Government Public Relations: Public Diplomacy or Propaganda?
The Good and Bad of Government Public Relations
Government PR efforts cost great deals of money to develop, implement and analyze. If the PR effort does not go as planned, valuable taxpayer money and other resources could be wasted. Government PR has likewise been criticized for disturbing the internal policy-making processes because the main decision-making body is not the first to be informed of a policy issue being considered. Rather, everyone is being informed, which can lead the public to confuse policy intentions with policy decisions (Gelders & Ihlen, 2010, p. 61). This is an important distinction, because the decision-making body are trained to handle the policy issues that come to their desks. The pressured deliberative process extends not only to politicians and their publics, but also between politicians and civil servants. Civil servants, in compliance with their political bosses, may be forced to express a partisan position when the government PR message is released. This, as such, could be a misuse of public money (Gelders & Ihlen, 2010, p. 61).
Government and public relations are similar, which makes it more likely for a seamless integration of public relations into a government body. The similarities can be grouped together under three reasons. First, each is bound by rules of self-regulation (White, L'Etang & Moss, 2009, pp. 397-398). Political laws to foster ethics and understanding exist at the local, state, national and international levels. Public relations codes, such as the constitutions of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), exist to promote social transparency among both PR practitioners and their clients.
Second, each can represent their own issues (White, L'Etang & Moss, 2009, pp. 397-398). Politicians and government organizations will advocate or condemn policy to advance their organizational goals. Public relations makes the goals of a client clear, as it can identify and clarify arguments to promote public discussion. Third, each must declare their interests and avoid any conflicts (White, L'Etang & Moss, 2009, p. 398). Federal judiciary bodies in the U.S., for example, often have laws that mandate that judges recuse themselves from hearing cases that conflict with their personal interests. Public relations is similar because a practitioner cannot hope to present and clarify objective arguments for their client if there is a conflict of interest.
Government public relations can also be considered a part of the democratic process (Gelders & Ihlen, 2010, p. 61). In the current era of digital media, it is very flexible and cost-efficient for a government to express their strategic, organizational views to a wide variety of constituents. Policy-making is thus more interactive for practitioners, it helps citizens to feel that they are more involved in the policy-making process as it proceeds. Government PR practitioners can also evaluate the effectiveness of their policies based upon highly-convenient feedback surveys that can be completed on constituents' own time. This analytic process also helps government PR practitioners to devise messages that capitalize on the diversity of opinions inherent in a policy issue. When messages reflect the diversity of opinions, this can subsequently increase national unity (Mearsheimer, 2001, pp. 60-61; White, L'Etang & Moss, 2009, p. 396).
In a public that is heavily influenced by media of all different types, public relations works to identify, revise and clarify governmental arguments in the face of media scrutiny (Gelders & Ihlen, 2010, p. 61; Signitzer & Wamser, 2005, p. 457). In general, since public relations uses many of the same tactics as journalism (time-sensitive written pieces, broadcast media and a digital presence, and others), public relations is effective at spurring public debate on stories written by journalists. With a transparent media environment, this subsequently enhances the democratic exchange of ideas, as well as accountability (Gelders & Ihlen, 2010, p. 61). When national unity is increased, the global stage is opened to show other countries a model government PR effort. This subsequently can increase public and cultural diplomacy in the form of soft power (Mead, 2004, p. 48; Mearsheimer, 2001, pp. 60-61; Nye, 2004, pp. 256-257; White, L'Etang & Moss, 2009, p. 396).
To serve the needs of constituents, the government will always have an agenda. While there will always be partisan debates on the amount of government intervention needed to accomplish policy goals, it is important for the government to remain at the service of its constituents. Public relations is just one of many strategies that the government can utilize to increase policy dialogue with citizens whose needs must be met. Of course, the government must maintain and promote an ethical practice of public relations to avoid devolving into propaganda. To encourage ethical practice, the government can look to the constitutions promulgated by organizations such as the PRSA and IPRA.
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