Wednesday, July 08, 2009

PR Is Not the Circus

As you probably heard, the circus was in town last week. Not just any circus, but the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I’ve got to say, for the money, they provide tons of entertainment. And they are masters of making something look bigger and more exciting than it really may be.

P.T. Barnum is credited with developing several tactics used in public relations today, like press agentry, advertising, product promotion and the pseudoevent. He called his the “greatest show on earth.” He promoted Joice Heath as George Washington nurse (at the claimed ripe old age of 161). He brought us Tom Thumb and Jumbo. Scott Cutlip says Barnum’s audiences were so hungry for entertainment, they accepted his exaggerations. The “willingly deceived,” as the London Times reported.

He was an author, publisher, philanthropist, sometime politician and amateur psychologist. Wikipedia says he was the first “show business” millionaire. But the problem is, as you know, he also used deception, hoaxes and exploitation.

Unfortunately, I believe that this part of his reputation is what plagues our profession today. For the throngs who really don’t understand public relations, it’s easy for then to believe we do what he did: Lie, spin, look out for our organization’s interest above all else. It’s easy for them to believe this because they have been lied to, spun and victims of institutional self interest.

Usually these acts were committed by people other than PR folk. But look at those who worked for organizations that most recently lied to and exploited our faith: key people in Wall Street, financial institutions, and corporations as well as politicians. Not all, but enough.

PR professionals have a responsibility when working with an organization that is headed down that road to speak up or leave. It’s never that easy. It probably sneaks up on them. But there is a point where gray becomes black.

I’ve been there myself. Speaking up didn’t work, so I left. The organization eventually had to close its doors.

But I still reserve the right to enjoy the circus.

PS: The image I used is from a great blog post by Bill Sledzick, “The 4 Models of Public Relations Practice How Far Have You Evolved.”