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Don’t Call Me a Fixer. How People Typecast Public Relations

By Dr. Amanda Staggenborg

Propaganda. Spin. Cover. Public relations has been known as many things, but the most damaging in today’s field is the label of a “fixer.” Within the combat of recent politics, people who have a history of conspiring and scheming are blended with those who are practicing ethical, professional public relations. Just when we thought we became strategic, we are in danger of being right back where we were during the time of P.T. Barnum’s press agentry and propaganda.

What is a fixer? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of a fixer is a “person who adjusts matters or disputes by negotiation.” Wikipedia’s definition identifies a fixer as a “person who carries out assignments for someone else or who is good at solving problems for others.” If you only read the definitions, it’s easy to confuse the two functions, but public relations has a clear difference. We have an obligation to the truth from the smallest detail in a press release, to the largest media tour in a major campaign.

A fixer is someone who wants to make a problem go away. This may or may not include the truth. It may or may not include tactics that are legal.  A public relations professional is someone who is honest with all stakeholders, internal and external, and solves a problem through honest messaging.

When the Beech-nut Packing Company wanted to sell more bacon (yes, they make baby food now), they hired Edward Bernays to convince the public (by persuading doctors) that bacon was recommended as a breakfast staple. Bernays also convinced children that bathing was enjoyable with the 25-year long campaign for Ivory soap. Public relations becomes part of the fabric of our society.

 The dark side of this happens when we are called upon to speak, advise and counsel when something could be damaging for a client’s reputation. Many public figures, from the royal family, professional athletes, and of course, politicians, seek out the highest dollar PR firms and professionals to address the problem quickly, and hopefully, quietly. We arrange honest apologies, good-will campaigns, talking points and appearances to repair a reputation.

The key is that the advice must be ethical and true for the client. A lie can not only backfire on the intended positive message but could destroy an already-faltering image. In 2006, when actor Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) hired Howard Rubenstein to repair damage from anti-Semitic remarks during his stand-up appearances, the explanation of the behavior only enhanced the outrage.

Fast-forward to 2018, when Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s trusted “fixer” was accused of covering up Trump’s legal and moral indiscretions. Though Cohen had been hired as a lawyer, Trump told Fox News in December of 2018 that Cohen did “more public relations than he did law.” The perception of public relations took a direct stereotypical hit.

Why does this confusion exist? Because we as public relations practitioners solve problems and we’re responsible for the plans for how to solve them. Historically, people have been skeptical about the methods used to identify and find solutions for the pain points that clients present. The PR reaction in any situation is to protect the image. Fix the problem. Traditionally, when public opinion needed improvement, the public relations professional came to the rescue. Improving the image by any means necessary was typical because messages were saturated.

As a new generation of public relations professionals is being trained, we have to remember to hold true against the stereotype of unethical persuasion. We are not Olivia Pope. We are not Michael Cohen. I tell my students that we never adjust the truth to fit the message but the message should always fit the truth.

According to a 2017 study in the Public Relations Review, less than half of public relations practitioners belong to a professional organization and even fewer recognize or follow the PRSA Code of Ethics. Our ethical code outlines and guides us for every moment of counsel, in a traditional or digital format.

There are several opportunities for public relations professionals of every career level to remind themselves of this standard throughout case studies and professional development activities. The Code of Ethics is a living document that evolves with a practitioner over the course of his or her career. It is only through living these values and principles every day in every function do we keep our profession what it is intended to be in this modern world: a foundation of truth.

There are examples every day of situations that require public relations tactics but are often handled by fixers. Therefore, the “fix” is always short-term and never get to the heart of resolving the problem. Public relations provides the groundwork for successful long-term planning without resorting to quick fixes.

 

About the Author

Dr. Amanda Staggenborg is the associate division chair for communications and assistant professor of public relations at Missouri Baptist University. She has been a member of the Public Relations Society of America, St. Louis chapter since 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

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