As the 2008 Summer Olympics in China begin, brace yourselves for the zillions of references to “public relations”. I dread it.
True, this has begun already. An example is the Olympic Torch Relay that some call a “public relations disaster” for China.
China’s winning bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics is incredibly important to the country. By hosting the Olympics, China plans to show that it is a major player on the world stage, a modern economic powerhouse, as if we didn’t know that.
But some fears of China as host have become reality. In submitting its winning bid to the IOC in 2001, China promised open access for journalists so that they could cover this Olympics as they would any other Olympics. Not so in reality, say early accounts. There appears to be a clash of what freedom of the press means to journalists and what it means to Chinese officials.
Internet access is tightly controlled, and many Websites are blocked. Also tightly controlled are what reporters can visit and who they are allowed to talk with. So much for promises of openness.
In terms of PR, China’s effort to be seen in the most favorable light possible is undermined by its efforts to control messages and images. What pains me is to have “public relations” applied to any of this. There are enough people in the world today who disrespect PR. Applying the term “PR” to any aspect of China’s efforts at controlled self-promotion is deeply troubling.
A free and open media is significant to the ethical and effective practice of public relations. The truth is that much of the news that appears in the media comes from public relations sources.
Publicity is uncontrolled information, meaning that once any information prepared by PR professionals leaves the hands of those professionals, that information is at the mercy of a free media’s decision makers. These folks choose what they do with the information — run it, ignore it, or edit it and run it.
But when the media uses information from PR professionals, in whole or in part, it runs as if the media outlet created it, thereby giving the message a much-valued status called “third party endorsement”. That simply means that media using the information gives it credibility and validity. Though great media coverage is hard to obtain, it is highly prized for this reason. Plus, it’s free. Some call this “earned media”.
When media is controlled by the state, and only approved messages and images are allowed, then that is not public relations, but propaganda. China may wish to persuade the world that it is what it wishes to be seen as, but its heavy-handed control of media is not helpful. Persuasion as a PR tool is acceptable when done ethically. Persuasion uses communication to win people over. Persuasion is used ethically in reputation management all the time.
But there is a distinct difference between persuasion and propaganda. Propagandists try to tell people what to think.
Any PR Principles class, professional association, or PR textbook will define PR as a management function that seeks to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics. That cannot be accomplished by manipulation, control, and coercion.
Truly effective public relations needs a free and open media. And a free and open media needs public relations as a source of worthwhile information. This is the truth that we must not forget in the coming weeks.