A few days ago, the Sammie Lynn Puett Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) invited me to speak at the University of Tennessee's PR Day. It was more of an honor to be asked than the students will ever know. I don't think many of them knew I was a charter member of that PRSSA chapter back in the '70s and that Sammie Lynn Puett, a revered figure on campus for many years, had been my teacher, student adviser and, later in life, my mentor.
Sammie Lynn had been a journalist before going into teaching and taught several journalism courses, including the first one I ever took, Basic News Writing. She also served for a while as a PR professional, and was determined to establish a comprehensive PR curriculum at UT. It hadn't been fully fleshed out by the time I graduated in 1973, but I took every PR course offered at the time, including all of the graduate level courses.
The first PR textbook I ever used was Effective Public Relations by Scott Cutlip and Allen Center. First published in 1952, it is still considered the PR "bible" by many PR teachers and practitioners. In my view, one of the reasons it is called the PR bible is that Cutlip & Center, from the very beginning, preached the importance of ethics and ethical behavior. As I told the students at PR Day, I did not learn in PR school -- not from Cutlip & Center, and certainly not from Sammie Lynn -- how to set up fake grassroots organizations and front groups to disseminate false or misleading information in order to manipulate public opinion and influence public policy. I would not learn how to do that -- and how prevalent such PR practices are -- until many years later, when I was deep into my career as a corporate communications executive.
PR Has a PR Problem
The reason I wrote my new book, Deadly Spin, was to explain not only how the insurance industry used the dark arts of PR to shape health care reform legislation, but also how many other special interests use them to influence how we think and act every day. The reality is that most people are completely unaware of how this gets done, which is why Australia-based author and former London PR man David Michie called public relations professionals "invisible persuaders."
I suspected I would incur the wrath of some of my former PR colleagues by disclosing the dirty tricks of the trade (one chapter is entitled, "The Playbook"), and I suspected right. Some of the attacks directed at me have been downright vicious. Clearly, Deadly Spin has struck a nerve.
Good. It's about time.
The reason only a handful of PR people use 'PR' in their titles these days is because PR itself has a PR problem, and for good reason.
That's a shame because PR is not inherently evil or manipulative. As I wrote in the book:
PR has been -- and is being -- used to good ends. Even the noblest of causes can benefit from the services of a communications expert to clarify facts, disseminate information, and counter unfair arguments. And there are plenty of ethical PR people out there to do this.
"But," I went on to say, "with PR so intricately woven into every major industry and movement in today's mass media reality, the stakes of spin have become incredibly high. And ethics do slip. PR often crosses the line into misleading, withholding, or simply lying. And when it does, society suffers -- sometimes tragically so."
One of the people offended by the book was Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman, which bills itself as "the leading independent global PR firm." In Deadly Spin, I wrote that Edelman, renowned for touting ethics as a touchstone of the PR business, created a false grassroots movement as part of its campaign to help Wal Mart improve its image. I noted that in March, 2006 the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that Edelman recruited bloggers to publish favorable comments about Wal-Mart, which was being widely criticized at the time for paying workers low wages and not offering health benefits to many of them. BusinessWeek.com later exposed an ostensibly independent blog titled "Wal-Marting Across America" as an Edelman project. BusinessWeek outed it as a fake blog (or "flog").
Richard Edelman confessed in his own blog that the agency had violated its stated ethical standards, but he stressed that he was not personally involved in the project. (Note: CEOs usually are not involved in such shenanigans. More junior staff members typically do the dirty work. My question is: Was Richard Edelman aware of the deception? As my friend and fellow Tennessean Howard Baker, the former Republican senator, famously asked during the Watergate hearings, "What did the President know and when did he know it?")
Who's Really Distorting the PR Field?
In a blog post dated November 22, Edelman wrote that: "Wendell Potter has done the public a great disservice in distorting the PR field in "Deadly Spin." He went on to write:
Ok, Mr. Potter, since you are calling out Edelman, let me agree with you on a few points. Front groups should not be used to cover up the true intent of a client. Biased research surveys should not purport to be factual representation of the views of the public. Communications campaigns where clients say one thing and mean another are duplicitous.
But here is where you and I part company. Inaccurate representations of the PR industry -- such as yours -- "not so much for public relations as for public deception" -- feed misconceptions of what we do. PR firms and their clients are dedicated to the long-term success of their business which is only achieved by honest and accurate communications, and that is the only approach tolerated at our firm.
One of my colleagues at the Center for Media and Democracy, Anne Landman, has done an enormous amount of research into deceptive PR practices, especially those used over the years for the tobacco industry. As part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco companies and 46 states, the tobacco companies were required to make public millions of their previously-secret documents that, among other things, showed the lengths they went to to deceive the public about the harms tobacco and secondhand smoke can do to a body. Anne has spent many hours poring over those documents, and when she saw what Richard Edelman said about my book -- and about his own firm -- she pointed out some the interesting PR plans that she had come across that Edelman developed and implemented for its tobacco clients.
One such proposal for R.J. Reynolds, submitted in 1978 by Edelman founder and chairman Daniel J. Edelman, suggested that Reynolds undertake a comprehensive public relations effort to "slow or reverse the growing negative trends in public opinion regarding smoking."
In the proposal, titled "Taking the Initiative on the Smoking Issue -- A Total Program," Edelman proposed a number of questionable tactics, including a "press event on the passive smoking issue," "a whimsical feature [publication] which seeks to bring out the humor of the smoker vs. non-smoker conflict," "excerpts from some leading civil libertarians and editorialists on the 'freedom' issue," a courteous-smoking appeal to smokers, a "Traveling Etiquette Spokesperson," production of a film on "Smoker and the Non-smoker" that would address "issues that divide them other than the primary health issue," and a Smokers' News Bureau based in New York that would "generate news stories ... showing that smoking is not as annoying to the nonsmoker as is widely perceived."
Edelman further proposed commissioning a survey by a "nationally famous research organization" that would poll people on the "degree of annoyance of a whole range of obnoxious habits -- i.e., body odor, bad breath, whiskey breath, loud talkers, foul language, sneezing, uncurbed dogs, etc. " Edelman said,
The survey would include smoking, but our sense it that it will show that smoking is relatively insignificant as an annoyance compared with scores of other personal practices, against which there are no organized efforts.
Edelman noted that surveys done by both companies (RJR and Edelman) showed that "the smoker himself has no pride, feels guilty, ashamed, is not willing to defend or describe the pleasure he gets from smoking." Edelman proposed to correct this by undertaking a campaign to associate smokers with "elegance, style, class, and intellectual responsibility -- personality traits that can give him pride."
The proposal shows how Edelman helped the tobacco industry minimize the health dangers associated with smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, and reinforce the social acceptability of smoking, even as public health efforts to discourage smoking were ongoing.
There is plenty more where that came from. When you have time, poke around the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library to get a real sense what how the game is played. It is one of the reasons (along with tactics used by the insurance industry) I named my book Deadly Spin.
How About Abiding by the PRSA Code of Ethics?
I will accept Richard Edelman's word that nothing short of honest and accurate communications are now tolerated at his firm. That's wonderful news. Now that that is indeed the case, I am inviting Mr. Edelman and other leaders in the profession to join me in finding ways to strengthen and enforce the Code of Ethics developed by the Public Relations Society of America, of which I have been a member (an accredited member at that) for three decades. That code, by the way, states that PR people must "be honest and accurate in all communications" and "avoid deceptive practices" and "reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented (in other words, no fake grassroots, flogs or front groups, please)," and "decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this code."
In Effective Public Relations, Cutlip & Center wrote that "accountability in a profession means that practitioners must face up to the consequences of their actions." To hold PR practitioners accountable, the authors suggested the possibility of practitioners being required to obtain a license. They noted that Brazil has used that method to regulate the public relations industry since 1967. In Brazil, they wrote, "practitioners who behave unethically or otherwise inappropriately in the execution of their professional duties can be removed from the profession by having their license revoked, much like doctors or lawyers guilty of malpractice can have their licenses taken away."
Considering the increasingly lethal consequences of certain PR practices in the United States today, it might be time to consider doing the same thing here.
What do you think, Richard?
P.S. -- Edelman ended his blog post about Deadly Spin with this remarkable claim: "The reality is that today, thanks to robust mainstream and social media, there is immediate damage extracted to the reputation and the license-to-operate of any company, brand or PR firm folly enough to distort the truth." If you buy that, let me show you a bridge I own in Brooklyn I could be persuaded to part with. The fact is, as we saw during the recent debate on health care reform, people who have an agenda, such as, say, insurance company executives hoping to shape reform to their liking, or to kill it if they don't like it, have found the social media extraordinarily efficient and effective in disseminating lies to a gullible population. ("Death panels," anyone?)
I will say this, though, there is potential for Edelman's statement to be true. But only if people wise up to the dirty tricks of unethical flacks.