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.