Where Public Relations, Politics and the Legal System Collide

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Posted At: April 23, 2012 2:15 PM
by Katie Brazeal

Public relations as defined by the Public Relations Society of America is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

While this definition does a good job of putting into words what public relations actually is, it also accurately grasps the ambiguity felt within the field. Based on this definition, PR deals specifically with communicating, but beyond that, the potential audiences are left entirely open-ended. A public relations agency could be hired to run a campaign for something as simple as the opening of a new coffee shop, while also running a campaign for something as large and complex as a hospital’s changing of location.

With an assortment of campaigns comes an assortment of outcomes. For example, a desired response to a PR campaign for a new coffee shop would be garnering the customers it needs to be successful. There are few barriers here. However the campaign for a hospital’s changing of location, based on outside factors, could take on political and/or legal ramifications.

Holly Lollar, founder of The Lollar Group of Birmingham, Ala., has worked on various politically rooted public relations projects. While working for a previous employer she was asked to execute a campaign educating the public about the possible relocation of a Birmingham-based hospital. This relocation could greatly impact the hospital that hired Lollar.

Lollar said, “The biggest asset you have while executing a grassroots campaign are the relationships you hold with those in the community as you properly utilize their opinions regarding important matters.”

Lollar’s job included engaging the general public and urging them to care about something (a hospital’s relocation) that they otherwise might not have known could have a great impact on their well-being.

The potential complexity of PR

As necessary as PR is, every-so-often a campaign can exceed the agency’s areas of expertise. This is not because of mismanagement on the PR side, but rather it is a result of the complexity of the issues as well as a necessity to cover issues beyond the scope of the agency’s focus related to the campaign. When legalities come into play, the case must then be removed from the PR professional and her agency’s hands and placed into the care of lawyers.

Although the hospital relocation campaign was well-executed on the part of Lollar and her team, hospitals are not simple clients. There are a plethora of legal rules and regulations applicable to them. One in particular in the state of Alabama is the Certificate of Need . This certificate is required in order to build or relocate a hospital and can only be granted by the CON Board.

Once the campaign had run its course publicly, the way it was intended to, there was not much left for the PR professionals to do. The situation was then fully in the hands of the lawyers, regulatory bodies and politicians.

So why is this, and what can be done?

The legal approach

To begin with, a better understanding of the legal side of things is necessary. Jesse Unkenholz, an attorney with Balch & Bingham LLP in Birmingham, Ala., points out that the public relations side and the legal side of an issue make two completely different appeals. “At an abstract level, PR is all about emotional appeal,” said Unkenholz. “Whereas the legal point of view is reasoned arguments without emotion.”

As quoted in “Legally Blonde” but very applicable to this scenario, Aristotle said it best: “The law is reason, free from passion.”

With such different approaches, it is important to see how politics, the legal system and PR can actually coexist and benefit one another. While many times there are “higher powers” that cannot be directly influenced by a PR campaign, a public relations professional must look to a different audience. The general public, although not voting on the issue or making the final decision, has the potential to influence and persuade the powers that be.

“You have to get the lawyers involved for regulatory approvals” [e.g., the opening of a hospital in a new location], Unkenholz said. “But the attitude and thinking of the public are going to inform that decision in some ways.”

Although frustrating to the PR world, politics and legal requirements cannot be ignored. It would be impossible not to address the legal and political sides of things and press onward alone. Instead, welcome the inevitable and make it work with you and for you for as long as you can. There may be aspects of the campaign for which public relations has no place, but despite those PR gaps, it is important to work to show the necessity and power of communication with emotional appeal.

As Unkenholz said, “Since everything is so political these days, then PR becomes political too.” Embrace it.

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