People tend to have a stereotyped view of public relations, even if they don’t fully understand the scope of the profession. Assistant Professor Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D., wants to figure out why.
“It’s my contention that there exists in the world this social construction of public relations,” she said. “Even the people who say, ‘I don’t know what PR is,’ will use the term ‘public relations’ in front of anything bad that’s happening. We commonly see this when a company or celebrity is going through some tough times. We hear about the public relations crisis, the public relations nightmare, the PR catastrophe.”
Lambert, who joined the Kent State School of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC) in 2016, has conducted extensive research about media representations of public relations in contemporary and historical contexts. She has analyzed news media, popular culture and war-time propaganda.
She recently began working on a media frame analysis of U.S. presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, studying how The New York Times and Washington Post have portrayed her job performance.
“Even though she works in political public relations,” Lambert said, “three prominent public relations organizations have issued public statements criticizing her messaging. Media help to formulate public opinions about the role of public relations professionals.”
Pop culture also shapes opinions about public relations. This past year, Lambert was the lead author of a book chapter, “Public Relations Representations in Popular Culture: A ‘Scandal’ on Primetime Television” for the collaborative book, “Communication Perspectives on Popular Culture.” The chapter explores how Olivia Pope, the lead character (a public relations professional) in ABC’s “Scandal,” is portrayed as a “fixer.” Lambert is now expanding that research to explore how public relations is represented in “Scandal,” coupled with how Pope’s character is represented as a black woman.
Lambert has found that the stereotyped, negative images of public relations – breaking the law, lying and cheating – are mixed with positive images of how Pope approaches her work.
“You’ve got some really powerful, positive images in terms of public relations,” Lambert said. “(Pope) does her research in advance, she meets with clients. ... These are all things that aren’t often seen on television.”
The same is true, Lambert said, of Pope’s portrayal as a black woman, noting her senior position and ability to hold her own alongside others.
“But that’s coupled with her personal life being quite a disaster,” Lambert said. “It’s an interesting analysis.”
Lambert is also analyzing propaganda cam- paigns portrayed on television. In the Australian superhero show “Cleverman,” the governor of a fictional town runs a whisper campaign to rationalize his decision to keep super-humans– known as “Hairypeople” on the show – in a certain part of the city.
“What they’re trying to do is portray this group, to defend and explain why they’ve decided to keep (them) locked up,” she said. “... It’s about the ethics of (following) what your client says versus following the ethics of the profession.”
Along with her ongoing research, Lambert manages the website PRDepiction (http://prdepiction.wordpress.com), a blog and database of public relations depictions in popular culture. She offers weekly commentary about how companies and ce- lebrities are handling ongoing public relations situations and analyses of how public relations is portrayed in reality shows, TV shows, books and movies.
She emphasized the importance of pointing out when companies practice good public relations. One blog post lauds the way Jack Daniel’s, as part of its 150th anniversary in 2016, revealed that Jack Daniel learned about distilling from an enslaved man, Nearis Green. The whiskey company’s history was featured in a profile in The New York Times, and the story became part of a larger marketing campaign.
“I discussed what would make any company decide to share its ties to this ugly chapter of American history,” she said. “... (Jack Daniel’s), in sharing that information, I believe avoided what could have been a huge crisis if somebody found this out. ... That’s good public relations.”
Yet, the general public didn’t perceive the revelation as “public relations” or a crisis of any kind.
“Because good public relations is typically hidden, people don’t hear about it, and they don’t ascribe what’s going on to ‘good PR,’” she said. “It’s easier to focus on when the PR team is out there trying to resolve a crisis or problem.”
Public relations professionals and educators can do their own part to break down the stereotypes that exist.
“Pointing out when you witness positive PR is a good thing to do,” Lambert said. “Other than that, upholding the ethics of the profession, and recognizing that because these stereotypes do exist, we have to go above and beyond being ethical.”