PR is not a mask for stupidity or repugnancy

In recent times notable and some not so notable public personalities, both locally and internationally, have made incredible inane comments about various topics in the public sphere.  No need to name the personalities or rehash the unfortunate comments, no doubt a few have already popped into your mind. As a Communication / Public Relations Specialist, my main focus and concern are the responses and thoughts from those looking on (the audience) who are oftentimes calling for these persons to get an effective ‘PR person’ or ‘PR support’. That’s what I’m aiming to address here.

First of all, effective PR was never meant to turn darkness into light; wasn’t meant to turn absurdity and repugnancy into uncommon insight or a ray of sunshine. Yes we have gotten use to ‘spin doctors’ and ‘propaganda artists’ but that is not genuine PR, that is falsehood. PR is supposed to foster a positive relationship between a brand, a celebrity, a politician or organization and its publics. The aim of the PR specialist or the PR function is to create a positive image for the client, which of course makes it easier to cultivate that positive relationship with the audience or publics. That relationship is based on a functional connection – the celebrity wants to woo and impress the audience so that the audience can become a fan and purchase what he is selling; the politician wants to promote an image of trust, strong leadership and effectiveness in order to get the buy-in of the audience so that she can secure votes and an enduring political career; the company wants to develop a positive trustworthy image in order to gain the loyalty of its customers, who will in turn buy their products. So the aim of effective PR has always been to maintain a functional positive connection or relationship.

The bane of the PR practitioners’ existence however is when the client is not genuinely positive or doesn’t have enough discernible positive traits to outweigh the negative. Let’s face facts. No one is perfect – no person, no organization, no celebrity and certainly no politician. But there is a shared appreciation that there is good in everyone and the hope is that the good sufficiently outweighs the bad. If that is the case, the PR person in good conscience can mount a strategic campaign to creatively communicate the good while mitigating or explaining the bad. Having generated a bank of goodwill for the client, the PR person can also be reasonably expected to address various crises or gaffes by their clients when they come up. However when the bad traits outweigh the good or when the client is genuinely asinine or repugnant at their core, a PR person cannot and should not be expected to transform ‘darkness into light’. That is the work of a higher being, and that work is not a ‘show’ or a ‘spin’ for a business relationship to be maintained; that transformative work is the changing of the heart, mind and the soul.

Yes movies and television dramas have framed dishonest ‘PR’ as sophisticated, admirable and even sexy but in the real world when a PR Specialist sits around a table before a client who is genuinely repugnant, no amount of HONEST strategic public relations, no matter how creative or clever can mask stupidity or repugnancy. Oftentimes this is where the practitioner has to make a decision. On the one hand she can listen to her conscience, provide advice based on integrity or make a decision to walk away. On the other hand, she can compromise herself and the truth so that the client can maintain a ‘positive image’. If you choose the latter, you are no longer practicing public relations, but rather trickery and manipulation. In so doing, you help to create some of the false obnoxious personalities that we now endure, thereby doing a gross disservice to the public.

Shelly-Ann Harris is a communication / public relations specialist who has worked in the public and private sectors for over 15 years. She is also the editorial director and founder of Family and Faith Magazine. Send comments to or follow her on Twitter @harrisshellyann. You may also check out her other blog