Truth in PR

Sure it was dumb. And yes, the firm, and the industry in which it prominently resides, have paid a heavy toll for this unfortunate transgression. I’m talking of course about the recent firestorm generated by two former journalists, new to agency life, who email-pitched an influential writer to pen an opinion piece on behalf of an unnamed client.

In so doing, the two (unknowingly?) breached their firm and its founder’s longstanding ethical guidelines. Still, the real transgression may have occurred when the firm agreed to execute this clandestine assignment, blinded by the allure of an irresistible new and most notable client.

As an alumnus of this global agency, I tweeted at the time that I believed this gaffe was an agency aberration, not the standard practice. And I’m sure the high profile nature of the client disproportionately exacerbated the unwelcome media spotlight on an industry that in recent years has actively advocated the virtues of corporate transparency….at least in public. Privately, I’m not so sure.

When CNN called me for a comment on the aforementioned imbroglio, I did opine that many big-named PR firms continue to serve up other insidious practices that put them at even greater risk for unwanted media and public criticism. Most involve setting up or enlisting third-party organizations to advocate on behalf of client issues, with the client secretly footing the bill. Then there’s the use of manufactured language that purposely distorts the truth.

One theory that emerged from this recent mess paints a doomsday scenario of a shrinking news industry and ascendent PR industry, and the societal consequences such an imbalance portends. Here’s what one of the (conveniently unnamed) writers for The Economist wrote last week in an article trenchantly titled “Slime-slinging: Flacks vastly outnumber hacks these days. Caveat lector:”

“The incident shows how the upheaval in the news business is working for, and against, the PR firms. Newspapers and other old media are losing influence—and thus becoming less worth lobbying. But job cuts and online obligations mean journalists are also more desperate for copy, making them a softer touch.”

Mark Story, a DC-based social media consultant and adjunct professor who has an MBA and a degree in Spanish, weighed in on this meme via his Posterous page with a thoughtful post titled “Journalism Vacuum Filled by PR Professionals, or Spin Doctors?” In it, he disagrees with CJR/ProPublica’s recent caustic contention that PR people are unduly influencing the public dialogue left by a waning fourth estate. In the CJR piece, the author wrote:

“An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Barstow has written several big stories about the shoving match between the media and public relations in what eventually becomes the national dialogue. As the crowd at the hearing clearly showed, the game has been changing. “The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up — as if they were on steroids,” he says.”

Mr. Story concluded his piece with three caveats to consider when assessing whether PR pros are as insidious as many journalists like to paint them out to be:

  • Not all PR practitioners are good guys. Some of them really suck.
  • To avoid being called “front group” or practicing “astroturf,” you need to have complete transparency about who you are and who supports you. This is the same thing as the annoying thing at the end of political commercials like “I’m Karl Marx, and I approve this message” – or worse yet, the impossible to read fine print at the bottom of the screen that appears for about .1 seconds describing who paid for the ad.
  • Never, ever lie. If you lie, you get busted, especially in the rough and tumble world of public relations, public affairs and politics. If you are engaged in a fight and have opposition, someone will find you out and bust you – publicly.

In my experience, journalism’s ranks are not shrinking, but instead exploding if one considers the number of “media” outlets that exist today. Sure, the big-branded mainstream outlets suffer growing (I mean shrinking) pains, but that’s not to say that PR has filled the void. Rather, I’d contend that any individual with an expertise, a keyboard, and a Posterous, Tumbler, Twitter, Facebook or WordPress account, have enriched the media landscape.

I have observed one distinct bi-product of a rapidly growing PR industry: the increasing difficulty PR pros have in breaking through the competitive din to convince beleaguered journalists of the editorial merit of their clients’ products, services or POV. There’s simply too much misguided fluff out there – even with significantly more outlets to engage.

As for the future of the PR industry, it is clearly primed for more negative scrutiny until the day arrives when transparency is not just a buzzword, but a universally accepted practice. Same goes for privately-funded political advertising.


  1. OK Perkett, I just swapped it out for another memorable image.   😀

  2. Keith,

    I thoight about the friction between PRs and journos, and the implications stemming from a greater number of PR peeps out there plying the trade — for better or worse. Does a bigger barrage of pitches lessen a good journalist’s efforts to report the facts? I’m not so sure. Hence I was reticent to accept the doomsday scenario painted by the media pundits.  

    Thanks for the comments.

    Still thinking mobile…


  3. Well said, Peter. While it wouldn’t be a normal week if The Economist didn’t have yet another article out that took a 1950s-era lens to PR (full disclosure: I greatly respect The Economist and know many editors/reporters there, but its reporting on some subjects is grossly outdated), on the whole, I am with you that the B-M/Facebook ethical lapse was just that: a one-time lapse that does not speak for the majority of the profession.

    Having said that, as PRSA has made very clear, this instance was not one that we should merely slough off as something that happens in the general course of business. Clearly, it isn’t. What was done was unethical and improper. In that regard, I was happy to see many PR pros, yourself included, who spoke out fervently against these unethical practices and made the broader point that on the whole, these types of practices are not consistent with the majority of PR pros. The worst, though, was seeing some well-respected PR pros, especially in the UK, become apologists for this and try to make the claim that smearing is an everyday part of PR and is wholly accepted within the business, both by PR pros and clients alike.

    I don’t for a minute buy that, and would hope others wouldn’t as well.

    I do think you raise a good point that continual incidents like this, combined with the rising demands and resource contraints on reporters and bloggers, is causing some struggles for PR pros to rise above the din and get their clients’ POV across. Unfortunately, I am beginning to detect a bit of a power struggle between PR and journalism over the editorial perspective, especially as we in PR continue to make inroads with developing editorial content. I don’t think struggle is necessarily bad – afterall, competition is good in most things – but I do see some tension rising because of it.

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