Serving PR’s Dual Constituencies

“I work to promote the president and the message that he’s trying — the messages he’s trying to convey to the American people. But I also work with the press to try to help you do your jobs, to help you cover the White House, cover the administration and report on what we’re doing here.”

— White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, explaining his dual role of serving the President and the press, Feb. 16, 2011.

A ha! Finally we have a high-profile public relations executive saying what we all know to be true but far too often neglect to properly explain: in public relations, like many other professions, we’re playing a constant back-and-forth internal battle between our clients’ best interests and serving the public good.

And that’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive. I’d venture to say 9 out of 10 times, a client’s wishes fall easily within the realm of ethical public relations. But there are those bad apples cases, and that’s where things start to get tricky. That’s where PR starts to truly earn its value — if we’re honest with all parties.

In an era of increasing forms of democratic communications, enhanced by the expedience and mass appeal of social media, a more transparent White House should start with the person who is front-and-center as one of the most recognizable faces of the Administration: its press secretary.

That’s why it was so refreshing to hear Carney say what he knew to be true, but what far too few of us have adequately explained before. Yes, we’re hired by clients, or by employers, or, as in Carney’s case, by the President of the United States, to promote their messages and agendas.

But we also hold ourselves to high ethical standards, or at least we should, and a core tenet of that is protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is vital to advancing a democratic society.

That’s what I believe Mr. Carney was trying to articulate in his first presser: I can do my job of promoting my client’s agenda while simultaneously helping you (in his case, White House reporters) do your jobs by giving you as much unvarnished access to information as is reasonable.

It’s an incredibly tough balance to strike, but one that we absolutely must focus on sustaining and advancing if PR is to continue its surge in value and respect within the business community.

Lucky for us, we now have arguably the nation’s most visible PR pro firmly espousing this belief. For better or worse, the White House Press Secretary may be the most vivid identifier the general public has of a PR professional.

Let’s hope Mr. Carney is able to stick to his convictions and offers a high-profile example of how to lead (and speak) by example in the profession.

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