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November 1, 2006
Politics and Public Relations

Public relations and politics have been two firmly entwined concepts since the beginning of recorded history. For evidence from ancient times, take a look at Aristotle and his schools of rhetoric that taught the art of persuasive communication. In more recent times, the work of the man commonly thought of as the father of modern day public relations, Edward Bernays, and his belief that public relations is an art applied to a science provide a clear connection between the two.

Public relations plays a role in politics in many ways. The public relations function of publicity is a great tool for gaining awareness for candidates and causes. Whether through mass media exposure, special events, or targeted direct communication, making candidates’ names known to voters is a basic function of political public relations and one that most politicos would agree is extremely valuable. Candidates can’t win if voters don’t know their names.

Another use of public relations closely tied to politics moves a step farther. Its role is to provide voters with enough information to develop an understanding of candidates’ positions. Knowing who’s running is important, but once they have an awareness of who’s in the contest, understanding where each candidate stands on the issues becomes a priority. Good publicity can help translate complex issues and positions into easily understood concepts. This helps voters sort through the sometimes overwhelming number of messages that bombard them every day and focus on making well-informed decisions at the polls.

Both of these initial uses of public relations have the goal of making information available to the public through effective and efficient communication. With the refinement of modern-day public relations, another dimension comes into play, though — one that moves public relations beyond publicity and the use of one-way messages and toward two-way communication. Public relations uses feedback from the public to guide the development of persuasive messages that can help elevate issues to the public agenda. Agenda-setting is important, since this is what determines which issues and candidates get before the “court of public opinion” — the court that most consider the highest in the land.

While it is hard to imagine a political campaign without publicity and persuasive messages, the fundamental partnership between politics and public relations at its highest level goes far beyond that — but perhaps not in the way many people might think. This use of public relations has nothing to do with making things appear other than they are, no connection to negative campaigns aimed at denigrating the opposition. It includes no week-before-the-election dirty tricks designed to shift voters’ attention from the real issues. In fact, all of these things serve only to corrode and corrupt channels of communication — the exact opposite of the most desired outcomes of any public relations program.

Critical to both voters and politicians is that most elusive of concepts — public opinion — and that’s the place where well-done public relations really shines. Reading public opinion on the issues that matter most and crafting political positions and communication based on that public opinion is the real contribution that public relations can make to the political process. This two-way approach represents the practice of public relations at the highest level — one that is inherently ethical. With change possible for both public and politician, neither puts the other at an unfair advantage.

Adjustment and adaptation — the give and take that is essential in today’s world — are the key concepts in this balanced two-way approach. Public relations at this level allows for persuasion of the voter and modification of the politician, all done with an eye to bringing both to that most valuable of outcomes — mutually beneficial relationships.

This use of public relations is good for both politics and the public.

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Dr. Steve Iseman is president of the Central Ohio Public Relations Society of America, a member of the Commission for Public Relations Education, and a professor of communication arts/public relations at Ohio Northern University.
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