Posted At: February 27, 2012 1:57 PM
by Anna Ellis
“Spin doctors,” “manipulative,” “unethical,” “deceiving” . . . unfortunately, these are all names with which public relations professionals have been labeled.
The idea behind these labels is that the public relations profession is not one of high moral or ethical standards. This perception is mainly the result of some PR professionals using spin to enhance their stories. The basic definition of spin is to deliberately mislead, exaggerate, deceive or lie.
In contrast, the goal of a public relations professional fundamentally is to “help an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other,” as defined by the Public Relations Society of America, (PRSA). Thus, the practice of spin can easily be associated with a public relations practitioner.
Some practitioners even relish in their practice of spinning stories and events, claiming that all practitioners use the method in some way or another.
That said, how do public relations practitioners avoid the practice of deception by spinning stories when crisis occurs? The answer is simple: framing.
Framing, unlike spin, looks for and highlights the truth. When professionals frame a story, they usually call attention to positive aspects. They cut out unnecessary information and only include need-to-know facts. This approach is not considered unethical because it is not deceiving the audience.
According to Will Hodges, an account researcher in Brunswick Group’s Washington, D.C., office, framing is perfectly ethical and is a good practice. “It is important to note that framing doesn’t ignore facts in a story or situation, but simply places more emphasis on certain facts,” he said.
Arment Dietrich Inc., a public relations firm in Chicago, strives to use only ethical practices for its clients, offering an integrated approach that includes digital marketing. It even has a blog entitled “Spin Sucks,” which aims to change the negative perception of PR. Lisa Gerber, chief content officer at Arment Dietrich, believes what’s most important is helping clients uncover their unique stories and messages.
“We don’t really call it ‘framing.’ We think of it as storytelling, and key messaging,” Dietrich said.
The practice of framing is not a new one. In fact, it dates back to sociologist Erving Goffman, who wrote the book Frame Analysis (1974). In the book, he uses various concepts to explain how framing works, such as associating framing with the concept of an actual picture frame.
Bruce Berger, Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising & Public Relations at The University of Alabama, shares some of the same concepts as Goffman.
“The biggest framing industry in the world is the media industry,” Berger said. “Think of TV—images of events are captured and framed for all to see, but there’s a whole lot more outside of what’s on the TV screen that is not included.”
Hodges agrees that the media has a large influence over the public. “Given the media’s tremendous influence on public opinion, the framing of a story can have a dramatic impact on the public’s understanding of issues and, consequently, have a tremendous impact, such as in policy formation,” he said.
Some think that framing is all that a public relations practitioner does. Hodges believes this theory is inaccurate, claiming that it is a commonly used tactic, especially during a crisis, but it does not define the profession as a whole.
“This idea ultimately causes many to view the main function or purpose of the practice of public relations as a ‘firefighter’ that extinguishes hot issues,” Hodges said. “Public relations is a very broad, multifaceted approach to communications and employs many other phases, such as heavy emphasis in research and strategic planning to name a few.”
According to Berger all practitioners frame. “Setting and communicating key messages, participating in public debates and conversations, carrying out campaigns—-all of these involve how we frame our message or present our point of view, brand, product, service and so forth. Every organization uses frames of meaning to convey its position and present itself,” said Berger.
What’s most important to public relations practitioners is who they are representing. They want their client to be shed in the best light and are ultimately the guardian of their image.
“Public relations professionals are advocates for their organizations,” said Berger. “In being advocates, they seek to present and represent their organizations to others.”
Gerber agrees. “We help tell the stories of our clients and/or employers. It’s called framing because the messages and stories need to be consistent across the many silos of the organization,” she added.
Although framing is a perfectly ethical practice, it can be considered controversial because it may be seen as priming or agenda setting. To avoid this perception, Hodges believes transparency is key. “By including all relevant and factual information, it gives the practitioner credibility,” he said.
PR Newswire, an online resource for professional communicators, notes that “good stories about organizations are framed before they are written by asking the following questions: What’s the news? What do readers/viewers want to know? Why will they care?” A good story must be framed to get these messages across.
Because of unethical tactics such as spinning and agenda setting, the public relations profession does not have a sterling reputation. “We need to be held accountable for our actions, apologize when we are at fault, be genuinely sympathetic in times of crisis, and most of all, human in our interactions,” Gerber said. “The PRSA publishes a Code of Ethics to which all members promise to adhere. We must keep that promise.”
The public relations professional strives to build trust through long-lasting relationships between an organization and its publics. This goal can be reached by cutting unethical PR practices and framing your client in an esteemed manner.