Does Public Relations Have a Problem Relating to the Public?

Weber Shandwick‘s president of digital Chris Perry addressed the headlining question in a Forbes article inspired by a recent conference on the future of media and PR. Here’s the issue as he sees it:

“The continued, misguided belief that marketing and PR teams are smarter than people they are trying to reach.”

A common complaint made against media “elites” and board members alike is that they underestimate the intelligence of their audience. Does PR have the same problem? Here’s a key quote from media critic Douglas Rushkoff, whose new book Present Shock is an analysis of the current state of things:

“This is an industry fathered by a man — Ed Bernays — that believed that people were too stupid to run their own lives.”

That stings. But how many times do we remind ourselves to keep the message simple so the public understands it?

As an example of this principle at work, Perry writes that one of JP Morgan’s mistakes in planning the ill-fated #AskJPM event lay in assuming that the public’s response would be more subdued and less outraged. The people who interact with our clients now have larger soapboxes and, as Perry puts it:

“…organizations must adapt to a new reality in which the quality of their own actions are the only controllable element.”

In other words, if you want the public to respect you and the brand you’re handling, you have to show that you respect them as well by displaying a little humility and a willingness to listen.

Do we need to give the public the benefit of the doubt?

And will this focus on respect amount to an industry-wide “transformation?”