By letterhead | July 18, 2007
Just came across a recent post by Howard Rubenstein on the Huffington Post about how the PR profession needs to communicate better on it’s high-minded ideals and practices. “He” opens by saying: “…there has never been so much misunderstanding and misinformation about what PR practitioners actually do.”
Well, true and not true. The general public knows very well the CONSEQUENCES of what we do, but much less about HOW we do it. The Libby trial put the cozy relationships on full view. All the glad-handing. All the quid-pro-quos. And all the obfuscation that Rubenstein derides in his post. It makes Rubenstein’s mission of “expanding [PR's] role as a conduit to the media” a scary proposition. And no, Libby was not a PR guy, per se, but he was acting as a source in much the same way that PR people do every day…. trying to “shape and advance causes, enhance prestige and public acceptance and explain and defend courses of actions.”
For this reason we are seen, many times accurately, as “all-powerful spinmeisters or Svengalis, ready at a moment’s notice to put one over on the press and the public by obfuscating the truth or peddling a bogus story.” To wit: See the current issue (July 2007) of Harper’s Magazine, in which reporter Ken Silverstein manages to get pitched (hard I might add) by some top-flight Washington Lobbying/PR talent to “enhance [the] prestige and public acceptance” of a Central Asian thug-ocracy.
Silverstein pretends to front for a regime that terrorizes its own citizens, but wants to soften its image in order to do energy business with the U.S. You won’t be surprised that acknowledged “leaders” in our industry are only too happy to help. (article is in print only, as of now)
But the biggest irony in “his” post has to be that, for PR insiders, Rubenstein PR has long had a reputation as one of the most ink-obsessed agencies there is. I have never worked there, but know people who have. And though Rubenstein execs will counter with claims of sound counsel to prestigious clients, ex-staffers talk of a high-pressure, smile-and-dial boiler room where performance measured in buckets of ink. So it’s laughable “he” could write: “it is about far more than media events, publicity stunts or red carpets.”
With regard to the observation, “without the trust of clients and the media, public relations practitioners cannot perform,” the public seems to be left out of the equation. But in my view, public distrust of the press, businesses, politicians, and other powerful “newsmakers” stems from the fact that spin has become endemic to public discourse, thanks to… well… us.
There’s no doubt that the PR industry is entrenched in the business of communications. And make no mistake it is BIG business. There’s lots of money to be made for the PR industry, and lots more to be protected for its clients, if we can accomplish what “he” touts our mission: to “strengthen the reputations of businesses, organizations and individuals.” Which is all the more reason for frank debate about what we do and how to do it more responsibly.
Now… why do I keep putting “he” in quotes? Because I will bet you dollars to Krispy Kremes that he didn’t write that post.
As a ghost writer, I have written many an advertorial, even one for him. And this smacks of ghosting for fun and puffery. Why does it matter? Because what “he” writes is nothing more than an infomercial for Rubenstein PR, and HuffPo should show better judgment. (Or it will become known as PuffPo.) “His” post is a transparent attempt at “thought leadership,” an effective but decidedly old-media tactic applied to a new-media format.
The problem is that there is no leadership in it. It’s smiley-face rhetoric that educates no one and helps nothing. Everybody says this kind of ethics-be-praised stuff, in every industry, whenever it appears to outsiders that they have failed at self-regulation.
But the PR industry needs a helluva a lot more than empty pandering to set itself right. We all know that there’s too much corner-cutting in this business, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves (and try to fool others) that it doesn’t take place with the frequency that it does… and at the high levels that it does. How about some specific examples; how about some candid advice about when to walk away from business or fire a client; or how to get clients to pursue a better course of action instead of trying to spin the bad one that they might be on; or debate whether the industry should publicly disavow professionals who abuse their role as advocates?
Glossing over the industry’s sins with this kind of pap, especially in a blatant attempt at self-promotion, only reinforces the negative image of PR as a distinctly self-serving profession, which is exactly what needs changing.