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PRSA Boston Blog

This is a blog written by the PRSA Boston president (Tom Nutile for 2008) about events and activities involving PRSA Boston

Monday, June 09, 2008

PR Ethics Debate Rages over Book by Former White House Spokesman

PRSA National has found itself involved in a controversy over the nature of public relations and its ethical standards.

The brouhaha came in the wake of former White House spokesman Scott McClellan’s controversial new book, “What Happened,” in which he indicates that he and the Bush administration misled the public over the war in Iraq.

A CBS on-air legal analyst delivered a commentary noting that some in the public relations community “wonder whether the former flack violated the ‘ethics’ of his craft.”

The CBS analyst, Andrew Cohen, a lawyer, stated, in part, “Apparently, an industry the very essence of which is to try to convince people that a turkey is really an eagle has a rule that condemns lying….”The Public Relations Society of America states: ‘We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent...’ This clause strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal.’

”Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I'll show you a PR person who is unemployed.”

Them’s fightin’ words, PRSA National concluded, firing off a letter the same day as Cohen’s broadcast, blasting the legal analyst and urging members to blog on the CBS web site about our code of ethics and how we are, indeed, honest.

The PRSA response – both the letter from National and the blog posts – generated a second polemic from Cohen. In it, Cohen quotes a lawyer friend.

“In an academic sense, your hyperbole is inaccurate and therefore, perhaps, unfair,” the lawyer writes to Cohen. “There are certainly ethical PR folks out there. But, like lawyers and the Fourth Estate, there have been so many bad actors who for so long have abused the public’s trust, that the hyperbole pretty accurately represents the feelings of most in the public, and is sadly not that far from the truth. The PR industry needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs (as do lawyers and the media) and work to restore the public’s faith.”

Another comment came from a blog posting on Cohen’s page on the CBS site. The unnamed poster claims to be both a journalism and PR professor. The professor recounted what one student recently said of the class:

“One student, a business major, told me he respected me because I spent the entire 15 weeks beating into him that PR was about mediated shared meaning founded on truth. He said he had no idea he had to tell the truth in PR before he started the class. He thought his PR experience was going to be akin to a creative writing course for the business world. The rest of the class seemed in agreement. I was glad I could help set the record straight for these students, but the real problem lies elsewhere. All of those leaders of industry-in-training, all of those future pols, have a misguided view of PR, and those are the ones who will one day be signing the public relations officer's paycheck. Public relations is equally duty-bound to the audience as it is to the organization. And, yes, I believe my idealism would get me fired if I was not in an ivory tower. The root of PR's PR problems lies with intent and influence of the client or the management, not the trained and ethical practitioner.”

That same day, PRSA National sent out a press release calling for government reform and challenging the 2008 presidential candidates to “adopt a communications policy engaging principles like those in the PRSA Code of Ethics.”

The next day, PRSA National CEO and Chair Jeffrey Julin posted a video response to Cohen on the PRSA National site. Julin said, in part,

“It is PRSA’s belief that in a free society every individual and organization has a right to communicate and to advocate for positions, and those positions are generally judged by the public not only on merit, but also on the credibility and reputation for honesty, earned over time, by the people and organizations putting forth those positions…

“Public relations is about relationships. Relationships are built on honest communications and trustworthy behavior. That is what the members of the Public Relations Society of America are about, and that is what we bring to our employers, to our clients, and our communities.”

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