“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 fooled 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.