With faith in institutions crumbling, partisan cancel-culture advocates poking their noses into places they could never have entered previously, the advent of AI and fake news, and growing cynicism stemming from misinformation about public issues, it is time for the PR industry to focus on serving the public interest.
As Claudine Gay wrote of her resignation from Harvard in the New York Times: “The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. . . . Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility.”
PR has always paid lip service to working for the public good, but honored it more in the breach than in the observance. Pro bono campaigns are common and commendable, but the industry can do more.
But what is public interest PR? And whose public interest? Some say a single, definable public interest does not exist, but Professor Jasper Fessmann of the University of Memphis offers a definition of the field in his book, Strategic Communication for Non-Profit Organisations - Challenges and Alternative Approaches (Vernon Press, 2016). He writes that public interest communication, or PIC, is “the development and implementation of science-based, planned strategic communication campaigns with the main goal of achieving significant and sustained positive behavioral change on a public interest issue that transcends the particular interests of any single organization.”
Fessmann continues: “PIC represents a new conceptual intersection of public relations, journalism, and marketing, where knowledge developed for more corporate-oriented fields is used and specifically expanded upon to empower non-corporate advocates to strategically promote social causes and to counter antisocial behavior.”
The development of any professional specialty begins with formal education, and there is considerable opportunity for foundational programs in public interest communication. Academic programs offering majors, minors or advanced degrees already exist at universities such as Washington, Florida, and Vermont. Other communication schools with the resources, faculty, and willingness to commit might do the same, seeking support funding from organizations like the Pew Trust or the Poynter Institute. The ad/PR congloms and major lobbying firms ought to kick in, as well as PRSA and the PR Seminar.
The public communication curriculum should focus on identifying and framing issues, agenda setting, narrative development and strategic communication, not social media techniques or analytics and button pushing. The issues addressed could be informed by the extensive list published by the Harvard Law School on the web site for its Public Interest Law program.
Have I gone woke? Not in the least. The need is great and it is well past time to make the public foremost in public relations. Developing this new specialty would be a major step in that direction.
Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of Advertising's Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model. Journal of Advertising Research, May/June 1999. His article about advertising effects has been cited in books and academic papers around the world.