Monday, April 9, 2012

The Task of the PR Practitioner: Image Maintenance or Organizational Reform?

While playing catch-up on AMC’s hit drama Mad Men a couple of months ago, a particular scene in an episode entitled “Beautiful Girls” caught my attention. 

Young copywriter Peggy Olson is troubled over the racist hiring policies of one of the ad agency’s clients (the show is set in the early 1960s). Much to her discontent, creative director Don Draper’s response to her voiced concern is “Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not to make Fillmore Auto like Negroes.”

Fast forward five decades and a similar concern still haunts public relations practitioners. Is it our duty to simply make people ‘like’ our client/organization or does our unique position as organizational liaison require us to go a bit further and incite true change?

Examples abound of reputations and images gone awry within the past couple of years, including British Petroleum, Rupert Murdoch and Penn State. Such issues raise the question: are practitioners addressing the underlying issues within the organization, or simply doing their best to smooth over the crisis until the public’s attention shifts to the next scandal?

Research in our field has found many practitioners view themselves as the organization’s conscience. Other scholars (i.e. Heath) draw attention to the significant difference between an organization who appears to be ‘doing good’ as compared to the organization who is actually ‘being good’.

Take, for example, Shell.

On the company’s website, a document outlining their ‘socially responsible’ practices contains this gem: “People matter to your Company. Our sense of economic, social and environmental responsibility is reflected in our commitment to meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Ongoing troubles in the Niger Delta, however, suggest perhaps the organization’s practices aren’t as fine and dandy as their PR pros would lead us to believe.

With buzzwords such as “transparency” and “two-way communication” abounding in our discipline’s vernacular, isn’t it time we take a closer look and examine not if we can bring about organizational change through our position, but how?

By Chelsea Wilde
Center Manager

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