The Public Relations Strategist

Public relations as public service: In the wake of the U.S. Elections, who will lead?

December 7, 2010

It wasn’t easy in 1988 to dialogue with the Soviets. But Harold Burson, APR, Fellow PRSA, then chairman of the U.S. Information Agency’s Private Sector Public Relations Advisory Committee, has never shied away from a challenge. As he writes in his autobiography, “The Making of Burson-Marsteller,” under his leadership “approximately twenty of the country’s leading public relations executives…were frequently asked to provide input for USIA policy and communication initiatives.”

A series of meetings in Moscow and Washington, D.C., between leading Soviet communicators and Burson’s committee members was a key initiative. This dialogue was a catalyst for the perestroika and glasnost policies adopted by the USSR, which eventually contributed to a historic upheaval: the fall of the Soviet Union. It also provided an unforgettable experience for those of us who participated in it.

A new threat

A different kind of existential threat to the American — and international — standard of living exists today. It is national, or “sovereign,” debt here and around the world. And it is, at its root, arguably a PR challenge, because as Adlai Stevenson once told us, “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Without popular support, political leaders rarely display sufficient courage to ask their constituents to make sacrifices. But that is exactly what has to happen in the United States and abroad if national treasuries are to avoid financial ruin in the next few years.

If you think it’s a stretch to assign so systemic an issue even partly to PR professionals, then spend some time with this seminal publication published by the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education, circa 1997:
 “At the beginning: how public relations techniques gained approval of the U.S. Constitution, opened the West and led the nation through the Civil War and World Wars I and II.”

PR professionals prefer to begin a campaign with research — a sophisticated analysis of the situation to be addressed. So here’s some current secondary research on the issue of the U.S. national debt — a mix of both anecdotal and empirical data, all of it illustrating incipient public support and the need for debt-reduction action:

• Striking excerpts from “America Speaks,” a national discussion among 3,500 Americans across 57 cities on June 26, 2010, about revenue and spending options that could reduce the deficit in 2025 by $1.2 trillion:

“Please find the political will to use this input as if it were coming from a powerful lobbying group — because we are.”

“Abandon the failed politics of partisanship. You can’t demonize each other and expect us to trust you.”

• “The public is strongly averse to big increases in the size of the national debt…Americans want to be engaged in addressing these issues.” — Research report, the Concord Coalition, Public Agenda and ViewPoint Learning, September 2008
There’s also evidence that “influentials” are on board, some for quite a long time:
• “The … final element [in a proper U.S. investment recovery plan] should be a medium-term fiscal framework that will credibly reduce the federal budget deficit to sustainable levels within five years” — Jeffrey Sachs, the Earth Institute, Columbia University, in a commentary headlined “Sow the Seeds of Long-Term Growth,” Financial Times, July 18, 2010

• “Even if the best budget process cannot work without popular support and political consensus, it can render invaluable service by creating a standard of responsibility that rewards legislators who do the right thing and exposes legislators who don’t…It can inform the public about why fiscal control matters to their future, which in turn pushes the public to demand more of Congress.” — “Running on Empty,” Peter G. Peterson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004

These are only a few of the concerns expressed by the leaders of the increasingly influential “Group of 20” — the most economically powerful countries in the world — who recently saw impending global debt burdens so dangerous that they pledged to halve their deficits by 2013.
A recognition for markets

This is not an either-or discussion — it’s not about choosing more financial stimulus now over long-term debt reduction. It is a recognition that markets, including businesses and consumers, need a modicum of certainty for their long-term planning. And it is an attempt to avoid generational class warfare between my generation and our grandchildren, who will have to deal with the burgeoning national debt.

It would be extremely naïve to suggest that there are simple or short-term solutions to such a systemic challenge, because the underlying questions are formidable: Is our system of government broken or just temporarily dysfunctional? Is “post-partisan progress” just a chimera? Is change virtually unattainable in a federal legislature that often demands a “super-majority”? Have we defined civility in public discourse downward?

And so — existentially — is the United States (and its sister democracies) destined to lag behind authoritarian, one-party “state capitalism” countries because they can more easily achieve the unanimity, or at least consensus, that too often eludes us? It would be tempting to succumb to that kind of pessimism. But it’s not that simple. The United States has tremendous economic, political and social impact around the world that cannot be understated.

On one level, the solution sounds easy yet is extremely difficult to accomplish: elect leaders who have the public interest in mind — legislators who, risking their political careers, make the hard choices in support of the general welfare.

But success in this arena also requires that society gets back to responsible saving instead of imprudent consumption; that business executives manage their enterprises for the sustainable long term; that civil society always dialogues responsibly with the establishment; that educators instill community spirit; that the media eschews polarizing journalism; and, yes, that PR professionals apply their talents, even if temporarily, to public service.

The epicenter for action on the U.S. national debt is the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. This bipartisan commission, appointed by President Obama, has gathered testimony from policy experts, advocacy groups, think tanks and concerned citizens and is scheduled to issue its report very soon. The commission has also generated a number of alternative plans for long term debt reduction worthy of study. The nation's ultimate plan will no doubt recommend many tough choices. There will have to be shared sacrifice across the board. We may be in for a long, tough — but necessary — slog in a national system that is complex and fragile.

So the fundamental question for our national leaders — and for PR professionals — is: Who will lead?

These are some of the national organizations promoting responsible debt reduction:
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget 

The Concord Coalition

National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform

Peter G. Peterson Foundation

John Paluszek,  APR, Fellow PRSA
John Paluszek is senior counsel at Ketchum, a member of the executive committee of PRSA’s International Section and the 2009-2011 chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.


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