I Want a Divorce!                                    
PR Isn't Code for "Press Releases" or "Spin Doctors"

The Bulldog Reporter

August 23, 2007
By W.T. McKibben, Senior Partner, Business Ethics Practice, The Great Lakes Group

I've had it. I'm fed up with the spin merchants and press release mills that fly the flag of public relations. I want them out of our tent. That flag should be reserved for "trusted advisors," as Joel Postman put it in his recent op-ed on the matter. These are ethical, honest communicators, expert in advising clients how their actions may be perceived in the eyes of the many "publics" in their universe and how their customers, employees, vendors and communities will look at the choices they make.

And yes, these are the same practitioners willing to advise clients on the best course when they screw up, or some unforeseeable issue befalls them. That, clearly, involves candor, humility and transparency. It's called "fess up, take your hit, promise to do everything in your power to see that nothing like it ever happens again, and move on."
Not to dredge up old news, but my disgust with those who fly the public relations flag over practices far from these standards hit an all-time high when I read a piece in the July issue of Harpers. I'm still chapped about it. That article, and an accompanying Bill Moyers show on PBS, outlined the outrageous proposals by "K" Street denizens to whitewash the reputation of one of the world's most disgusting dictators.

Writer Ken Silverstein contacted several "K" Street operatives posing as a straw-man front for the supreme ruler of a real member of the oppressed nations club. They lunged at the bait. Two of what he describes as the top firms met with Silverstein and assured him that they could work wonders on the image of this bad guy. He could have had a dozen more if he wished. If you want to get a picture of how the reputation of our discipline is heading south, the piece is on the Harpers online archive (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/07/0081591). It is guaranteed to make you sick.

"K" Street unfortunately is not the only place where smarmy types are playing havoc with the reputation of the great majority in our craft who labor honestly to build and protect the reputations of their "deserving clients," as master communicator Joe Phelps calls them. In every city there are a few with "public relations" on their shingle proudly calling themselves "spin doctors".

While I understand the naiveté of many business people who don't know any better, I am amazed that these tactics continue to work. We all know that while it may have its initial successes, the media gets really pissed when they discover they have been misled. As one of my clients once put it, "No matter how hard you rub it, you can't shine shit."
Then there are those who seem to think that PR stands for "press release." These "press release mills" flood the media with pointless releases, mostly badly written, too often by an unpaid intern, learning all the wrong things about our discipline. The media gets fed up with the hordes of useless releases piling into their email accounts and inboxes. In the end, it is the reputation of the good guys, the majority of those among us who shoot straight, that is damaged by these unsavory practices.

What to do? I don't know. I am reluctant to abandon the designation. If we give up "public relations" in favor of another name, the scum will be the first to adopt its use. No code or set of standards will eliminate these practices—after all, Enron had the most elegant code of ethics on the planet. I guess we have to just keep doing the right thing and keep trying to skim the scum off the top of the pond.

W.T. McKibben is senior partner, Business Ethics Practice, with The Great Lakes Group in Buffalo, New York. His book, "Play Nice, Make Money," was published this summer.

Copyright © 2007 by Infocom Group.