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