PR Execs Call For Closer Look At Tools Of The Trade

Public relations has an image problem. In the last two weeks, a slew of bad press over the use of such basic PR tools as video news releases and paid endorsements for public affairs accounts has practitioners demanding that the industry do more to police itself before more damage is done.

“My biggest fear here is that we’ll see a general backlash, a witch hunt if you will, of people saying these PR activities are inappropriate,” said Jerry Swerling, director of PR studies at the USC Annenberg School for Communications in Los Angeles. “They’re going to start questioning in general the use of outside PR counsel for government agencies, but in so doing they will completely overlook all the essential and great work that’s being done in many crucial areas like healthcare education, energy, environmental issues. … It’s incumbent on us to bend over backward to deal proactively with this.”

Since the new year began, the tally of crises includes the failure by Omnicom’s Ketchum to disclose the payment of $241,000 to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to tout the No Child Left Behind Act for the Department of Education (leading one lawmaker to ask for a federal investigation); a growing number of activist groups calling for Lynn Swann, chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, to be relieved of his post after the former football star accepted payment to appear at a PR event for a vending machine trade association; and the General Accountability Office calling the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s former use of video news releases “covert propaganda.” Also this month, Doug Dowie, head of the Los Angeles office of Omnicom’s Fleishman-Hillard, was fired along with two other former staffers in that city’s ongoing investigation of alleged overbilling by the agency on the L.A. Department of Water and Power account. Last Thursday, John Stodder became the first FH exec to be indicted in the scandal.

Both major industry groups—the Public Relations Society of America and the Council of PR Firms—have a general code of ethics. “As public relations professionals, we are disheartened by undisclosed ‘pay for play’ tactics,” Judith Phair, president and CEO of the PRSA, said in a statement. “PRSA strongly objects to any paid endorsement that is presented as objective news coverage and is not fully disclosed.”

VNRs and paid experts are the bread and butter of PR practitioners, and the former, at least, is “a viable, effective and ethical tactic, if used properly,” said Michael Cherenson, chair of the PRSA advocacy advisory board and vp of independent Cherenson Group in Livingston, N.J. “To discount VNRs is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I don’t stop reading newspapers because certain reporters have acted unethically.”

Still, many echoed Swerling’s call for the discipline to take a closer look at such tactics.

“As an industry, we need to be incredibly transparent … so everyone knows who’s a paid advocate on whose behalf,” noted Elliot Sloane, president and CEO of independent Sloane & Company in New York, whose agency left the Council of PR Firms last week after Council president Kathy Cripps failed to condemn Ketchum. “I’m not calling for more regulations. We as an industry should be able to figure this out.”

In a statement, the Council’s Cripps said, “We are sorry that Sloane & Company is leaving the Council. … It is of the utmost importance that we do everything possible to maintain and protect the integrity of the channels of communication. To that end, the industry must provide full disclosure to abide by clearly defined standards of practice.”