Opinion: What 'Independence' Means in PR

July 1, 2019

[brandon day]
[brandon day]

Independence can be a sticky subject. And nobody likes a killjoy who says that our annual Independence Day celebration of hot dogs, sparklers and fireworks under warm summer skies commemorates the complicated history of the United States.

As it can be in our country, independence is also a complicated subject within public relations. Dictionary.com defines independence as:

  • Free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority
  • Not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence
  • Capable of thinking or acting for oneself
  • Not connected with another or with each other; separate

These definitions inspired me to consider PR’s challenging relationship with independence.

‘Free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority’

PRSA’s Code of Ethics includes independence among its professional values. Under that heading, the Code states: “We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.”

While we may not “depend” on another’s authority, as the dictionary says in its definition of independence, we are often subject to that authority. But our own moral codes demand that we stand up to authority when it conflicts with that independence and ethical practice. But standing up against authority can come at great cost, as it did for the colonists who fought against British rule during the Revolutionary War.

‘Not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence’

Although women represent two-thirds of the global PR industry, 78 percent of CEOs in the top-30 PR agencies worldwide are men, according to a recent survey from the membership organization Women in PR USA. For me as a female agency owner, this statistic hits close to home.

And while PR Week’s “2019 Salary Survey” showed a shrinking gender-pay gap, Marketing Week’s “Salary Survey 2019” found that the gap persists in marketing for every sector and level of seniority.

For women in public relations, financial independence is still far from equal, and the number of us in positions to change this state of affairs is embarrassingly low.

‘Capable of thinking or acting for oneself’

Our Code of Ethics is all about honesty, that we adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public. Our primary value in public relations is our ability to think and provide strategic counsel. And yet, our responsibility as professionals extends much further.

The Code mandates advocacy (“We  serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent”), loyalty (“We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest”), and fairness (“We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression”). While we are each more than capable of “thinking or acting for oneself,” in our work we rarely take actions on our own behalf, as this definition of “independence” denotes.

‘Not connected with another or with each other; separate’

Finally, there’s the aspect of independence that feels the most distant from our reality in public relations. Our profession is built on interconnectedness. It’s not just our job to build meaningful connections with others; doing so feeds the souls of most PR practitioners — indeed, of most people. Connecting with others is what drives us to put in long hours, tough out challenging conversations, and stand up and fight when it would be easier to acquiesce.

Our relationship with independence — on the Fourth of July or any other day — may be complicated, but it’s clear that we are not independent when it comes to one another. Our profession, our clients, our teams and ourselves can only thrive when we stand together.

Kate Snyder, APR

Kate Snyder, APR, is principal strategist and founder of Piper & Gold Public Relations in Lansing, Mich. She serves on the Counselors Academy executive committee.


Jon Goldberg says:

Brilliantly stated, my friend.

July 2, 2019

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