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How to Represent your Client without Misrepresenting Communities

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

On Friday, Jan. 25, members of the The University of Alabama PRSSA Executive Board participated in a Hallowed Grounds tour led by Dr. Meredith Bagley, an associate professor of rhetoric in the department of communication studies. The tour showcased several key markers that explained UA’s role in segregation, slavery and racism on campus. I encourage you to visit Through the Doors for more information, and to take a tour through Bagley’s UA site.

You may be wondering what this campus tour has to do with public relations.

A key theme throughout the tour was storytelling and how historical markers—or lack thereof—have shaped public memory of UA’s history. The historical markers on campus painted stories as victorious rather than heartbreaking. They also seemed to erase actions by university leaders that helped to maintain segregation and a culture of racism. As PR students and future professionals, our job is to tell our clients’ stories. Our clients expect us to represent them in the best light, yet ethical public relations also requires us to fairly represent other actors in the story.

This expectation often comes in the form of crisis communication. Perhaps your client is caught doing something illegal or immoral. Your job is to help your client rectify the situation so that the organization can repair relationships and move forward. Here are a few tips to keep yourself from altering the story and misrepresenting groups.

Own your place in the story

This is often explained as “checking your privilege,” which means that you are aware of your own biases that may lead you to misrepresent certain actors in the story. What opportunities are you offered as the writer that others are not? Did your client’s misstep impact you? If yes, then did it affect you differently than it affected other publics? Does your race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation shape the way you view the situation?

Seek to understand how this situation impacts your publics

Surveys, focus groups and secondary research are not just for planning periods. You should continually be learning about your publics. Understand how this situation affects your client’s relationship with their publics. Do not assume their opinion; ask and listen to those impacted. It may be difficult to regain their trust, but you can accurately represent them as you tell your client’s story.

Understand and communicate your client’s role in the story

Writing a piece so that your client can evade responsibility for their actions is manipulative. In order avoid misrepresenting your publics, represent your client truthfully. Encourage your client to admit fault when necessary and apologize. While the public does not have to know every decision made or conversation had, attempting to hide your client’s involvement or fault in a situation will negatively impact recovery efforts.

As a PR practitioner, you have the power to shape public opinion and how events are remembered. As I learned on the Hallowed Grounds tour, there are countless stories about UA that do not get told because they are hard, confusing and heavy. But in not telling them—or even worse, misrepresenting certain people and institutions—we disservice those who had a profound impact on our university, state and nation.

It is important to remember that not even the best PR practitioner will be able to understand every identity. We must rely on people to help tell their own story.

By Makayla Williams, co-vp of diversity and inclusion


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