The Baltimore Police: Public Relations failure

baltimore-riot-lin_3283113kFor the wise, there are many lessons that should be learned from the agony of Baltimore that has played out over the past weeks.  It does not denigrate any of the points that have been made about racism and police brutality to also add that there is a significant observation that can be made here about public relations: an observation that focuses on the surprising realization that PR does/can/should work at the core of effective policing.

An apparent overlooked dimension of the Baltimore experience is not the death, but the rioting that occurred; not any judgement about it’s morality or usefulness, but  rather sociological questions about the breadth and intensity of the riots.  A few protests, marches in the street would have been predictable in such a situation; but these riots seemed like widlfire,even volcanic,  spreadly rapidly and burning hot. They would suggest that the  Freddie Gray incident was a trigger for the expression of suppressed rage,  long looking for an opportunity to erupt.  In a national context of frequent outrage over the past year, it took very little to trigger the eruption in Baltimore.

Such rage, especially such evidently deep and widespread suppressed anger, is clear evidence of public relations failure.  In its best moments , public relatons is about relationships between organizations and publics, positive relationships in which there is mutual respect.  Rage is antithetical to such relationships, and an indication that the Baltimore police had put insufficient effort at promoting positive relationships with a significant percentage of its citizen publics.

In such a situation, the reminder is clear that positive relations, postive public relations,  is both moral and practical. Morally, because  racism, brutality, and the like against any group is self definitionally wrong. But practically, as well: it takes seconds of commonsense to realize that effective law enforcement requires willing  citizen cooperation: police are outnumbered significantly  by the citizen population, and there is no way that they coerce the population to cooperate by force. Willing cooperation requires respect for the police and the law, something that can only be accomplished by ongoing work on positive relations with all demographics of the citizen population of any city. The rioting in Baltimore strongly suggests that these efforts were far too inconsistent in the city for an extended period of time.  A significant component of the tragedy is that it took death and widespread destruction to dramatically demonstrate the point.

One can only hope that the Baltimore police can recover two lessons from this smoking mess:

  • Don’t wait, hoping it won’t happen to you. In an national environment where incidents of police racism seem to emerge every week, it is difficult to comprehend why the Baltimore police had not taken steps to clean their own house. Certainly the sensible step, now, for the police in any major city would be to read the writing on the wall, and “don’t let Baltimore happen here.”
  • Don’t forget, you are on camera in a social media-ted world. The other thing that is difficult to comprehend, after Ferguson, after the incident in North Charleston, SC, etc., is why police officers aren’t catching the obvious point that, a world of smartphones and youtube, anything can be filmed and published at any time. Police public relations relations in the 21 century requires officers assuming this, and organizing their behavior accordingly. Practically speaking, all morality aside, if police officers cannot realize this, then the repeat of Freddie Gray incidents in the future is all too predictable.   The clear solution is to , if one is to want to practice effective police public relations, assume that your every action is being filmed and act in a way to promote positive esteem


If both police and public relations are inevitable in this fallen world, then the only sensible long term solution is to work in the 21st century world, as it is, to promote positive relationships.


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Examining PR practice: A critical, Mercy perspective


There are many means, and purposes, by which Pr practice can be studied. Traditional scholarship, whether in the communication science or the interpretative perspective (Rosenberry & Vickers, 2009) seeks to describe case histories and trends in an effort to simply understand how public relations functions in the world (on occasion, there is the indirect benefit to improved practice).  The emphasis is nuetral,  however, not prescriptive.

In contrast, there is at least one other way of studying Pr practice: “critical” research (pp. 176-70).  This approach does not seek nuetrality, but rather assumes that the world is not as it should be, that PR (or other sorts of communication) practices contribute to this unsatisfactory status quo, and that there is a responsibility for the researcher to “illuminate why and how the actual situation varies from their conception of the way things ought to be” (177).  Typically, critical research focuses on the relationship between power and communication, and how given communication practices contribute to unjust/ inhumane social conditions.

The above description indicates that critical research is concerned with “unsatisfactory status quos,” and gave the example of power inequalities. Whereas the issue of power has been a primary concern for critical communication studies, there many other ways that the status quo can be problematic, and these become more visible when moving beyond the realm of political theory.  Moving more towards the realm of religion, for instance, suggests different ways in which the status quo can be judged unsatisfactory, and different criteria for making that judgement.

For example, from the realm of religion comes an approach that can be seen to parallel critical research: the Sisters of Mercy in the Catholic tradition.  Founded in the early 1800s in Ireland, the Sisters of Mercy (SOM) has always been a pragmatic, service oriented order. However, the nature of their action suggests an implicit set of presumptions.  In their mission statement SOM states that “In the spirit of the Gospel, our mission is to help people to overcome the obstacles that keep them from living full and dignified lives.” (Mercy, 2006).   These obstacles are understood in different ways, as implied by SOM’s five primary critical concerns:

  • to deepen and assimilate more consciously the practice of nonviolence as an integral aspect of the charism of mercy;
  • to deepen our response to the unrecognized and unreconciled racism past and present, within our community;
  • to reverence Earth and work more effectively toward the sustainability of life and toward universal recognition of the fundamental right to water;
  • to continue to embrace our particular concern for women
  • and to stand in solidarity with immigrants

Although the history of SOM has been replete with many examples of actions the order has taken to address these issues, implicit in action is a tacit critical perspective: to act to correct racism, for example, implies a capability of recognizing the many forms of the practice of racism, from laws, to business practices, to communication practices.

                Similarity, the “critical concern” for “earth’ demands a critical perception: the capability and habit of recognizing lack of reverence for earth and unsustainability in a given status quo; recognizing and acting against all means by which such a status quo is sustained.

                In this case, such a critical perception brings us  back to the issue of a “critical research” mode of examining PR practice. Public relations is a communication activity of any organization, including organizations whose activity impinges on the environment in some fashion.   It is an undeniable reality that there are organizations that act in ways that harm the environment, and it is also an unfortunate reality that PR practice has acted to enable such activity: for instance, the practice of “greenwashing,” whereby the Pr arm of an organization works to make the organization appear “green,” even though the organization’s practices are harmful to the environment.  From Mercy view, such activity by an organization would not “reverence the Earth,” and would work against “sustainability of life.”  Critical research of such PR activity,  shaped by a Mercy critical perception, would attempt to expose the existence of such “greenwashing”  and how it sustains an unsatisfactory status quo.  Like any critical research, such examination would not be nuetral, but would be oriented towards ultimately, however indirectly,  promoting “reverence and responsible care” of the Earth (Sisters of Mercy, 2006)

Rosenberry, J., & Vicker, L (2009). Applied mass communication theory: a guide for media practitioners. Boston: Pearson.

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. (2006). How we serve: justice. Retrieved from

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Mercy PR


Public Relations is a major here at Mount Mercy, and the question that comes up (or should) is what difference that makes: how would (should) a PR degree at Mount Mercy be different than from some other institution, such as University of Northern Iowa?  It is a pressing question, especially, because the Mercy tradition (see  ) would seem to run the total opposite of the stereotype of Public Relations: really, how can a Catholic college teach someone to become a spin artist protecting corporate interests?

Setting aside the question of whether that is a fair summary of the nature of PR, here I just want to review the difference a Mercy tradition makes for the teaching of Public Relations.  “Mercy PR” is an approach that argues that PR should pursue three fundamental goals:

  1. The common good.  Beyond the worth of a given company’s stock is the question of the overall health of the human community, of any particular community. “Common good” refers to the goal of actions that strive to improve the lot of all, not just a few.  Hopefully, the interests of corporations/government coincide with the common good, but there are many occasions in which they split: in those cases, Mercy PR would call for restraint in any PR strategy that would, for instance, work to restore the reputation of a given company when that company is engaging in activity that hurts or oppresses people.  For instance, it would be wrong to work to revive the image of Toyota if that company were not , at the same time,  honestly working to fix the gliche that threatens public safety.  
  2. Preferential option for the poor:  there are times when pursuing the overall common good is not possible, when an action will inevitably benefit one segment of society over another. In such a case, the Mercy tradition insists on a preferential option for the poor:  those who are poor, oppressed (especially women, children) are to be defended first.  What this means for PR is mostly again the practice of restraint:  not supporting practices or companies (or governmental actions) that are oppressive (intentionally or not). For instance, if a multinational company deliberately utilizes “sweatshop labor,” with no indication that they will stop, it would be wrong for a PR professional to engage in strategies that support that company.  This goal would also involve special emphasis on PR that supports social service agencies that work to aid the poor and oppressed.
  3. truth: at the very least, this goal is wrapped up in the previous two: typically, companies know that it’s bad publicity to engage in activity that benefits the company at the expense of the common good or the poor, and those are the times that the truth is stretched so that the company can keep looking good will continuing the questionable practice.  Mercy PR speaks against this, calling for truth in all circumstances. While it is true that some occasions seem to put truth at the opposite side of the first two goals,  typically the real issue is only one of timing: choosing when it most advantageous to tell the whole truth. But even if the whole truth must be delayed, it is wrong to deliberately attempt to give a false impression. 

These goals are important enough that we try to have them orient the PR education of students here at Mount  Mercy; so that when students graduate we are not just helping individuals get started on careers, we are also contributing to the overall common good by supplying the community with professionals who can fufill the fundamental PR function oriented by these goals.

We hope, truly hope, that that is the difference a Mercy PR education makes.

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The PR inquisition goes on . . . .

This gets tiresome. 

Weekly, it seems, there is some national source that, essentially, “trash talks” PR, maintaining the US pop culture worldview about the nature of PR. This week, it comes from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and her blog on “Should there be an inquistion on the Pope?” ( 

Without commenting on her main argument, Dowd’s “inquisition” of PR proceeds from the first sentence with the phrase “the unholy art of spin.” Lest the reader be briefly puzzled about what this phrase means, Dowd quickly clarifies in the second sentence “the church has started an Easter public relations blitz,” indicating that “spin” and “unholy” are essential parts of the definition of “public relations.”  The idea is elaborated by allusions to “cover-up,” and the list of strategies from the “Washington P.R. handbook for political sins. “

Apparently, as a professor who teaches Public Relations, I am promoting an unholy art (ironically, at a Catholic college!).

Having to constantly defend one’s subject is tiresome enough, but it is made more so by the fact that portrayal is not entirely false. The “spin” image of PR could not be sustained if there were not some truth there, some practices that clearly match the charges. There are too many people who consider themselves to be “PR professionals” who make a full time practice of the reputation management of corporations and celebrities, with no regard for whether the image projected matches the actual identity of the case in question: truth is not what they are being paid to do, they argue, their contract only asks them to make the corporation/celebrity look good.

Such practice is almost always unethical, even by the standards of the PR industry.

Such practice is also, I firmly believe, not the whole story.

The problem with claims such as Dowd’s is that they essentialize PR, and them selves “spin” it only to the side of evil. The basic relational perspective on PR, however,  argues that there is far more to PR than that, and that a “spin” practice is ultimately unhelpful to accomplish the basic goal of ongoing organizational/public relationships.

The basic idea is this: fundamental falsehood is ultimately destructive to any relationship, organizational or personal. Sooner or later, the one party discovers that they have been lied to, and they lose trust in the other, frequently leading to a desire to pull out of the relationship.

There are flacks who practice spin in the name of PR. Effective PR professionals, however, will always promote fundamental honesty in how an organization communicates to its publics.

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Celebrity PR?

The whole recent discussion about the PR needs of Tiger Woods often employed an unstated premise:  the term “public relations” can be used to describe how a celebrity relates to the world and especially their fan base.

It’s a premise that needs some thought.

It must be remembered that, in mainstream academia and even the industry,  public relations is defined as strategic communication working to enhance relationships between organizations and their publics. A key word in that definition is “organization:”  a theory- based argument can be that public relations inherently has to do with organizations, as they are abstract systems dependent on interaction with their environments.

So, is the Tiger Woods situation a PR situation?

NO: (1) on the abstract level, this is because inherently PR has to do with organizations and their relationships with publics. (2) On a more practical level, even a minute of thought should demonstrate to one that the celebrity/fan relationship is not precisely like a personal relationship: if nothing else, because a person cannot really have “relationships” with thousands + of people they don’t know, and these fans generally only know the publically generated image of the celebrity.

YES: insofar as a “celebrity” is not completely a person!  An odd statement, but it stems from thinking more carefully by what a “celebrity” is. Stable (that is, existing over time)  and prominent “celebrity” or “image” (“brand”?) does not happen randomly or by accident: it has to be deliberately cultivated over time, and that requires people actively engaged in the process, and doing so because they receive some benefit from the activity.  A collection of people functioning in integrated professional roles is another way to define “organization,” and in this case the product is the “brand” of the celebrity.  Given this view, a “celebrity” is, ironically, an impersonal entity analogous to an organization.

 So, in the latter sense, we can say that the Tiger Woods situation is a PR situation, but only if we make a distinction between “Tiger Woods” the brand, and Tiger Woods the person. A relative few actually know or have a relationship with the latter, Public Relations is a characteristic of the former.

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Niches and Research

“Finding your niche” is the title of a useful article in the latest issue of the Corridor’s Edge Business Magazine, and the basic argument is: you do it through research. 

 “Niches” are people, whether you refer to them as “markets” or “customers” or, in the case of public relations, “publics.” In any case, you can’t know who they are, what they think unless you ask, and that requires research.

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Swamped by the “perfect storm”?

Vocus, a leading PR management company, published a white paper today entitled “Reemerging trend in 2010: Integrating Marketing and PR.”  The article leads with the claim that “integrating marketing and communications is the Holy Grail . . .[and]we’ve never been closer to achieving this goal . . . the perfect storm of events has set the conditions to realize this objective.”2010 integrating marketing and PR

There are a number of dangerous assumptions packed into this paper, but overarching them all is my vision of this massive wave out of the “perfect storm” (see the movie) swamping the tiny boat, which (sadly) does little to get out of its way.

A fundamental problem is indicated in the first paragraph, where the term “marketing” is used consistently, but the term “public relations” gets used interchangeably with the word “communications,” leading to the distinct impression that the two are being treated as synonyms.  If “public relations” is nothing more than “communications,” then integration with marketing becomes quite simple: marketing becomes the brains, and “communication” becomes the activity.  Thus, PR becomes watered down at the beginning, and essentially dissolved at the end as simply a means of accomplishing marketing (by the way, instead of thinking of PR as some sort of subcategory of marketing, it would be more useful to think in the reverse)

Of course, if Public Relations is not defined with its own distinct essence, there is little resistance to such “swamping the boat.”  If PR is simply corporate communication, at best, or spin, at worst, what reason is there to maintain separate departments or a discipline?

Escaping the perfect storm, it seems to me, is an eminently practical reason to pursue the relational understanding of PR.

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Tiger, Tilikum, and the treacherous waters of “Image”

The headlines in today’s issue of “the Daily Dog” ( are typical. The topics are diverse (Tiger Woods’ options, the killer whale Tillikum and Seaworld, etc), but the emphasis is a common theme of a high percentage of Daily Dog stories:  a threat to the image of X, and how PR professionals need to act to address the damage.  The clear implication of such stories is that image management is a primary job for PR, to point where “image management” and “public relations” begin to appear as virtual synonyms.

In fairness, Daily Dog is not alone in such emphasis: other PR news sources seem to repeat the same theme, and the general equation is commonly repeated in news media sources.

I won’t say it is wrong to associate image management and public relations, it is just dangerous.   In general, the discussion of image management in these sources seems to make “image” just another synonym for “spin:” in constructing/repairing image, the truth behind X is irrelevant, the public interest is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is influencing people to think positively about X, regardless of whether X is worthy of such trust.  Such emphasis is dangerous because it feeds into the precise objection that has caused public relations to have such a poor reputation itself. Trust for PR is lacking precisely because too many believe that PR professionals have no regard for truth and are only interested in profit and improving the market position of a given brand. 

It would be easy if I could say that PR professionals should distance themselves from image management and  focus on organizational/public relationships. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple: while image should not be overemphasized to exclusion of all else, neither can it be ignored. Image is important  in a relational approach to public relations, as it is to any relationship.

Boiled down, “image” is really nothing different from Aristotle’s (Greek philosopher, 400 BC) classic concept of “ethos,”  and has to do with the fundamental idea of trust, essential to any relationship.  To have an ongoing relationship, each party has to trust the word of the other, has to trust that the other is one worthy of liking: in other words, they have to have a positive concept of what the other is like; an “image” of the other. If something happens where that image is damaged (I find out you lie, and no longer think you are a trustworthy person), the relationship is difficult to sustain; this is true whether the relationship is between two friends, two colleagues, or an organization and its publics.

So, Seaworld  does need to worry about its image, because failure to do so could impact its relationship with its different publics.

What is needed is for PR’s news media to somehow contextualize this process within the total issue of relationship maintenance, and to somehow allow the concept of relationship more prominence in its coverage.  Without that, the image of PR itself will continue its slow, perpetual, downward spiral.

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