In an uncharacteristically direct comment, my friend asked, somewhat rhetorically: "The government does not need PR people at all, do they?"
"What do you mean by that?" I replied.
"Just give out the information," said my friend. "Don't pay people to lie."
It's a common perception that civil servants are lazy, overpaid and incompetent. And when it comes to government public affairs specialists, there is an accompanying stereotype: We're not only lazy, overpaid and incompetent, but also a gang of bought-and-paid-for, lying propagandists. Since PR has such a sleazy reputation, it's inevitable that people don't like PR people very much, and the anger is magnified on social media:
- "Shill" is the term used to describe an individual, paid or sponsored, who solely represents one side of an issue.
- "Astroturfing" is the practice of misrepresenting marketing messages to make them appear as grassroots support—generating fake buzz.
- "Trolling" is the art of deliberately provoking people online who are just expressing their opinion.
Let us be clear: The government should not be paying shills, astroturfers or trolls. It is, in fact, illegal for the government to spend appropriated dollars (i.e. tax money) to propagandize. But public relations, properly done, is not about lying.
The job of a public relations (what we in government call "public affairs") specialist is to translate official activity such that the public can understand it. The difference between providing information and providing translation is that you are explaining what's going on in terms that the public can understand.
Unfortunately, over the course of many decades, government public relations specialists have been used, abused, and kicked around. As a result, the integrity of government communicators is constantly questioned. When they're only transmitting what has already been approved by others in the agency. The U.S. government is fortunate to have many laws, policies and standards that apply to official communication. But that framework is only as good as its enforcement.
If you're hating on government public relations specialists, your anger is misdirected.
Always look at the system. Never at a single person.
Copyright 2017 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.