In the United States, the publication of Scott McClellan’s time in the Bush administration—he was White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006—has triggered considerable discussion, not only among the political classes but also within the public relations industry.
McClellan claimed in his new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, that the Bush administration relied on an aggressive “political propaganda campaign” aimed at “manipulating sources of opinion” to persuade the American people of the case for invading Iraq; that the American media served as “complicit enablers” of that propaganda; and that five senior officials—including vice president Dick Cheney and then-White House chief of staff Karl Rove—deceived him into passing along “false information” regarding the administration’s role in leaking the identity of CIA agency Valerie Plame.
Those claims prompted a reaction from the Public Relations Society of America, 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 PRSA code, while notoriously toothless, calls for professionals to investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of the officials or management represented; provide professional counsel on the inherent ethical requirements of the public trust; confront officials or management if there is a suggestion of potential ethical violation; and evaluate employment status if, despite their efforts, they are placed in a coercive position to lie, mislead or obfuscate.
That statement prompted a vituperative response from CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen. Cohen was bemused by the fact that: “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,” and suggested that the PRSA code against dishonesty “strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal.’” He proceeded to lay down a challenge: “Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I'll show you a PR person who is unemployed. The reason companies or governments hire oodles of PR people is because PR people are trained to be slickly untruthful or half-truthful. Misinformation and disinformation are the coin of the realm, and it has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican.
“You can't try to convince someone that a milk cow is really a racehorse without lying. You can't build a profession based a deceit and spin, then create ‘ethics’ rules that call for honesty, and then criticize McClellan.”
A cynic might respond to Cohen’s criticism in any number of ways. He might, for example, point out that while McClellan did his job in the run up to the war and the early years of the Iraqi occupation, the journalistic community of which Cohen is a part abjectly failed in its responsibility, declining to subject the administration’s claims to even the slightest skeptical scrutiny. Or he might point out that Cohen is a representative of two professions—the journalistic and the legal—with a worse reputation for honesty and integrity than the one he is criticizing.
(And that’s not to mention the obvious absurdity of public relations people sitting around worrying about what journalists think of them. I know enough reporters to know that they don’t give a damn whether PR people like or respect them.)
Having said all that, there is one reason that the points raised by Cohen are worth a brief discussion, and that’s because his profound ignorance of public relations is widely shared, not only by others in the media, but also by large sections of the general public and even by some clients.
“Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I'll show you a PR person who is unemployed,” Cohen says.
To which I respond: Show me a public relations person who is inaccurate and untruthful and I’ll show you a PR person who is incompetent.
The purpose of public relations is, as the words themselves indicate, to build a relationship between the institution and members of the public. That relationship—like any good relationship—must be built on mutual respect, which means that it must be built on trust, credibility, and authenticity.
The underlying belief is that good relationships provide benefits to both parties. Companies invest in good public relationships because they believe an atmosphere of mutual trust will make it easier for them to achieve their objectives: to introduce new products, to attract investment, to avoid costly regulation, to build new factories, to forge business partnerships.
Some companies attempt an approach that achieves those objectives without concern for relationships, that relies on deceit, manipulation, or half-truth. That is not called public relations. It is the opposite of public relations. It’s called spin. The public relations approach, which clearly requires a greater investment of time, energy and resources, is superior to spin for one simple reason: it’s sustainable.
We are living in an Age of Transparency, an age in which businesses and other institutions are subject to more intense scrutiny than at any time in history.
Mainstream media cover every aspect of an organization’s behavior, from where it sources its products (and how much of the environment it despoils in the process) to how it manages its supply chain (and how many adorable children in the developing world are exploited by its suppliers) to how it markets its products (and whether the claims it makes are honest). The media are abetted in this mission by a proliferation of non-governmental organizations focused on a bewildering array of issues, from the environment to human rights to racial and gender equality.
And digital and social media—the focus of this issue of The Holmes Report’s PR World—add yet another level of scrutiny. Suddenly ordinary employees, consumers, and other citizens have the ability to share their experience and insights and opinions not only with a few close friends but with the entire world.
In such an environment, the only sensible basis on which to conduct business is on the assumption that everything a company does, everything it says, even everything it thinks will one day find its way on to the front page of The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times.
In such an environment, any corporate dishonesty will ultimately be exposed. The long-term cost in terms of the damage done to relationships on which the organization depends for its success will far outweigh the any short-term gain from “successful” manipulation of opinion. Similarly, any attempt to achieve corporate objectives by manipulation is likely to attract opprobrium, to provoke resentment and ultimately to erode public relationships.
The public relations industry’s credibility problem is not the result of actual dishonesty. I don’t believe that in more than 25 years as a journalist, dealing with public relations people on a daily basis, I have ever been told an out-and-out lie.
The public relations industry’s credibility problem is the result of intellectual dishonesty; a consequence of the belief that any statement, any contention, any debating point that is not a lie is therefore an acceptable part of the public discourse.
To a certain extent, this attitude is an inevitable result of a code of conduct that forbids lying. If lying is prohibited, then anything that is not a lie is, almost by definition, permitted. Professional codes of conduct, like government regulations, encourage precisely that kind of compliance mindset, diverting attention from less obvious but equally egregious breaches of the social contract between institutions and the public.
But the media must also take part of the blame. In America, at least, the media have abandoned any attempt to evaluate competing claims, to help the public adjudicate their truthfulness, preferring to lean on the crutch of “balance,” which allows them to pretend that presenting both sides of an argument—and giving each side equal weight—fulfills their obligation to objectivity.
It’s an approach that encourages spin, because the intellectual honesty of any argument is unlikely to be challenged, perhaps because the reporters and editors involved are too lazy to check the facts, or perhaps because they are frightened that they will be accused of bias. So in any argument—whether it’s between parents who see a link between vaccines and autism and medical experts who have found none, or between environmental scientists and climate-change deniers—the existence of doubt is taken as evidence that each side’s evidence is equally worthy of attention and respect.
Naturally, this feeds public cynicism. But because everybody does it—activist groups distort scientific evidence to suggest that chemicals in shower curtains could cause cancer; corporate interests produce bogus impact studies to exaggerate the impact of new regulations—there is no real incentive for anyone to unilaterally abandon the practice.
But I suspect that this is another arena in which the emergence of digital and social media is likely to change the practice of public relations—and for the better. For while the mainstream media are largely unwilling to call “bullshit” on the claims of either NGOs or corporations, the new media will have no such qualms. Bloggers and other citizen journalists have both the ability (enabled by the vast array of authoritative and credible information available on the Internet) and the inclination to evaluate claims and highlight intellectual dishonesty wherever they may find it.
As they do, public relations professionals who value their reputations for integrity and honesty—which should be all of them—will be forced to accept a higher standard of honesty than mere factual accuracy if they want to forge stakeholder relationships built on trust and respect. The best of them, of course, adhere to those higher standards already, and have managed to convince their CEOs and their senior management teams that they are the only standards that make sense in the Age of Transparency.
And far from being out of a job, many of those individuals occupy a position of great responsibility, advising their companies not only on communication but also on the policies on which that communication is based.