Pot Calls Kettle Black, Celebrates Own Hypocrisy

I’m sure most communications professionals have read (or at least heard about) CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen’s anti-PR diatribe in reference to former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s tell-all book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. Here are just a few gems in his rant:

“The reason companies or governments hire oodles of PR people is because PR people are trained to be slickly untruthful or half-truthful.”

“During the time it took me to write this essay I’ll bet dozens of PR people blatantly lied to their audiences, despite the presence of proclamations declaring that they should not.”


“Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.”

It’s worth noting that Cohen’s essay centers around the Public Relations Society of America’s statement that they “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interest of those we represent…”–all in reference to McClellan’s controversial admissions about the inner workings of politics, much of which appear to be driven by lies and deceit. Did McClellan, in Cohen’s words, violate the “’ethics’ of his craft?”

The answer could go either way depending on your moral and/or political leanings, and it certainly raises a good point: Without the formal ethical guidelines comparable to, say, the legal or medical professions, it’s hard to pass definitive judgment. True, the public relations industry, with the help of organizations like PRSA, is moving in the direction of standards/codes of conduct but, barring any mandatory educational requirements in the future (can you imagine having to go to “PR” school for three years?), there is no real way to define 100% right from 100% wrong. Communications and reputation management all plays out in the shades of gray, so to that point, I can at least roll my eyes sarcastically (but not offended-ly–after all, I’m only a writer) at Cohen’s commentary.

But, speaking of me as a writer/”journalist:” Where I went to school, it was all about ethics. I had to take “Law and Ethics of Journalism” to graduate, and any factual error in an article or homework assignment would result in a Medill F that couldn’t be erased from your G.P.A. Yet, with the boom in citizen journalists and bloggers who operate freely in the anarchy of cyberspace, my <ahem> profession is criticized as harshly as that which I write about every day.

So, here’s where it all comes together for me: Journalists are hacks and, according to Cohen at least, PR people are flacks. What, then, does that make lawyers? (Mr. Cohen graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism in 1988, and a J.D. in 1991.) Yes, they do have the most stringent codes of conduct (although it can’t be easy for doctors, either, what with all the malpractice insurance), but are their day-to-day activities all that different from PR professionals and journalists? It’s all about convincing audiences of something–oftentimes something they don’t want to believe.

Anyway, just a thought in lieu of Cohen’s high-and-mighty rant. And I don’t have anything against lawyers–I used to want to be one. When I told my dad so, I think it broke his heart. Not that he should talk; he’s a real estate agent.

By Courtney Barnes

  • Wes Pedersen

    Ethics? Are there really people in PR who are unethical? Well, yes. Look at the number who have faced charges of various sorts over the past decade. For me, the high-water mark came a few decades ago when the head of a prominent DC agency announced, “It’s okay to lie.” That was my cue to exit. As for PRSA, it’s a toothless dragon when it comes to ethics enforcement.

  • http://www.lifeisauthentic.com Kevin Williams

    Here is the problem with ethics in any industry. The gray area. We have standards and for the sake of profitability, name recognition, pay scale and a myriad of other symptoms of self indulgence, we always have a tendency to bend the ear of truth to convince the public of the validity of our argument.

    If you want true change in PR and marketing, make violating an ethical standard an offense just like in college. Make it really cost someone something in their career. Make it stay on their record.

    The issue is not ethics as a stand-alone argument. It’s the people behind the “ethics” that cause the problem. There is no centralizing standard and thus the gray areas. Make them accountable and you will begin to see a lot of change. But then again, what ethical standard are the people enforcing the ethical standard governed by? That’s the real issue.

  • http://NA Dianne Haynes

    Ethics? When I went to school I took Ethics and read the code of journalism on the back of the station door I worked as a co-op student. I was told to go back to school, a specific school if I wanted to be in public relations as if this person knew it all. I have to admit ego plays a large portion in keeping a job, but for some it must be more of who they know. Possibly some people have been in the field a longer time and just think it is the way it is… well, I thought to myself, my former/deceased husband moved, had no pr degree, and was not from the “right” university, and went on to the top in his field. Ethics, well along the way there are choices, and if you do not take the right ones you are out. Marketing is integrated today and public relations is just one part of the entire game. I am fortunate to have realized I do not have to compromise my own ethics, however, I do not have a job…I know why…

  • http://www.capitalscg.com Vic Bolton

    It’s really rather silly to engage in this back-and-forth with Cohen and others about “ethics.” At its core, the concept of ethics is about values and principles that must be internal to the practitioner and effectively self-policed. Either one chooses to live up to whatever the standard may be, or he opts to dwell in the gray area, but no organization that purports to “regulate” its profession is any less “toothless” than PRSA. Every profession has its standards body and Code of Ethics, yet stories about serious violations lead the news all over America every single day. Is the PR professional advocating on behalf of his client any less ethical than, say, the oncologist who still has not told my mother-in-law that the cancer he’s treating her for is inoperable and likely terminal, largely due to some gobbledygook about the “psychology” of the patient? Does she have the right to know what she’s facing? How about the attorney representing the client who has done some heinous thing who says “Tell me the real truth so we can figure out how to get you off – don’t worry, I can’t tell anybody.” Is it ethical to keep that secret and expose the rest of us to the murderer or the rapist because you outsmarted the opposing counsel or seated a favorable jury? The Code of Ethics of that profession REQUIRES that the lawyer serve as his client’s personal “spin doctor,” no matter what the societal fallout. Or what about the high school coach who allows a kid to try out for a team (s)he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of making? Is it “ethical” to encourage that kid, only to devastate him weeks later when the roster comes out and he’s been cut? Would he be better served by being tactfully told the truth at the onset – that he has no shot – versus being strung along and exposed to ridicule and trauma along the way? My point is not to knock any of the above professions, but just to point out that every craft has gray areas or uncharted waters in it, places where some folks will make one judgment and others will go another route, but where a case could be made for either. And let’s not even go there when it comes to what some “journalists” will do to get a scoop, snag a photo or research a story! At the end of the day, life is a bunch of gray, and PR people are no better and no worse than the practitioners of any other craft. In my view, the PR professional is ethical when he does everything in his power (within the bounds of the law) to deliver results for his client. The rest is just idle chit-chat…

  • John McGrath

    The real isue that Cohn raised is his right, and the right of his publisher, CBS, to call anybody who is not him a name, like a liar. Cohn called a class of people liars. Name calling based on race, gender, religion, occupation, demeans all of us. So you juice the Sunday Morning buzz for a few days, but in the long run, Cohn devalued the franchise. The equity of Charles Osgood’s Sunday Morning is less today than it was before Cohn called a bunch of people names, and then ran home to cash his check.

  • http://NA Dianne Haynes

    Thanks Vic,

    Wonderfully put, some idle “chit-chat” can change the world…this year is an election year, let’s hope the next four make a difference for everyone.