This is part of a series of blog posts celebrating our 50th anniversary, all of which address the question: What does the future of the PR and communications industry look like?
As we in PRCA undertake a serious inventory of skill sets required for the #FutureOfPR’s global viability, impact and success, there may be no more important self-assessment than our profession-holders’ character and competency in serving as Gatekeepers of Truth on behalf of our employers and clients.
Two recent Home Box Office (HBO) documentaries should stand as required viewing this year by all public relations professionals and students worldwide:
- “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” (the Elizabeth Holmes / Theranos story of whistleblowing amid corporate corruption and medical / investor fraud)
- “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (how USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar got away for decades with molesting at least 250 young female athletes, until whistleblowing finally exposed his crimes and the corruption within both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, which employed him)
Both stories tell parallel cautionary tales of highly charismatic, well-liked and widely venerated individuals – Holmes and Nassar. (Holmes notably cultivated god-like status in national media as Theranos’s star rose.)
Both Holmes and Nassar were able to leverage their reputational assets to deflect criticism and discredit criticizers who – for years – were in fact observing factual, documented, illegal behaviors by these individuals.
The Holmes and Nassar examples are tragic, high-profile extremes, but they also reflect far more common types of perilous scenarios that PR practitioners will likely encounter at more than one point in their careers (even if situational factors are at a far lesser degree in prominence and wrongdoing), when practitioners ultimately may be told to craft, distribute and advocate defensive public communications on behalf of their employer or client organization during highly problematic issues or incidents.
These types of scenarios demand attention and careful analysis by public relations professionals, as we comprehend with full cognizance the implications on how we practice public relations . . . and even IF we will practice public relations for any employer or client who might demand that we be unethical in service to them and their interests.
Public relations professionals must be empowered and knowledgeable about conducting their own fact-gathering due-diligence in any situation wherein they are asked to defend something or someone that may be indefensible.
Speaking truth to power is the #FutureOfPR role that all public relations professionals must aspire to, embrace, and practice in definitive terms.
Any lesser diligence that we might choose to settle for immediately paints us into corners, from which there might be no return, for either our client / employer or our own professional reputations.
Far more important, lesser diligence may present moral risks of jeopardizing countless public lives or their health, safety and well-being (such as in the Theranos case of untold numbers of consumers receiving undisclosed bogus lab results of their blood samples and in the Nassar case of continued widespread sexual abuse of women and girls by a serial perpetrator).
It can be a tall order to take such stands against corruption that you know to be true and that you refuse to defend in your professional capacity.
Yes, you may lose your job and be harmed financially (at least temporarily). Yes, you may be tarnished as a “trouble-maker” and be faced with hurtful contempt by people who disappoint and utterly fail you (at least temporarily).
But at what cost are these short-term consequences, if exercising weaker professional judgment could render long-term – even permanent – consequences of an even more catastrophic degree, both for you and others? The ability to think three steps ahead and to understand that PR is far less about what we communicate and far more about what we do are critical – as they’ve always been, but never more so than today.
With 25 years’ experience, Mary Beth West, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a U.S.-based member of PRCA and a senior strategist at Fletcher PR. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @marybethwest.