Not All Public Relations is Spin Just Like Not All FDA Approvals Are PhRMA Favors

FDA Quote

Many thanks to Nancy F. Hughes, APR for alerting the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to a recent report published by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that blasts everything produced by the Public Relations profession as ‘inaccurate spin.’

The report, titled “Communicating Risks and Benefits: An Evidence-Based User’s Guide,” was written by Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, Noel T. Brewer, PhD, and Julie S. Downs, PhD and  distinguishes “risk communications” from “public affairs (or public relations).”

For the uninitiated, risk communications is one of the myriad components of the very broad field of public relations (I realize some may be shocked to learn that PR pros do more than lie and craft misleading euphemisms).

The salient quote:

“Risk communication is the term of art used for situations when people need good information to make sound choices. It is distinguished from public affairs (or public relations) communication by its commitment to accuracy and its avoidance of spin. Having been spun adds insult to injury for people who have been hurt because they were inadequately informed. Risk communications must deal with the benefits that risk decisions can produce (e.g., profits from investments, better health from medical procedures), as well as the risks — making the term something of a misnomer, although less clumsy than a more inclusive one.” (Fischhoff, B et al, p. 1)

One of my favorite parts of the report is that it includes two “Additional Resources” that are public relations literature:

  • Grunig J.E. (1992). Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. A classic that summarizes key research on “symmetric, two-way communication.”
  • Grunig, L. A. ( 1992). How public relations/communications departments shou ld adapt to the structure and environment of an organization…and what they actually do. In J.E.Grunig (Ed.), Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management (pp. 467-482). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Another of my favorite parts is that none of the literature cited is less than two years old (which is an eternity in the social media era).

Hopefully this was just an accidental and unintended bit of wording that wasn’t meant to be a slight against the whole PR profession.  After all – none of us would want to be judged by the worst elements of our professions (like, seriously).

On another note, PR pros should use this opportunity to again take note of how the world views us.  Though it’s not fair, we’re held to a different standard and need to tread carefully because of the damage that’s been done (and continues to be done) to the profession.  Unfortunately when something goes bad in PR, it tends to be more visible than in other fields.

One thought on “Not All Public Relations is Spin Just Like Not All FDA Approvals Are PhRMA Favors

  1. Tim Penning, Ph.D., APR says:

    Disturbing, but thanks for the post. This sort of demonizing and minimizing the PR profession happens every day. What is always striking is the hypocrisy with which people throw a label on ‘PR’ — a form of spin — without the intellectual honesty of pointing out that PR, like any profession, has good and bad practitioners.

    I wonder in what field the three authors have a PhD. While they include the old Grunig references, there is nothing from the crisis communication literature of Timothy Coombs, Glen Cameron, and others?! Not to mention nothing from the growing health communication literature, which would seem to be of relevance to the FDA in a ‘user guide’ document.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Derek.


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