look good, validating whatever hypothesis their subscribers expect.
While that premise does not preclude the truth from being part of the equation, it certainly changes the objectives of those involved. It suggests that we never mind the facts, but focus on public opinion and build influence by pretending to follow the crowd. And, nothing builds the modern measure of "influence" faster than validating the opinions of others.
Even today, while listening to a webinar by Gaetan Giannini, assistant professor at Cedar Crest College, I noted that a shift in public relations at the university level seems to be driving public relations professionals to become marketers via social media. Giannini even suggested it be called Marketing Public Relations (MPR).
While MPR is still reliant on "connectors" (which adds bloggers to mainstream media), it also overemphasizes pushing specific messages to increase visibility and build the identity of the organization or product. And this begs a question. At what point is public relations no longer public relations, but rather spokesperson marketing?
And if spokesperson marketing becomes the definition of modern public relations, then the next question to ask is what happens to the truth?
In the more traditional media relations/objective reporter scenario, the truth seemed to be the priority for everyone. But in this new MPR model (especially if professionals act as quasi celebrity connectors/influencers), the truth seems secondary to the popularity and perceived credibility of the public relations professional. In fact, it might not even matter.