When I first started working in government – which was so long ago the news updates came out of a Telex machine – the term ‘public relations’ was verboten.  We talked grandly about ‘information’ and ‘publicity’, but regarded PR as rather tacky and inappropriate for something as serious as government.

Fast forward 20 or so years.  As I wend my way around government Departments, I see talented press officers, brilliant marketers and inspirational social media experimenters.  But the missing weapon in our comms arsenal is all too often the ability to develop and run our own low-cost campaigns.

In Carrie Bradshaw style, I couldn’t help but wonder: is PR still a dirty word within government?

The American Ivy Lee first defined public relations over 100 years ago.  He saw it as a management function that tabulated public attitudes and defined the policies, procedures and interests of an organisation.  Once that was known, Ivy would run “programmes of action” to earn public understanding and acceptance.

He talked a good talk, boasting of “accuracy, authenticity and interest” but ultimately earned the epithet ‘Poison Ivy’ after some very unethical spin for John D Rockefeller Jr. and Standard Oil.  (Ivy, incidentally, was a man.  He must have really hated his parents).

Another early pioneer, Edward Louis Bernays, saw PR as a combination of crowd psychology and psychoanalysis.  He believed that manipulating the public was necessary because society was irrational and dangerous.

As brilliant as they both were, I suspect Ivy and Edward are, in part, responsible for our queasiness of PR.  After all, isn’t spin and manipulation… well… you know… a little suspect?  But if it is, why do well-respected organisations as diverse as The Body Shop, British Red Cross and NSPCC make it a core weapon in their organisational arsenal – and do it so well?

Maybe it’s because public relations has long since ceased to be a profession of snake oil salesmen: today’s practitioners take propriety, ethics and evaluation just as seriously as we do.  Businesses and charities understand the importance of dialogue with their customers and supporters.  PR offers us the opportunity to engage in a way that media relations and advertising never will.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (transparency alert: I’m a card-carrying member) see PR as the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you, and the process of maintaining goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

That pretty much describes what most of us do on a daily basis, working so that we understand the public and the public understands government policies.  It’s not spin; it’s a valid part of democratic dialogue.

Dipping a final time (for today) into the history books, I’m struck by something said in 1933 by Sir Stephen Tallents [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Tallents], Head of the government’s Empire Marketing Board: that government communications “should be recognised as a professional job demanding special training and special capabilities”.

In an age of on-going austerity and with a fast-moving social media landscape, we need to be skilled at pulling together integrated “programmes of action” to earn public understanding and acceptance. It’s something that’s traditionally fallen between the two disciplines of press office and marketing.  And it’s a priority for us to address in 2013.

Image used under Creative Commons from Marsmet541