At its highest level, public relations is a counseling function that requires practitioners to give sound and thoughtful advice to the leadership of an organization.
Having served a good number of university presidents in this role during my career, I have come to the conclusion that courage is right at the top on the list of many skills and attributes successful PR folks must have.
I have sadly and too often encountered and engaged with vice presidents and other campus leaders who have been less than honest and forthcoming in meetings with the chief executive. I have watched them check which way the wind was blowing, then climb on board with the president, even when they knew the proposed decision was ill-advised.
In candid conversations not involving the president they would rail against the direction the president was headed, but their words and perspectives changed in the management meeting. I understand the motivation. Please the president, preserve that job and continue to be part of her or his trusted inner circle. I understand it, but I don’t respect it.
A fundamental principle of the public relations profession is the requirement that practitioners base their work on honesty and integrity. It is an absolute requirement that PR counselors express a countervailing point of view when it is needed. We must have the courage to speak truthfully even when our perspective might put us in jeopardy. Win or lose the argument, we must not remain silent or parrot the party line when it is wrong-headed or we feel another idea needs to be considered.
I have never suffered under the delusion that I have always been right, but when given the opportunity, I have rarely failed to weigh in on the public relations ramifications of executive decisions. I also have never deluded myself that presidents and institutional leadership always appreciate it. Sometimes it has cost me, big-time.
I have at times reflected on the difficult crises, issues and management decisions in which I have been involved, and I have second-guessed my candor in some of those situations. Each time I do that, my thinking comes down to this: Did I serve the president (and my institution) by questioning in an honest and well-considered manner a decision he or she needed to evaluate carefully and judiciously?
Thankfully, my answer is yes.