Guest Blog: Richard Edelman Responds to ‘Deadly Spin’

Edelman president and CEO Richard Edelman took to the firm’s blog with his reaction to Wendell Potter’s new book Deadly Spin. After the jump, read Edelman’s post about the book in its entirety. A sneak preview: “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.”

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Deadly Spin

I spent this weekend reading Deadly Spin, former PR man Wendell Potter’s tale of his conversion from corporate “spin-meister” to health care reform advocate. Potter’s story moves along two tracks, a personal awakening to the evils of managed care interspersed with salvos against the PR business. I will concentrate on his critique of PR, leaving the health care issues to those more expert in the field.

Potter’s central thesis is that “Good PR is about control…PR people are good at manipulating the news media because they understand them…PR people cultivate reporters, ostensibly for friendship or mutual benefit, but more realistically for manipulation…With years of practice, I learned how to respond with a pithy remark if I wanted to be quoted and how to baffle them with bullshit if I didn’t…Be obscure clearly…I became a master at doing just that.”

Potter acknowledges that “PR has been used to good ends. Even the noblest of causes can benefit from the services of a communications expert to clarify facts….and there are plenty of ethical PR people out there to do this.” He quickly takes back even this modest acknowledgement with his other hand, “With PR so intricately woven into every major industry and 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…”

Most outrageous is Potter’s conflation of propaganda and modern public relations. He goes back to one of the giants of the profession, Edward Bernays, whose book Propaganda, written in 1928, ostensibly wound up on the bookshelf of Third Reich minister Joseph Goebbels. Potter then goes on to suggest that Hitler’s Mein Kampf discusses manipulation of public opinion “in terms that could be used by one of today’s PR counselors.” He quotes the Fuhrer as saying, “All effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans.” He even quotes the Institute for Propaganda Analysis report from the late 30s uncovering effects of domestic manipulative practices of advertisers and businesses, using “propaganda/PR ploys” such as “Fear, Glittering Generalities, Testimonials, Name-Calling, Plain Folks, Euphemisms, Bandwagon and Transfer by Respected Individuals.”

He concludes his book with a bizarre “What If?” He suggests that “without basic knowledge of PR tactics and the ability to distinguish between fact and distortion, Americans—and that includes journalists—are at the mercy of spin doctors and PR practitioners whose loyalty to their clients outweighs the public’s right to the truth….We need the Woodward and Bernsteins of coming generations to ensure that Americans have access to truth and that a health balance between news and spin is in place. Otherwise our news will be coming, whether we know it or not, from companies with names like the Hawthorn Group, Edelman, Porter Novelli and APCO. If so, our way of life will truly be threatened.”

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.