Diana Marszalek 05 Aug 2018 // 12:30PM GMT
With the PRSA’s annual conference approaching, a long-brewing conflict starting with a leader’s political tweet — and exacerbated by clashing politics and personality — is coming to a head, led by critics who charge the organization has repeatedly breached its duty to be non-partisan.
Susan Hart and Mary Beth West, two longtime (and long active) Tennessee-based members, are lobbying colleagues to endorse a slew of bylaw amendments around topics including ethics and accountability, organizational advocacy and non-partisanship, as well as limiting overreach by leaders.
The proposed changes still have to work their way through parliamentary process and are ultimately subject to the approval of the PRSA’s delegate assembly, which will be meeting October 6 in Austin before the group’s international conference starts the following day.
“We are trying to be professional and move forward,” said Syracuse University public relations professor Anthony D’Angelo, who currently serves as the PRSA’s national chair. As for Hart and West’s proposed changes, “I am all onboard with making sure those have a chance to be heard,” he said.
If only it were that simple.
Instead, the progression of the bylaw proposals (to say nothing of whether they pass) is just the latest step in a nearly two-year clash between West/Hart and PRSA leaders, sparked by an anti-Trump tweet by D’Angelo’s predecessor, Jane Dvorak, during a 2016 presidential debate — before she moved into the chair’s seat. "It was the first time the PRSA spoke on the topic of politics in memory,” said West, who, like Hart, ran an eponymous agency in Knoxville and Nashville, respectively.
West and Hart, who at that time were acting independently of each other, saw that tweet, as well as subsequent ones, as breaches of the PRSA’s non-partisanship. Never mind that Dvorak tweeted from her personal account; Dvorak identifying herself as the PRSA chair made that a moot point, they said. “If you want to opine about your political ideology that’s fine. But don’t put PRSA on it because that you are can infer that you are representing 21,000 members,” West said.
So by the time Dvorak assumed the chair role the following January in time to criticize Trump aide Kellyann Conway’s assertion that “alternative facts" are a thing, Hart and West were ready to ratchet things up, and started looking for answers and remedies to what they see as repeated infractions while also digging deeper into the PRSA’s goings-on.
As a result, West and Hart found alleged infractions to add to their list of grievances. They flagged, for instance, Dvorak sitting on the organization’s advocacy board while also serving as chair.
They also criticized the PRSA's connection to an Annenberg survey that showed the PR industry wanting to distance itself from the White House communications team. “The methodology was very sloppy,” West said.
The PRSA, however, said their only involvement in this particular survey (part of the Global Communications Report that includes the Holmes Report as a key partner) was tweeting out a link to the survey with neither comment nor commendation. "We regularly support research for institutions of higher education who are conducting surveys of interest to communications professionals through our community and social media," spokeswoman Laura Kane said.
The dispute also became increasingly personal, with West and Hart criticising the PRSA and, most notably, Dvorak (who is still a board member) publicly and personally during her tenure as chair was well as the months leading up to it.
"(Their relationship) was tense and frosty and, by 2017, it was incredibly rancorous," D'Angelo said. "Both (sides) feel personally hurt and victimized and both will never have another conversation, but there is nothing PRSA can do about that."
West, on the other hand, said the issues reflect deep-seated problems in the organization that are hard to get past. "We feel like there has been a culture in PRSA that has allowed leadership to evolve in this direction. We are trying to put a stop to that,” West said. “Part of the issue is that if you dare question, and there are concerns, that it becomes a highly politicized process.”
D’Angelo said the PRSA has listened and tried to work with West and Hart (whom he calls “skilled communicators and very intelligent people”) from the get-go. “PRSA as an organization has been engaged in a really strenuous effort over 18 months to listen to the concerns and criticisms of these two members and have answered them,” said D’Angelo, citing “innumerable” emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings with a range of leaders.
On top of that, D’Angelo agrees with some of West and Hart’s points — that the PRSA should have a grievance policy and tighten rules for revoking membership, for instance — and is working to advance them. The group is also evaluating its social media policy, so that leaders, like the chair, have professional accounts to use in their official capacity.
"I ask myself, what has merit that they have seized upon," he said, adding that he also tries to remain cognizant of "talking to all parties."
That, however, is apparently where many of the niceties end, as the PRSA and West/Hart appear to have reached a stalemate that offers, from the organization's perspective, little room for worthwhile negotiations, D'Angelo said.
“We found that anything less than complete agreement with these two members results in a combative relationship,” D'Angelo said. West and Hart, he claimed, have "interrogated" members of the government committee over some of their actions touching on the issues at hand. "Instead of dialogue we get a long list of questions with a deadline for answers," D'Angelo said.
"Once that happens you're not winning friends and influencing people," D'Angelo said, adding that West and Hart's right to lobby their case does not excuse their behavior.
“The idea of PRSA being committed to having conversations and debate has nothing to do whatsoever with the false and disparaging accusations and demeaning comments about other PRSA members and volunteers that those two have made. But those are entirely separate matters," D'Angelo said. “Their treatment of other PRSA members is, frankly, appalling to me."
In addition, the PRSA simply isn't buying into all their claims, particularly that the organization has breached its non-partisanship. "It would be, candidly, dumb to be partisan," D'Angelo said. "If we took a political stance we would alienate 16,000 people (including student members)."
Which is not to say PRSA doesn't play an advocacy role because it is, in fact, an advocacy organization for the industry.
And as such, the PRSA regularly puts out statements on relevant issues; D'Angelo, for instance, has been critical of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He also chastised the Los Angeles Times' Virginia Heffernan, who blasted the PR industry ("...lying to the media is traditionally called PR," she wrote) in the wake of former White House communications director Hope Hicks admitting to telling "white lies" for the president. "I sent her a note that said 'Lying to the media is called unethical'," he said.
D'Angelo said he puts many of the statements West and Hart are calling partisan, such as Dvorak's denunciation of "alternative facts," in the advocacy category. In fact, he said he's "slack-jawed" that any PR practitioner, regardless of politics, could view a case like that as anything but. "The board agreed (with denouncing) 'alternative facts'," he said."There's no such thing."
Yet West and Hart, who identify themselves as conservative, refute the notion that their personal politics has anything to do with their beefs.
Hart said she believes taking a stand on White House goings-on — down to what aides do or don't say — is tantamount to picking sides, and violates the PRSA's principles. "I don't think it's healthy for the organization," she said.
D'Angelo, however, said West and Hart's refusal to cede at least some of their points — opening up the opportunity for the two sides to find common ground — is impeding progress — so much so that there are, at this point, not too many places left to go. “It’s just not constructive,” he said.