Public Relations and the President

By Tom McAnally, retired director United Methodist News Service and former national president of RCC

In his one-hour “Dateline NBC” special interview with Lester Holt aired January 13, President Obama said his administration had accomplished its goals and fulfilled many of the desires of those who elected him but had failed in the “PR” field. His comment reminded me of a basic assertion in a classic textbook on public relations I studied in college in the 1960s: It is not enough that good be done but that people perceive that good is done.

On that premise the profession of Public Relations emerged earlier in the 20th century. Organizations began to hire staff and spend money intentionally communicating their purpose and performance to a variety of “publics.” In my own religious heritage, the newly re-organized Methodist Church in 1940 created an organization to share its story of service and ministry to both internal and external publics, including the nation’s secular news media.

The Religion Communicators Council (RCC), once known as the Religious Public Relations Council, was founded in 1929 and is the oldest professionally organized specialties within the field of public relations. The name change for RCC came when “PR” became abused by organizations – including some religious organizations – as they sought to cover up misconduct or behavior or to claim achievements that did not match reality. For many, “PR” came to mean “spin,” something less than honest. The term was tarnished in the communications field much like “evangelical” has become distorted in Christian vocabulary.

As the director of a denominational news agency I and my colleagues made a needed distinction between “news” and “PR” but held on to the belief that many worthy accomplishments could and should match the requirements and definition of news and were worthy of being communicating effectively to various publics outside the faith community. The church’s struggle with current social issues was an example.

President Obama’s effort to provide affordable health care for all American citizens was a worthy goal. Could his administration have done a better “PR” job and achieved a different outcome? Maybe so.

RCC correctly changed its name to provide a broader umbrella for communication professionals and to avoid distorted perceptions of PR but, as President Obama suggested, good intentions and actions alone may not be enough. Religious organizations must continue to spend the time, money and effort to communicate with their various publics. Public relations still has value, if done within codes of professional conduct, honesty, and integrity.

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