Over the last four months, Richard Edelman, the CEO, president and chair of the privately-owned PR firm Edelman, has been busy blogging away about how the public standing of the PR industry is in free-fall.
In a May 2nd post, he was incredulous that blogger David Weinberger - who has been a consultant to Edelman's firm - doesn't think that PR people have a role in the blogosphere, because they are, by their very nature, propagandists.
A few weeks back, Edelman blogged about spending a weekend smarting after CNN/US president Jon Klein referred to "sophisticated corporate PR departments, marketers and politicians" as "propagandists," during his speech to the National Association of Broadcasters.
While it might seem self-evident to most people that the PR industry is in the propaganda business, these incidents led an agitated Edelman to propose a five-point plan to rescue the PR industry’s tarnished credentials.
There is no evidence that the recent controversies over paid pundits like Armstrong Williams and covertly-aired video news releases have harmed the PR industry's bottom line. However, Edelman's angst is a clear indication of the industry's increasing credibility and image problems.
In his blog, Edelman cautioned that the industry's historical preference for invisibility must be abandoned, at least temporarily. He proposed that the industry focus its "energies on educating the multiple stakeholders who have a vital interest in fair play and making informed decisions." He also stressed the "need to build an accurate profile encompassing all of our work."
Sounds good, huh? After all, informing people about what the PR industry really does has been the raison d'etre of the Center for Media and Democracy since 1993. But investigative journalism is not what Edelman has in mind.
Instead, he proposes that the industry "talk about our success stories" and develop "a new set of heroes" - presumably to offset its growing number of public failures and villains.
Edelman also argues that the PR industry "must embrace transparency on funding sources and motives," no matter how "inconvenient it is to us or our clients." Setting aside the suspicion that transparency for a PR person amounts to very limited disclosure for a journalist, this commitment seems good at first glance, too.
However, a quick check of the Public Relations Society of America's (PRSA's) Code of Ethics reveals that members are already obliged to "reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented." Is Edelman suggesting that this provision is routinely flouted? Is he proposing something entirely different? Or is he just restating what PR practitioners are already supposed to be doing?
More ambitiously, Edelman wrote, "We must counter accusations about PR being propaganda." A big task, you might think, but Edelman's proposal is simply that the industry create a "PR 500, a list of opinion leaders who opt to receive weekly updates on the work we are undertaking." Edelman's suggested list of "opinion leaders," it should be noted, includes Jon Klein.
For all the Edelman firm's hype about its understanding how blogging is transforming public debates, Edelman's focus on 500 "gatekeepers" reveals how he really doesn't get it.
His "PR 500" smacks of the elitist approach that underpins so much of the PR industry’s thinking: select key "influentials," schmooze them, and hope they'll be reassured (or co-opted) sufficiently to allow the PR industry to return to business as usual, but in the shadows.
More significantly, Edelman says the industry needs "an enforcement mechanism for sanctioning misbehavior," because without one "we will gradually find our license to operate withdrawn."
That's a proposal of the "let's regulate ourselves before we're subjected to real regulations" variety that characterises so much of the advice PR firms give their clients. It also assumes that PR industry watchers have forgotten the fraught history of ethics policing by PR trade associations.
Back in October 2000, following extensive consultations within the industry, PRSA adopted a revised version of its Code of Ethics. "Emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated," they boasted.
Abandoning any pretence of self-regulation, PRSA admitted that their Board of Directors would only consider expelling a member if they had already been "sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this code." In effect, PRSA outsourced any investigation, prosecution or determination of ethical breaches to public agencies with very limited jurisdiction over the PR industry.
Why adopt such a timid approach? Back in October 1999, O'Dwyer's PR Services noted a 12-page report by Seattle-based PR counselor Bob Frause, who was then chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. "Pure and simple, our entire committee is frustrated, powerless and unable to do justice to the spirit of the PRSA code. ... The once dominant belief that the PRSA's ethics code had meaning and was strictly enforced is now defunct," the report stated. (The problems with self-regulation of any industry are too numerous - and obvious - to go into here.)
Finally, Edelman grandly announces that his company will release "our own ethics commitment by mid-summer." Why bother going to the trouble, if you thought there was any chance that the industry would do a decent job of policing itself? Maybe Edelman just doesn't have much faith in the ability of various PR industry bodies to come up with an appropriate code. Nor is there any basis for thinking that an in-house Edelman code will be much more than repackaging "business as usual."
Take video news releases (VNRs), for instance. In an April blog entry, Edelman confirms that his company makes them for clients, with disclosure of the VNR funder confined to a cover letter sent to news producers. Apparently Edelman's company takes the view that if fake news is aired without disclosure, thus deceiving viewers, then any ethical problem lies with news producers.
Edelman also objects to the suggestion that the U.S. Congress or Federal Communications Commission should require on-screen disclosure for VNRs. He prefers an easy compromise: on-screen disclosure for government-funded fake news, with no such requirement for the much larger and more lucrative corporate market in fake news.
PR firms' drive to shield corporate-funded fake news from disclosure requirements is understandable as naked self-interest. However, it is notable that Edelman makes no attempt to justify such a position on ethical grounds.
In reality, Edelman's five-point-plan amounts to puffery. He proposes little more than attempting to woo those viewed as influential, dressing old obligations up as new, and reinstating an ethics process the industry previously abandoned as unworkable.
Even though PRSA's original code of ethics was a failure, he hopes that we will all be reassured by an in-house Edelman code. On top of that, he advocates doing nothing to ensure that the fake news products his firm produces for corporate clients are not used to deceive viewers into thinking that what they saw or heard was real journalism.
And Richard wonders why PR is seen as synonym for propaganda?