Dual Advocacy

In the past, I’ve had a recurring problem with friends: I’ve loved spending time with two people, but they hate one another. I wish it was an isolated incident, but it has happened several times. When it happens, I feel pulled in both directions. I care for both equally, but sadly, the only way to make one happy was by neglecting the other. When these situations occur, I feel torn.

As someone in public relations, I have encountered the same tearing. I am a representative of the organization or client for whom I’m working. Whatever I do needs to accurately reflect the right image. My job is to positively relate to various publics in order to make the company more successful in every way.

However, there is another vital role I must take in public relations. I must also be an advocate. When I center any writing on a word, I like to define it. That way I can make sure I know what I’m talking about, but that way you do too. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines advocate as, “a person who argues for or supports a cause or policy; a person who works for a cause or group; a person who argues for the cause of another person in a court of law.”

Let me also clarify that I am not talking about advocating for the organization. I am talking about being an advocate for the public interest. The Public Relations Member Code of Ethics states, “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.” As PR professionals, we don’t just represent the organization to the world; we represent the world to the organization. These two roles can often seem at odds. It’s quite a challenge to many professionals, including myself.

An author by the name of Kate Cox wrote an excellent essay on the topic. She termed the problem a bit differently. She used the term “advocacy” to mean the representation of the organization to the world. Then she used the term “social conscience” to mean the representation of the world to the organization. She also pointed out the seeming dichotomy between these two roles. They can seem utterly at odds with one another.

She explained an excellent three-part theory by Kathy Fitzpatrick and Candace Gauthier to make these identities work cohesively. First, the professional needs to take the consequences of actions into consideration. Next, actions need to be respectful. This process works under the assumption that everyone deserves equal respect. The third step is being fair. However, Kate also gave her own definition. She wrote that responsible advocacy didn’t just support the organization and the public, but also has a method to check and balance this support. Balance is a key word in her definition.

As public relations practitioners, we are given the task of equally representing both parties. When it seems impossible to decide, that is when you must lean on your own ethics. It is a difficult equilibrium, but not an impossible one.

Take Twitter Seriously

Social media has continually gained prevalence in the lives of people around the world. Increasingly, it is a place for people to rant and joke. People cuss, say mean things, get into fights, vent, complain or post whatever comes to mind. A lot of people don’t realize the seriousness of what’s posted on social media. This applies to every social media platform, whether it’s Facebook, Vine, Twitter, etc. It’s vitally important for you to carefully think through the consequences of what you post.

I would argue that Twitter one of the most dangerous when it comes to consequences. Why? Yes, you can get in trouble no matter the platform, but Twitter is unique in that anyone can see what you post, unless you are private. It is not like other platforms where you typically post things that only a private network can view. When you post something on Twitter, it is out there for the entire world to see.

Perhaps you aren’t taking me seriously. Let me give you two examples. According to The New York Times, Dutch police recently arrested at 14-year-old girl because of a tweet. What could a young girl have possibly done that was so bad on Twitter? As you can see in the screen shot, she threatened American Airlines in a tweet posing as someone from a well-known terrorist group. As far as anyone knows, she is not connected with Al Qaida. The tweet was meant as a joke, but American Airlines does not take these jokes lightly. She learned that lesson the hard way.

Sadly, young people are not the only ones who have made this mistake. In another recent incident, a public relations professional tweeted a rather racist joke before boarding a plane to Africa. You can see in the picture what she posted. According to reporter Ashley Southall, before getting fired Sacco worked as the communication director of InterActiveCorp (IAC). This tweet started a wildfire of fury on Twitter, resulting in her dismissal from the company before the plane even landed in Africa.

Shortly after this tweet, IAC responded by sending out the statement, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”

It does not matter who you are or what your job, it is vital to be wise in your posts on social media. BBC News reporter Bill Thompson wrote an article titled “Be careful what you tweet.” In it he explained that social media has created a space where people feel free to fire quick responses, a space that encourages informality. People often use it for conversations that were previously private. I agree with his point. I think social media platforms have given people a feeling of freedom because they’re sitting behind a computer screen. Honestly, I’ve been tempted to feel more safe saying something rude on Facebook or Twitter because I am not saying it face-to-face.

What we all need to understand is that being online doesn’t negate the consequences of unwise decisions. Writer Joel Lee wrote a helpful article listing five ways Twitter can get you in trouble. He listed slander, self-incrimination, inappropriate jokes, threats and rule breaking as terrible ideas. I agree with everything he had to say, but these are not the only posts that can get you in trouble.

Especially in public relations, where we are representatives of the company or client, it is even more important because the entire company’s reputation is at stake. At all my internships, I haven’t had free reign on social media. I could choose to get upset and see it as them not trusting me, but this will be the same whether I am an intern or a full-time employee. Having someone else double-check the posts gives an extra level of security to the company reputation. It allows PR professionals to hold one another accountable, catch any mistakes and avoid possible disasters. As a rule of thumb, regardless of who you are or where you’re posting, always run it through what I call “the consequence test.” Think about the repercussions of what you’re about to post. Ask yourself if it will offend anyone. Use good judgment. If you’re unsure about something, ask another persons opinion. At the end of the day, take Twitter and every other platform seriously. Choices, even on social media, have consequences.

 

“Be Prepared”

I have two younger brothers. They’re both boy scouts. If there’s been anything drilled into their brains, it’s “Be Prepared.” This isn’t simply an overused phrase quoted hundreds of times in dozens of movies. It’s wise advice people take for granted because it’s heard too often. Being prepared is the best safeguard against bad things. Being prepared can make a big difference in any aspect of life, but especially in public relations. Being prepared in PR can be the difference between the life and death of an organization or it’s reputation.

Prepare for crisis

In public relations, we prepare for crisis by living what we call proactive public relations. Proactive means we’re actively thinking about and working on a plan for a crisis before the crisis happens. The Disaster Recovery Journal had an article warning that the time to start thinking about crisis planning is not during the disaster. It should be “an ongoing methodical process that is put into action long before it becomes necessary.”

Why be proactive? 

To put it plainly, crises are not scheduled events. They aren’t going to appear on your calendar with advanced warning. They don’t politely give you time to plan. Crises are crises because they’re unexpected. As author Jonathan Bernstein pointed out, crises aren’t confined by anything. They can happen to anyone at anytime. No one’s immune. He cautioned that failing to prepare can end up causing more damage. That makes sense. Think about it. If your company ends up in a crisis and you don’t know how to respond, you look stupid. People will think worse of you because you’re unprepared and unequipped to handle the situation. Typically, the sooner the crisis is dealt with, the better. If you aren’t prepared, it’ll take longer to fix.

What to prepare

Now on to the part where I calm you down. I hope I didn’t frighten you at the prospect of future crisis. You’re probably thinking, “there is no way to prepare for everything that could happen!” You’re right. Author Michelle Gilbert admitted the same, but she said it’s possible  to plan for the unexpected. If you are competent enough about the organization to relate to various publics, then you should know it well enough to plan for possible disasters.

1. Prepare inside the organization. Preparing inside means you have a designated plan. As Bernstein suggested, this plan needs to have a defined crisis team and one spokesperson. Each person needs to know their role and what will be expected. People within the organization need to communicate well with one another. Nothing will work if the internal part of preparation isn’t solid.

Photo by Corrie Scaggs

Photo credit: Corrie Scaggs

2. Prepare the reputation of the organization. The Disaster Recover Journal listed three aspects a company needs to develop before a crisis hits, namely: credibility, a positive reputation and good will. If a company has these aspects firmly in place before a crisis, when these qualities come under attack, it’ll go much better. As the Journal stated, “None of these qualities can be generated during a crisis. They need to exist in advance.”

3. Prepare outside the organization. Media relations may be the single most important relationship during a crisis. If not the most important, it’s definitely a top priority. During these disastrous situations, the media have a lot of influence over a company’s reputation based on what they cover, what they say and how they say it. If you have a good relationship with the media built on trust and mutual understanding, it will be easier for you when these situations arise.

One aspect of proactive PR I hadn’t considered was consistency. Author Brian Hill recommended updating the plan on a consistent basis. He recommended doing a yearly evaluation, but I think it will be different based on the organization. In the end, I think proactive public relations fits into the four-step PR process of research, planning, implementation and evaluation. You have to understand the organization and plan for possible crises. If a crisis occurs, you implement your plan and then evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts. My professors always warn that evaluation isn’t just something you do at the end, but at every stage. Proactive public relations is the best way to be prepared for a crisis. If you don’t have one yet, there’s no time like the present!

 

Inescapable Boundaries

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” – The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Freedom is a tricky word, especially for this generation. Author Wendell Berry described our time as an era of illusion. We have fooledfos ourselves that freedom is limitless. He rebuked the idea by stating that boundaries, even within freedom, are inescapable. Freedom of speech is one such liberty, wrapped up so much in that illusion that we use it more as an excuse rather than a freedom. When you add public relations to the mix, the boundaries are often made even hazier. Some practitioners would argue that they aren’t restrained at all by the first amendment because they don’t work for a news organization. I would say they’re wrong. Although not always direct, public relations does have boundaries within the freedom of speech.

It may seem contradictory to have limits on freedom, but take this next situation for example. After becoming an adult, I realized I could do whatever I wanted because I was free from my parent’s authority. However, not getting sleep or spending all my money brings negative consequences. I need to protect my health and well being by operating within restful and frugal boundaries. Similarly, the U.S. government has limitations to the freedom of speech to protect us from certain dangers. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that the government can place restrictions on the time, location or way we speak as long as we have other options or ways to communicate.

The government also limits us from certain categories of speech for the protection others. The Encyclopedia Britannica lists speech of provocation, false statements, obscenity, fighting words and threats as some. Provocation, or incitement speech, is meant to bring about some action against the law. False statements, such as libelous statements, are unlawful. Anything seen as obscene, such as pornography, especially child pornography, is not protected by the government. Fighting words or threats are tricky. These must be direct and clear to be punishable. Unfortunately, hate speech and racist comments are not always punishable.

The walls public relations practitioners run into most often deal with false statements. These include defamation, libel and things of that nature. The government also creates boundaries with regulations via government organizations. Take the example of the FTC’s restriction on Reverb PR because of an update in how the Commission defines “material connections.” CBS News explained that the ruling made it so that public relations professionals couldn’t post online reviews for products from their clients. This is a restriction of the first amendment freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech doesn’t just apply to words coming out of someone’s mouth. The National Paralegal College pointed out that freedom of speech covers all forms of communication. This means blogs, posts on social media, telephone calls, emails, posters, etc. As a reminder, that also means that limitations apply to all forms of communication. Author Kerry Gorgone blogged about the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruling that bloggers have the same freedoms and restrictions as journalists from news organizations in Obsidian Finance Group vx. Cox. Public relations centers around communication. There are two layers of communication. Practitioners communicate for the brand, company or person they represent. Sometimes, this is the only layer of communication. The second layer of communications is seen clearly in an agency. Not only are they communicating for clients, they are also communicating for the agency. In both layers, and all forms of communication, the government restricts practitioners.

The most visible part of public relations is media relations. Public relations has a plethora of tools to communicate with the media, including but not limited to: press releases, media advisories, fact sheets, op-ed pieces and email pitches. In my last post I covered the validation of third-party media. If the media uses the information from those tools in a positive way, it is a huge success for practitioners. It is the journalist’s duty to fact check and ensure their article is within the boundaries. I would argue that it is our job as communicators to the media to help them abide by first amendment limitations. James Horton wrote that public relations does not have limitless freedom, but has more than just legal boundaries. I would put this duty to make journalists jobs easier as one of those boundaries.

Public relations does not have much regulation, but this does not give it unlimited freedom. Practitioners are held accountable for both layers of communications. In addition, they have a duty to be truthful, to avoid defamation and libel, and overall help a journalist stay within the boundaries of the first amendment as well. If we want to be taken as seriously as journalists, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards.

 

Validation

I have no doubt you’ve heard the saying that something is both a blessing and a curse. Third-party validation fits this statement well. When public relations professionals are able to get third-party media to talk about their company or client, it’s a huge blessing. I’d likennice2 dealing with third parties and justifying all the work it takes as a curse of sorts.

What is it?    

For those who aren’t aware, third-party validation is one of the most time consuming but rewarding parts of public relations. Investopedia defines it as a method of spreading messages on a clients’ behalf. These messages need to come from reliable and independent sources. One example would be getting the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Dallas mentioned in a story by the Dallas morning news. However, this isn’t the only example. Blogger Frank Strong also mentioned being asked to speak at conferences as third-party validation. He listed social media engagement, specifically likes, retweets and reviews as validation as well.

Why is it important?

Third-party validation gives the company, brand or client valuable credibility it cannot gain on its own. If I sat here and told you that my cooking was amazing, you wouldn’t take me as seriously as you might someone else who’s eaten my food. Why is that? Everyone has some sort of bias, but that third-party person isn’t as biased. Pamela Bartlett explained on PR Newswire, “When a third party, such as the media, endorses a product or service, the company gains credibility.”

I also want to reference my first article about the honesty problem in public relations. The public’s perception about public relations isn’t wonderful. Granted, we’ve done it to ourselves. We are fixing it, but it will take a lot of time. We aren’t seen as very credible when people think we’re biased and dishonest.

niceHow does it work?

In general, third-party validation comes when PR professionals have worked with a public, typically the media, by sending information. That’s the purpose of press releases, media advisories and fact sheets, etc. That media organization, such as the Dallas Morning News, takes the information they deem worthy and mention it in the publication. Authors Gibbs and Soell made several excellent points: that third party needs to be credible, you need to have important information, send it to the right people and form relationships with those parties. They also wrote that relations like these need to be proactive and continuous.

How is it a curse?

Third-party validation can be a curse because you have no promise that anyone will find your information important. That’s why it’s vital to know where to send the information and what that party finds important. So many people waste hours of time sending out frivolous information, or sending it to the wrong people.

It is also a curse because you have no control over what the third party says. Once public relations professionals send out information, the party has complete control over what is said. That’s what makes it credible, but also what makes it so nerve wracking.

In the end, earning third-party validation is more good than bad. The important thing is do make sure there is not any easy way to take the information you’ve given and turn it into something that will damage reputation. As Joseph Hall once said, “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.”