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PRSA responds to CBS story challenging public relations

June 2, 2008

From the PRSA Media Room. The following letter was submitted yesterday in response to a commentary on "CBS Sunday Morning" by legal analyst Andrew Cohen in which he challenged the integrity of the public relations profession.

Dear Mr. Cohen,

Regarding your commentary on today’s "CBS Sunday Morning," the Board of Directors of the Public Relations Society of America finds it imperative to affirm the professionalism of public relations practitioners and to take exception with what we regard as a misguided opinion. The PRSA Member Code of Ethics, to which all members pledge, embodies a strict set of guidelines defining ethical and professional practice in public relations. Professionals who meet the Code’s standards stand in stark contrast to the simplistic, erroneous characterization of the profession you presented.
Contrary to baseless assertions, truth and accuracy are the bread and butter of the public relations profession. In a business where success hinges on critical relationships built over many years with clients, journalists and a Web 2.0-empowered public, one’s credibility is the singular badge of viability. All professionals, including attorneys, accountants and physicians, aspire to ethical standards, and public relations professionals are no different, always striving for the ideal.
For public relations professionals, engaging diverse and often skeptical audiences requires top-flight skills in communications, creativity and even persuasion, but a trust once lost cannot be regained. Unemployment, contrary to your opinion, is reserved for the professional who has lost his or her credibility.
Building upon a foundation of integrity, implementation of those professional skills can also yield some very positive and powerful outcomes. Spreading the word about available health services has gotten thousands of infants immunized. Uncovering facts about post-9/11 air quality has helped scores of New York children unravel the mystery of a high incidence of asthma. Creating programs that engage veterans has helped them make the personal and professional transition to civilian life.
Curiously, you also assert that lying is no big deal. To the public relations professional, that is far from the truth. To “try to convince people a turkey is really an eagle” would leave true professionals eating crow, if they could eat at all.
Very truly yours,
Jeffrey Julin, APR
Chair and CEO, PRSA



Dan Keeney, APR says:

While I appreciate the sentiment expressed, I can't help but feel that this organization's knee jerk defenisive response to criticism of the profession leaves something to be desired. Instead of a defenive response of, "You're wrong, we are good people," it might be more valuable to be OPEN to such critiques. The reason PRSA was created in the first place was because WE in the PROFESSION were worried about unprofessional practioners tainting our credibility. So instead of attacking the critic, maybe we should welcome the criticism as an opportunity to explain this organization's role in encouraging professionalism and opening dialogue. I'm constantly amazed that we as a profession fail to follow our own fundamental advice so often.

June 2, 2008

Deanna Harms says:

All too often we PR "pros" are like those in the movie "Iron Man"– routinely holding press conferences to disseminate misinformation and counseling our clients to "stick to message" when in fact we should be urging them to speak the truth, to say, "I am the Iron Man." We each need to look at our own practice of PR – and clean house if needed. Mr. Cohen's challenge can benefit our profession if it leads to greater scrutiny and accountability. We need both.

June 2, 2008

Pamela Maize Harris, PhD says:

Thank you for your response to Mr. Cohen's CBS appearance. I'm hoping that PRSA will request equal time on CBS to rebut and address Mr. Cohen's opinions. This would allow the dialog to continue and provide opportunity for us to share with CBS's audience a different view from Mr. Cohen's.

June 2, 2008

Stephen Koenigsberg says:

I appreciate the sentiments that say we should be open to such criticism and use it as a springboard to further establish credibility. But in the face of such extreme hooey, a very immediate response is called for.

June 2, 2008

Mark Stouse says:

I must say that I agree. The fact is that we, as a profession, have some work to do here. There are a lot of professionals who do align themselves very closely with truth and fact, and their careers have flourished as a result. These are the leaders of our profession today, be they known or unknown. But the opposite also is true, and there are many who are little more than lackeys who have made a Faustian pact to never delve too deeply into the facts behind the "party line" and who have found their "safety" in being as malleable as possible. That said, the real issue here is the often flawed behavior of human beings, be they lawyers, reporters, PR professionals, executives or politicians. If PRSA wants to get serious about this issue, they should do what other business professions have done, i.e. legal, accounting, etc. We should form a sanctioning body that can both license professionals and discipline those that breach the Standards of Conduct.

June 2, 2008

Brian Olson says:

This all reminds me of when, as a News Director for a CBS affiliate, we would attend the annual network affiliate meetings in conjunction with RTNDA. When we left, I could swear everyone in the room believed the every CBS News broadcast was #1 in every daypart. The spin was HEAVY. I also remember one CBS affiliate meeting just after CNN launched. CBS execs were laughing and making jokes about Ted' folly. CBS is welcome to take a shot, but they should remember we can shoot back. The 1st Amendment applies to all of us.

June 2, 2008

Kevin Gould says:

Mr Cohen's comments are so incredibly over the top that I can only surmise his intent was to create a firestorm of controversy in order to draw attention to himself. It seems to me that he used a very shallow and overused tabloid tactic to effectively insert himself into a very high profile news story. After all, if you want to draw attention to yourself, then who better to pick a fight with than PR professionals? And we fell for it. Then again, perhaps I am giving Mr. Cohen too much credit. Maybe the truth is that he is as shallow and unprofessional as his commentary indicates.

June 2, 2008

Ed Loomis says:

Strongly concur with Jeffrey Julin's response to the CBS piece. If Scott McClellan was a PRSA member in good standing, then going reactive and waiting for media calls for comment might be the right tactic, though I doubt it. Bogus information left unchallenged will be set in the national consciousness and its modern manifestation, its search engines. Fortunately, CBS Sunday Morning is a even-lower-rated program between Memorial and Labor Days, so the first awareness most Americans had of the topic was the PRSA response which communicated positively the society's values and Code of Ethics. I can't imagine any scenario where any PR practitioner benefits from being linked by a media commentator to the kind of conduct confessed to by McClellan.

June 2, 2008

Ira Yellen, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

"Show me a PR person who is "accurate" and "truthful," and I''ll show you a PR person who is unemployed." This quote from Mr. Cohen's commentary illustrates his ignorance of our profession. To indict over 100,000 who practice in this profession might as well be an indictment to all elected officials, all CEOS, all television commentators, and just about everyone on this planet. I invite Mr Cohen to my office to interview my staff, my clients, and the media we give information to. It is obvious he needs a lesson on ethics himself.

June 2, 2008

Russell Page says:

To Mr. Cohen I say: "Show me a TV journalist who isn't good at selling drama over truth, and I'll show you a TV journalist who is unemployed." Television news has no place to accuse another (especially CBS of all places) of telling half-truths. Anyone who has spent five minutes in the profession will learn that drama wins over truth when it comes to TV. Truth doesn't bring viewers like drama does and viewers translate to dollars. I'd like to see CBS get anything done if every PR person in the world suddenly stopped pitching CBS. No comments. No story pitches. Nothing. What a joke... wait... he knows what he's doing. He's creating drama... which is why he has a job. Russ Page

June 2, 2008

Blake Lewis, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Appreciating many of the comments on this, to date, I tend to most closely concur with Dan Keeney's thoughts. Without trying to conjure up all the times that an individual member of any given profession has committed a major error, I seem to recall a problem with a journalist who falsified sources for a major prize-winning submission. It’s safe to say that all journalists were not indicted for the inappropriateness of one, as should not be the public relations profession. However, perhaps we should extend this same approach to the field of legal analysts.

June 2, 2008

Steve Mehlman, APR says:

If you want to respond directly to CBS News, here's the email address: This will have more impact that just posting a comment. I'm appalled that CBS News allowed Andrew Cohen to smear thousands of honest, ethical public relations professionals and attack the profession's Code of Ethics. As an attorney himself, would Cohen ridicule legal ethics and declare that all lawyers are unethical? Would he dismiss the Hippocratic Oath because some doctors are guilty of malpractice? I doubt it. Cohen has every right to criticize Scott McClellan for his actions. But to turn that criticism into an inaccurate blanket condemnation of an entire profession is both unfair and...dare I say it...unethical. Steve Mehlman, APR

June 2, 2008

John Garvey says:

I am at a lost to discern any lessons learned or actions regretted as a result of Mr. Cohen attack on PRSA and the public relations profession. Indeed, I am at a loss as to how he made the jump from McClellan's book to his anti-PR rant. In his attack on the public relations field, Mr. Cohen commits the same sin that he condemns: being purposefully untruthful and inaccurate. For that reason, I am particularly appreciative of PRSA's effort to bring it to my attention so that I could weigh in with my thoughts. Rather than "knee jerk," I see it as a best practice!

June 2, 2008

Paula DePasquale says:

This is a good opportunity to re-educate our employees and our clients to the PRSA Code of Ethics which are the core of professional practice of public relations. I appreciate the organization's response to date and hope that in the days, weeks and months to come PRSA will very visibly and vigorously defend the profession in top media channels, educate external audiences to the critical role of ethics in professional practice, and continue to educate and emphasize adherence to the Code among PR practitioners. This is a time for best practices.

June 2, 2008

Ed Nicholson, APR says:

I believe Jeff's message is a good immediate response. Perhaps a next step would be to publicly and cordially invite Mr. Cohen to 33 Maiden Lane to meet some people who could, in a postitive manner, dispossess him of his notions.

June 2, 2008

Kay Pinkerton says:

In 2004, I was accepted into a graduate program for mass communication. My thesis chair was Dr. Thomas Christie, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and public affairs deputy chief. Inspired by Dr. Christie's words, "public relations saves lives," I launched a research project targeting the perceptions of university students who were citizens of Muslim nations. The work demanded every skill of the public relations professional, including persuading courageous albeit wary – sometimes even angry – student-participants to reveal their thoughts and opinions about the U.S. during a time of war. The research was challenging, fascinating and substantive. I completed the program a more well-honed and enlightened professional. With a global audience, social media and 24/7 news cycle, our profession is in a state of transformation. Yet the underlying goal remains the same – the development of strong, mutually beneficial relationships. Such a goal demands honesty and transparency in communication. We must continue to seek and implement methodologies designed to enhance dialogue in a swiftly shrinking, sometimes hostile world. Cohen's accusation stings. Yet, as my research revealed, hurtful comments often entail an element of truth and a need to address an underlying wound. Because, as we can all agree, words matter.

June 3, 2008

Dan Crouch says:

This controversy may boil down to a conflict between advocacy and objectivity. Many professionals advocate for clients, and some find themselves more concerned about their client's position than objectivity. Trial attorneys and politicians do this for a living. The problem is that some of us become so consumed with advocacy that we lose our sense of objectivity, truth, justice and ethics, as was the case with the consummate attorney/politician, Richard M. Nixon.

June 4, 2008

David M. Petrou, APR says:

Contrary to Mr. Cohen's crass and disparaging remarks, the "coin of the realm" of public relations professionals is honesty, openness and a solid foundation based on facts. The very relationships we build with the media; business and industry; government; non-profit organizations and associations not only defines what we do but reminds all audiences that one of our primary missions is to disseminate information, not develop "spin." One can only wonder what the Executive Vice President of Communications at CBS thinks of Mr. Cohen's charaterization of our industry.

June 4, 2008

Tim O'Brien says:

I agree with everything Mr. Julin wrote, but nothing in the message presents an alternative point of view to give Mr. Coehn pause. In other words, not only would Mr. Cohen have a sarcastic response to each point, but he pretty much addressed all of this in his reporting. That said, we are advocates, no different than attorneys, lobbyists and special interests. Quite simply, we do what we do, and if we don't adhere to the truth, we get called on it by none other than the press. Mr. Cohen could have criticized this profession on any number of legitimate points, but there's nothing legitimate about his baseless and deceptive claims against what in the end is an honorable profession.

June 4, 2008

Debra Bethard-Caplick, MS, MBA, APR says:

Ed Loomis' previous comment that "bogus information left unchallenged will be set in the national consciousness and its modern manifestation, its search engines." He is correct regarding the current state of the reputation of our profession, and we have only ourselves to blame. As evidence, all you have to do is watch as the presumptive Democratic nominee repeatedly blames all of Washington's ills on "spin and PR", despite relying heavily on public relations in his campaigning, and despite the fact that his wife is currently on leave from her position as the Vice President of Community and External Affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals – a public relations position. Or listen as reporters and the general public alike use "PR ploy" as a dismissive pejorative, or look at the prominence PRWeek, our trade news publication, gives to publicity stunts in each issue, calling them - incorrectly - "PR stunts." Where have the voices of PRSA members been in speaking up in defense of our profession? This trashing of our reputation has not happened overnight - it's been years in the making. It's now too late, and PR has been embedded in the concrete of the public mind as a synonym for lying. Just see the synonyms I found when took Ed up on his comment about search engines. The following synonyms appeared for public relations at PR, ballyhoo, blurb, bright light, celebrity, common knowledge, cry, currency, daylight, eclat, exposure, fame, famousness, glare, hoopla, hue and cry, limelight, maximum dissemination, notoriety, plug, press notice, public eye, public knowledge, public report, publicity, publicity story, publicness, puff, reclame, report, spotlight, write-up. Not all bad, but not that great, either. Our profession needs a public relations campaign to repair the damage of years of neglect. We need to insist on only qualified candidates when we fill PR positions, whether that be by accreditation, undergraduate degrees in public rela

June 4, 2008

Debra Bethard-Caplick, Pt. 2 says:

Sorry - I am apparently too verbose. This is the part that was cut off from my previous post: We need to insist on only qualified candidates when we fill PR positions, whether that be by accreditation, undergraduate degrees in public relations, or a certification course in public relations for those who come to the profession from journalism or other disciplines. We need to insist on educating business school students in the basics of public relations through the development of corporate reputation management courses for business schools at the graduate and undergraduate levels. We must educate our companies and co-workers on what public relations is and is not. And lastly, we need to stop fearing to step on journalistic toes when they toss the terms “PR ploy” and “public relations” around freely as their favorite pejorative. If we are not willing to spend the time and effort required to insist on respect for ourselves, it will not be handed to us. And by the way, I am one of those unemployed PR professionals looking for work, and it has nothing to do with telling the truth, and everything to do with finishing graduate school at the start of the current bad economic times.

June 6, 2008

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