By letterhead | June 2, 2008
What to make of this latest broadside against PR — by CBS news analyst Andrew Cohen… ? In which he says:
The reason companies or governments hire oodles of PR people is because PR people are trained to be slickly untruthful or half-truthful. Misinformation and disinformation are the coin of the realm.
Oh there’s sooooo much. Too much, in fact, to cover in just one post… So as we were getting all geared up to dig into the self-destructive habits of the PR profession in general, we’ll just consider this an opening gambit.
PUBLIC RELATIONS… IN THE HANDS OF PRSA:
The first thing it highlights is the utter lack of competence of PRSA. When a new client comes to you in a crisis after getting slammed in the press, 9 times out of 10 here’s what you find:
no pre-existing press relationships
a history of avoidance rather than engagement
a vindictive, self-righteous attitude that you can cold-shoulder reporters who don’t fawn all over you
database searches that surface years of consistent criticism paired with years of “no comment”
zero recognition that the organization needs the press — or even a press strategy
a belief that somehow in the heat of a crisis all they need to do is explain themselves and people will magically see it their way
deep resentment that someone would dare [!] criticize them
Sounds just like what PRSA has been doing for years. And PRSA’s response to CBS is also pretty much predictable and true to form. So PRSA “finds it imperative to affirm the professionalism of public relations practitioners and to take exception with what we regard as a misguided opinion.”
“Find it imperative” to defend yourself? Go ahead. Smack him again with that wet noodle. Surely it will change his mind.
My favorite is this quote: “In a business where success hinges on critical relationships built over many years with clients, journalists and a Web 2.0-empowered public, one’s credibility is the singular badge of viability.”
A “Web 2.0-empowered public?” What the hell does “Web 2.0-empowered” have to do with anything??? Couldn’t resist putting in jargon-laden talking points, could you.
In the middle of the PRSA statement there is, surprisingly, a glimmer of insight. Followed immediately, and not surprisingly, by a steamy load of crap:
“For public relations professionals, engaging diverse and often skeptical audiences requires top-flight skills in communications, creativity and even persuasion, but a trust once lost cannot be regained. Unemployment, contrary to your opinion, is reserved for the professional who has lost his or her credibility.”
The first part is most definitely true. Lost trust is rarely regained.
And our entire profession has lost the trust of the publics we are supposed to be communicating to. In that regard, Mr. Cohen’s screed was not so much a criticism as an obituary — a statement of the plain truth that we have run amok and our reputation is in tatters.
We have no credibility left, thanks in part to the sterling job done by PRSA to represent the profession, not to mention develop and actually enforce a set of professional standards.
The second part of the PRSA statement is Exhibit A in why we have run amok: because our profession is stuffed to the gills with senior executives with no scruples.
Witness Jim Abernathy telling Business Week that the best way for China to deal with protests over Tibet is to distract people with some pretty little gymnast girls jumping around on the morning shows like a Chinese version of Mary Lou Retton.
Our vaunted leaders are out there every day foisting nonsensical, implausible, irresponsible dreck onto the press and the public (see any “BS of the Month Award” posting on this site for an example) and rather than getting fired, these people win awards and get promoted to positions of authority and influence.
PRSA may want to give the profession a one-memo makeover, but their claims stretch credulity to the ugly point — especially for a profession that has endured everything from unending political spin…
to fake press conferences (FEMA)
to fake blogs (Walmart/Whole Foods)
to hidden pay for pundits (Nuclear Energy Institute/Patrick Moore, Dept of Education/Armstrong Williams)
to Pentagon propaganda
to teaching PR students how to create fake blogs (Coach/Hunter Colege)!
And those are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth, as we have seen with our own eyes, is closer to what Mr. Cohen writes.
KEKST ADMITS THE TRUTH, WHY CAN’T WE?
Jack O’Dwyer’s, a few months back (Feb 13 issue), reported that Kekst is working for meatpacking giant Smithfield Foods, which is fighting efforts to unionize one of its plants in North Carolina. The company sued the union (under the RICO statute) to “seek relief from the [union's] extortionate corporate campaign.”
The kicker, according to JO’D:
Smithfield seeks $17 million and a court order barring the union from issuing press releases or using other PR tactics targeting the company. [emphasis added]
HOLY SHIT! Did that say what I think it said?
With support from their PR firm (Kekst), Smithfield is seeking to portray common PR practices as “extortionate.” (see NY Times article for more) In what warped corner of Hell does this make sense?
A nationally recognized PR firm with the stature and influence of Kekst seeks to undermine and delegitimize – even criminalize — their OWN profession to win a PR campaign for a client. Of all the evil genius… would you have ever thought you’d see the day?
Or did Kekst & Co. just admit the truth that we all already know?
THE HAND THAT FEEDS, ON ITSELF
So it’s OK to use press releases, spokespeople, pressure groups, op-eds, hardball assaults on image and reputation… all in the name of winning for your client. Unless someones uses them against you. In that case they’re criminal racketeering: “the same thing as what John Gotti used to do,” according to a Smithfield lawyer’s talking point.
That example nails it for me. Facts are facts; and the facts are these: our profession has become a bastion of stealth, disinformation (e.g., the Pentagon talking head program), obfuscation, avoidance, diversion, distraction, and every other kind of trickery and hucksterism.
PR is eating itself alive, and PRSA’s response to the criticism — their complete denial — is emblematic of the profession’s long-standing trend away from straightforward engagement.
I, for one, can’t wait for the Silver Anvil Awards this Thursday night. Any guesses to whom PRSA will hand out the honors, and for what?
Do you think it will be for “truth and accuracy,” “ethical standards,” and “integrity?”
Don’t you worry, I’ll have a full report next week.