ADVICE: When You Always Tell the Truth, You Never Have to Remember What You Said

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If you were to ask 100 people on the street what professional group is the least honest, our guess is that the following would be the top three results (in no particular order):

1. Politicians
2. Lawyers
3. PR People

Of course, it’s also true that while everyone says they hate Paris Hilton, she’s still in every magazine on the newsstand every week. And most people still vote for politicians, hire lawyers, and so on.

So Media Orchard generally figures our occupation’s less-than-sterling rep is something we needn’t worry about too much.

But then news of the latest PR ethics stink wafts through the transom, forcing us to flee our tiny office — and to at least say something.

The bad news came in threes last week:

1. The AP reported that HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy paid a writer $11,000 through a PR firm to write sympathetic articles that were published in The Birmingham Times.

2. Catherine Seipp wrote in National Review that a PR person once offered her money to write an article bashing a left-wing organization.

3. And Jim Sinkinson, publisher of Bulldog Reporter, opined that dishonesty has become a “trademark skill” for the public relations profession.

Wrote Jim:

A young summer intern in Bulldog Reporter’s offices recently commented that public relations sounds like a fascinating profession — one she’d like to consider entering, she continued, “except that you have to be able to lie — and I wouldn’t want to do that.”

When PR spokespeople — President Bush’s press secretary, for example — aren’t being exposed for outright prevarication, they’re being unmasked as inveterate deceivers. Only weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal’s lead story blew the cover on PR-paid writers for pharmaceutical companies who ghost write articles for physicians. The good doctors in turn place the less-than-objective articles in prestigious medical journals, never crediting (i.e., hiding) the true author and sponsor…

If the truth really sets us free, if the truth makes the most powerful story, then why does PR’s reputation for dishonesty prevail? Or, more directly, why do so many PR people so often use lies and deception as the foundation for their communications strategies?

We don’t know, Jim — but would you mind handing us that ball of twine beside you so we can hang ourselves?

OK, let’s take a step back here. Why don’t we examine the three bad-rep professions one at a time, and try to understand why each is so often associated with dishonesty.

POLITICIANS

This one’s easy: If they didn’t lie we would never elect them, because (1) we expect them to be perfect and they’re not, and (2) we expect them to tell us everything we want to hear, so they do. Next –

LAWYERS

We have something in the United States called an adversarial legal system. This means that even guilty people get a defense, which means lawyers often know they’re defending guilty people — which means, in essence, they’re lying and this lying is an inherent part of our legal system. Next —

PR PEOPLE

We’ve been straining our brains on this one, but we really can’t come up with a good excuse for PR people. So after much thought and consideration, we’ve concluded that maybe a lot of PR people are just big fat liars.

And we think maybe something needs to be done about it.

Richard Edelman thinks so, too:

We cannot be seen to be corruptors of the media … [W]e have to go further to prevent future misbehavior. I am calling for the key associations in the PR business around the world to consider licensing PR firms in their countries to do business. We have, for example, the APR accreditation process from the PR Society of America. That effort to assure professional standards of practice is fine as far as it goes.

But we need to go further, to have CEOs of PR firms sign onto a code of proper behavior, that forbids payments to reporters, that mandates transparency on arrangements with third party experts and that bars a media company from having a licensed PR firm in the family. These standards must be enforceable, with the group given power to expel transgressors, then to demand a public apology and remanding of questionable earnings to the aggrieved client.

I will attend the February 5 board meeting of PRSA and make this proposal. Can others who are similarly outraged and frustrated please help me with the wording of such a resolution, so that we have the means to protect our precious profession.

We’re with you all the way, Richard. Thank you.

Update: Paul Holmes chimes in on the same point.

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[This post is a Media Orchard Classic.]

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About the author

Scott Baradell
Scott, president of Idea Grove, oversees one of the fastest-growing and most forward-looking public relations and inbound marketing agencies in the southwestern United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers; and its clients range from venture-backed startups to Fortune 200 companies. Scott launched Idea Grove in 2005 along with his groundbreaking blog, Media Orchard. He has been a consistent innovator in the public relations and marketing space. Scott was among the first to understand the role of blogging in audience building. He was quick to recognize the vital importance of content quality and the power of social sharing. Most significantly, he developed a system that integrates public relations, content creation, social and search marketing, and conversion rate optimization into a program that produces hard-dollar results for clients.

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One thought on “ADVICE: When You Always Tell the Truth, You Never Have to Remember What You Said

  1. Sherrilynne Starkie

    I actually believe that it’s the political PRs that are giving us all a bad name. I support the code of ethics plan; we have that here in the UK with the CIPR. Problem is that all the 3rd rate marketers and sales guys that declare themselves to be ‘in PR’ will never respect any code. So nothing changes.

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