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A Homage to Rosanna Fiske

by Marissa Stabler

After reading a letter that Public Relations Society of America Chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske wrote to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, I mused in awe for some time.

The letter was sent prior to the subcommittee’s March 1 hearing over a contentious public relations contract awarded to a private Kansas City firm (Jane Mobley Associates) by the General Services Administration in 2010. Fiske urged the subcommittee to avoid restricting the federal government’s use of approved public relations and public affairs firms.

Fiske asked the senate to consider “the substantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs” on behalf of the federal government. She stressed that PRSA advocates “the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is essential to contributing to the informed decision making in a democratic society,” a value, she reminded the senate subcommittee, that is grounded in the core principles of the U.S.

Fiske’s very convincing dispatch disputed any claim against the government’s use of PR. If such a reasoning existed, Fiske shot it down with more persuasive counter-reasoning. Had Fiske read this letter in person, I believe members of the subcommittee would have been left dumbfounded and speechless.

Lucky for them, she kept it in writing.

The government’s role in communication

Fiske asserted that all stakeholders in society, including governments themselves, must actively take part in communicating their goals, objectives, programs and knowledge to the public.

Fiske wrote, “Whether educating the public about government services, providing information on public health and safety, explaining the tax code, attracting businesses to an economic enterprise zone, or any of dozens of other areas, governments have a clear role in communicating effectively and efficiently to the public.”

Outsourcing can be cost effective

Chairwoman Claire McCaskill (D-MO) previously stated that the GSA’s private firm contract was “not in the best interests of taxpayers.” GSA said it hired JMA because it did not have the in-house technical expertise for its public information effort, nor was it comfortable with its ability to respond to inquiries from the media.

According to Fiske, outsourcing can actually save American taxpayers money, because it can “multiply the impact of an in-house work force without taking on permanent employees and their associated costs.”

PR is beneficial to the economy

Fiske reasoned that PR facilitates the “U.S. economy in a time when jobs are needed all across America.” She cited the U.S. News & World Report, which ranked ‘PR Specialist’ as a top-50 career in 2011, remarking that the PR field will add 66,000 jobs to the U.S. economy by 2018.

“The U.S. government, in fulfilling its mandate, is estimated to spend $1.3 billion on advertising and public relations services,” wrote Fiske. “[It] is an important driver for this economic engine.”

In case she left anything out, Fiske provided back-up ammo in the form of a bulleted list — all bona fide reasons why the governmental use of public relations is essential:

Regarding the Federal Government’s Use of Public Relations Services

• Public relations advances the free flow of accurate and truthful information; open and transparent communication fosters credibility and trust in global institutions.
• Public relations serves the public interest by providing the context, clarity and information necessary to aid informed debate and decision-making in a democratic society.
• Public relations helps to build mutual understanding among a wide array of global institutions and audiences.
• Public relations professionals have a special obligation to practice their craft ethically, with the highest standards of truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public. The PRSA Code of Ethics provides a practical set of standards to follow.
• Public relations serves the public good by changing attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, from breast cancer awareness to drinking and driving to smoking and obesity. The public relations industry also has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes and provided pro-bono services for institutions that needed public relations assistance but could not afford it.

(She also included a bulleted list of questions regarding the GSA’s contract with JMA.)

I must say, however, the PR chieftain saved the best for last in a paragraph brazenly directed at McCaskill, who has made some rather unflattering comments about governmental use of PR.

“Finally, I also would respectfully request that the subcommittee use discretion when attempting to characterize the federal government’s use of public-affairs and public-relations contractors,” wrote Fiske. “Pejorative statements, such as ‘spending money to minimize bad publicity’ and ‘hiring someone to help [the government] ‘spin’,’ are speculative misnomers that debase the important work being performed by approved federal contractors working on GSA-authorized contracts, whose main goal is to help inform the public of relevant issues.”

It gets better.

“Elected officials and federal workers are no strangers to having inappropriate language used to describe their work,” Fiske declared. “I would hope that as a result, the Subcommittee would be mindful of this concern.”

Bold. Compelling. Credible. No stone left unturned.

PR at its finest. And that’s how it’s done.


  1. Post comment

    I wrote a far more critical piece on the PRSA in Scatterbox at, and PRSA replied by sending me this post. Here’s an excerpt:

    “[Fiske’s] letter emphasizes that the role of public relations is effective communications based on really good intentions. You imply that taxpayers and their watchdogs have no reason to be anything but thankful for government PR contracts, because our industry’s only purpose is to provide information so that we may create mutual understanding and serve the public good by getting people to stop smoking and other nice things.

    But this description is spin. Unadulterated, accentuate-the-positive-eliminate-the-negative public relations spin. And everyone knows it.

    The truth is that we are in the business of influence.”

    Read the whole post at the link above and share your thoughts. Especially since PRSA is using yours to validate what it is doing among long-time PR people like me.


  2. Post comment

    Reading Marissa’s article on Rosanna Fiske’s stance on accurate, transparent
    public relations helped me understand the need for this important service.


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