3. PR People
Of course, it’s also true that while everyone says they hate Paris Hilton, she’s still in every magazine on the newsstand every week. And most people still vote for politicians, hire lawyers, and so on.
So Media Orchard generally figures our occupation’s less-than-sterling rep is something we needn’t worry about too much.
But then news of the latest PR ethics stink wafts through the transom, forcing us to flee our tiny office — and to at least say something.
The bad news came in threes last week:
1. The AP reported that HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy paid a writer $11,000 through a PR firm to write sympathetic articles that were published in The Birmingham Times.
2. Catherine Seipp wrote in National Review that a PR person once offered her money to write an article bashing a left-wing organization.
3. And Jim Sinkinson, publisher of Bulldog Reporter, opined that dishonesty has become a “trademark skill” for the public relations profession.
A young summer intern in Bulldog Reporter’s offices recently commented that public relations sounds like a fascinating profession — one she’d like to consider entering, she continued, “except that you have to be able to lie — and I wouldn’t want to do that.”
When PR spokespeople — President Bush’s press secretary, for example — aren’t being exposed for outright prevarication, they’re being unmasked as inveterate deceivers. Only weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal’s lead story blew the cover on PR-paid writers for pharmaceutical companies who ghost write articles for physicians. The good doctors in turn place the less-than-objective articles in prestigious medical journals, never crediting (i.e., hiding) the true author and sponsor…
If the truth really sets us free, if the truth makes the most powerful story, then why does PR’s reputation for dishonesty prevail? Or, more directly, why do so many PR people so often use lies and deception as the foundation for their communications strategies?
We don’t know, Jim — but would you mind handing us that ball of twine beside you so we can hang ourselves?
OK, let’s take a step back here. Why don’t we examine the three bad-rep professions one at a time, and try to understand why each is so often associated with dishonesty.
This one’s easy: If they didn’t lie we would never elect them, because (1) we expect them to be perfect and they’re not, and (2) we expect them to tell us everything we want to hear, so they do. Next —
We have something in the United States called an adversarial legal system. This means that even guilty people get a defense, which means lawyers often know they’re defending guilty people — which means, in essence, they’re lying and this lying is an inherent part of our legal system. Next —
We’ve been straining our brains on this one, but we really can’t come up with a good excuse for PR people. So after much thought and consideration, we’ve concluded that maybe a lot of PR people are just big fat liars.
And we think maybe something needs to be done about it.
Richard Edelman thinks so, too:
We cannot be seen to be corruptors of the media … [W]e have to go further to prevent future misbehavior. I am calling for the key associations in the PR business around the world to consider licensing PR firms in their countries to do business. We have, for example, the APR accreditation process from the PR Society of America. That effort to assure professional standards of practice is fine as far as it goes.
But we need to go further, to have CEOs of PR firms sign onto a code of proper behavior, that forbids payments to reporters, that mandates transparency on arrangements with third party experts and that bars a media company from having a licensed PR firm in the family. These standards must be enforceable, with the group given power to expel transgressors, then to demand a public apology and remanding of questionable earnings to the aggrieved client.
I will attend the February 5 board meeting of PRSA and make this proposal. Can others who are similarly outraged and frustrated please help me with the wording of such a resolution, so that we have the means to protect our precious profession.
We’re with you all the way, Richard. Thank you.
Update: Paul Holmes chimes in on the same point.
[This post is a Media Orchard Classic.]