Awful PR for the Public Relations Society of America

High Road, Low Road signJack O'Dwyer, who publishes a newsletter that follows the public relations industry, reports that he and his staffers were blocked from entering an assembly of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). PRSA officials demanded O'Dwyer pay $3,825 in registration fees to enter and report on the conference, while journalists from similar organizations, like PR News and PR Newser, were let in free. Arthur Yann, PRSA's Vice President of Public Relations, said that O'Dwyer and his staffers had to pay because people from  O'Dwyer's newsletter "attended last year's conference but never wrote about it." But O'Dwyer did in fact write about the 2009 conference. O'Dwyer also reports other harassment while attempting to attend the conference, like getting an anonymous letter in which the writer threatened to beat him "to a pulp," and being set upon by a flash-mob while he was conducting an interview. O'Dwyer has criticized PRSA for withholding transcripts of their organizational assemblies over the last five years, concealing the names of their delegates and refusing to make available a PDF version of their members' directory. O'Dwyer has also exposed techniques now in wide use by big PR firms that violate PR ethics, like working through front groups and creating and disseminating fake news.


I'm sorry if your comment got lost somehow in the software screening. We will work to improve that. I hope you will submit your response again. Lisa

In response to the above comment titled "PRSA Responds" by Arthur Yann (above), Jack O'Dwyer submits the following:

My hat’s off to PR Watch for touching off this much-needed public discussion of PRSA practices.

Let’s take the most important parts of Mr. Yann’s letter first which deal with my claims that the Society keeps vital information from members, lacks democracy, and disregards basic Robert’s Rules while citing Robert’s as its parliamentary authority.

If the Society is so democratic, why was there a “Committee for a Democratic PRSA” last year that obtained 305 signatures on a petition and got 150 others who declined to reveal their names.

Heading the Committee were Richard Edelman, head of the world’s largest PR firm, and Art Stevens, former president of the New York chapter and holder of the Society’s coveted “Patrick Jackson Award” for outstanding service to the Society.

Basic democratic principles are that the electorate knows who their representatives are, what they say, and how they vote. This is not true at the Society where there is no published list of the nearly 300 Assembly delegates when there used to be.

Delegates are not even required to put their names on this list which is available only to other delegates and then only several weeks before the Assembly. Members may know their own chapter delegates but they also have to know all the delegates in case they want to express an opinion to them.

Members Need Voting Records

Members have a right to know how their delegates vote but the last time that happened was in 2004 when there was a roll call vote.

The Society says all members can go to the Assembly but it refuses to audiocast the Assembly which would be cheap and easy.

A transcript of the Assembly, in effect a “slow-motion replay of the Assembly,” had been available every year until 2005. It allowed reporters, PR professors, students of PR, members and others to carefully study what was said. It only cost about $1,000 to prepare. Refusing to supply this is a massive loss of information to the members.

Members, including PR professors, have asked for a PDF of the members’ directory which is useful both for them and students. A PDF would be cheap and easy to do. The Society, whose members bombard reporters with releases by every known means, wants to protect its members from being bombarded with sales pitches. In other words, members can dish it out but can’t take it. This is an absurd line of reasoning.

The Society is ignoring two instances of physical threats to me including one that was witnessed by a group of delegates including a national director, as an e-mail from Yann to me pointed out. There is no disputing that I was threatened with bodily harm. A director and probably Yann himself knows who this person is. So far the Society is refusing to investigate this but instead hurls one charge after another against me.

As for O’Dwyer reporters allegedly not covering some of the 2009 conference, we wrote a lengthy article about the discussion between Arianna Huffington and Wendell Potter.

No PRSA Rules Were Broken at Assembly

I did not break any of the rules for us at the 2010 Assembly since I was warned that doing that would result in O’Dwyer reporters being forever banned from the Assembly. I did not conduct an interview during the Assembly but interviewed Art Stevens during an afternoon break. I tried to get into the Assembly lunch, which I have attended at least 35 times, but was blocked by Yann. I needed to interview delegates about the defeat of the proposal to let non-APRs run for office.

This was not a wrongdoing of mine but of the Society. It blocked a reporter in performance of his duties.

I did not know I couldn’t take pictures of the Assembly meeting room even before the Assembly began and took a couple. I stopped when warned by Yann. My tape recorder went off by accident in play mode at the Assembly. I was not recording anything.

As for the charge that I am permanently mad at the Society, it is true that I won’t give up trying to get paid for the more than 50,000 copies of O’Dwyer articles that it sold without my permission. As I have said, it took the victims of the Nazis decades to collect from World War II atrocities. The Swiss did not start repaying the victims until the 1990s. The victims never gave up and neither will I.

The German Council of PR Firms says there is no statute of limitations on wrongdoing. The Society still owes me and many other authors compensation for the massive theft of our intellectual property.

Ms. Landman's list of complaints about PRSA are quite familiar; Mr. O'Dwyer has been making these charges on his own website for weeks, some of the points he's made for decades, and what benefit there is for her to repeat them word for word, I do not know, but it's a free country with a First Amendment. So if it feels good . . . . lay it all out there. Several of the issues she raises concern PRSA membership information; since she is not a member I'm not sure what her standing is, but again, have at it.

I do, however, as a long-time member and leader of PRSA, want to point out that her commentary may cause some confusion, which should be clarified. Most of her post is about charges O'Dwyer is making about PRSA and/or PRSA members. Then suddenly at the end of her commentary, she switches the target of her accusations, and notes that O'Dwyer has accused PR firms of unethical tactics such as front groups and fake news. Someone doing a quick read might think she is accusing PRSA of such tactics. I'd like readers to be crystal clear that neither she nor O'Dwyer accuse PRSA of front groups or fake news.

And I'd also quibble with her allegation that unethical tactics are in WIDE USE by big PR firms. Unless she has access to some facts (data, studies, etc.) that support this allegation to convince me otherwise, based on my own personal experience as a former "big agency" person for a number of years, I'd suggest that these ethical violations are the exception rather than the rule. If you're going to accuse companies of unethical behavior on a wide scale, it's nice to provide a source to back up that claim. That's what I learned in J-school way back when.

My post was a summary of an article by Mr. O'Dwyer, which may explain why it sounded like his complaints. Follow up comments were from Mr. O'Dwyer himself.
Anne Landman

I can't speak to much of Jack O'Dwyer's history with PRSA, but I can speak to the events that transpired at the 2010 International Conference.

I organized the flash mob that "set upon" Mr. O'Dwyer during the Assembly.

The flash mob was a combination of an experiment with social media and a prank. As an academic, I've long been fascinated by the power of social media to enable groups of people to communicate and organize. That's why I organized a similar flash mob at the 2009 International Conference:

The flash mob organized at the 2010 PRSA conference was intended to be a similar experiment; to add an element of entertainment I thought it might be fun to involve Mr. O'Dwyer as he's a readily-identifiable feature of PRSA conferences and I'm amused by the hyperbolic claims he makes against the organization.

Mr. O'Dwyer has made the accusation that the flash mob was deliberately conducted to disrupt his interview with Art Stevens regarding his criticism of PRSA. That, however, was simply a coincidence. I wouldn't know Art Stevens from Cat Stevens.

The event was timed at 2:45 pm as the assembly was going on break - there's no way I could have known where Mr. O'Dwyer would be at 2:45 pm (all of which is recorded) so the accusation that it was timed to disrupt his interview holds no water:

Video of the flash mob is available on Youtube, and everyone is free to make their own determination about its intentions and impact (it lasted a grand total of :36 seconds after which Mr. O'Dwyer resumed his interview with Mr. Stevens):

What ACTUALLY happened was the following:

1. Despite the preponderance of evidence in existence (the flash mob was organized in full view of the public via Twitter using hashtags associated with the conference) Mr. O'Dwyer misinterpreted the flash mob as a sign of dissent against the PRSA leadership and (rather than doing his homework) blogged about this (even though the discussion about the flash mob and the actual final video were readily available and tweeted about prior to publishing his story):

2. I responded to Mr. O'Dwyer's mistaken interpretation and corrected the record:

3. Rather than taking me at my word and concede the misinterpretation, Mr. O'Dwyer concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory that I had somehow been silenced by the leadership of PRSA for my dissent and was now "backpedaling":,-Says-Delegate.html

4. Mr. O'Dwyer then proceeded to make a series of phone calls to me and anyone he could find who was associated with me (which included members of my local chapter who had no knowledge of the flash mob).

You can listen to the bizarre voicemails Mr. O'Dwyer left me here (in which he attempts to bully me into corroborating his conspiracy theory with the threat of an unflattering post about me on his blog):

There is a question no one seems to be asking. Mr. O'Dwyer has frequently categorized himself to be a financial competitor to PRSA in terms of the products and services he sells. If that is the case, does that not remove his ability to be objective in his coverage of PRSA - and thusly violate the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics?

I would think PRSA would be well within its rights to restrict his access to the conference on the basis of that conflict of interest alone.

I, myself, have been a critic of PRSA in the past. However, PRSA members can vote with their feet at any time if they feel the organization doesn't serve them well. They clearly don't, as membership continues to rise.

Thank you Derek for this further explanation of what went on Oct. 16 at the Assembly.

A self-characterized Flash Mob of about 20 delegates set upon me at 2:45 p.m. on Oct. 16 right in the middle of my interview with Art Stevens, leader of the Committee for a Democratic PRSA, which had just lost its bid to bring some democracy to the Society—i.e., allow non-Accredited members (81% of the members) to run for office for the first time since the mid-1970s.

This was a discourteous and rude attack. It doesn’t matter if it was deliberately planned or not. DeVries says he didn’t know who Stevens was. He should have found out.

He should have politely asked permission to have a moment with me instead of interrupting two people who were speaking.

He and the “mob” could have waited until I was finished.
Stevens gave me good quotes including saying the APR rule had to “come down just like the Berlin Wall came down.”

On top of this rudeness was cowardice since all 20 of the “mobsters” walked rapidly away while refusing to say anything.

I chased after one who said I was the victim of a “Flash Mob,” a phrase I had never heard before. Then she continued on her way.

Friends told me I was being compared to John Nash as portrayed in “A Beautiful Mind,” who was given pens by Princeton faculty members after he won a Nobel prize.

I mistakenly thought I was being honored because the “mobsters” all fled. Later I learned of the De Vries blog in which he said the pen-gifting to me actually meant that I was a “nut” like Nash who was a schizophrenic. The “Mob” told the rest of the conference to give me pens should they meet me in a hall.

This was to be conference-wide harassment of me.

Also cowardly was the verbal attack on me in front of the Washington Hilton by a delegate screaming obscenities at me and then running away when I asked a doorman to call the cops.

Derek, you say the Society has grown. It has 21,000 members today which is a gain of a little over 100 each year since 1998 when it had 19,600 members. That’s not growth. The U.S. Labor Bureau reports 240,000 “PR specialists” as of 2008.

The O’Dwyer Co., with its five excellent informational products, is a competitor to the PR Society when it shouldn’t be. The tax-free Society, under its charter and federal and state laws, is not supposed to be in competition with what any private business can do. It is the Society that thinks it’s our competitor.

It should let O’Dwyer staffers join and have full access to all member records which were created with tax-free money. The membership list belongs to the public. Society members bombard the press by every known means and it should be open season on them also.

The Society owes the O’Dwyer Co. many thousands of dollars because it sold more than 50,000 copies of O’Dwyer articles without our permission. The three-year limit on launching a lawsuit on this has expired but the moral debt remains.

The Society could start repaying this and also informing its members of our informational products by providing the O’Dwyer Co. free ad space in all its publications and on its website. It is depriving its members of knowledge they should have.

The group’s logic escapes me. I’m credentialed for the Assembly but not for the conference where an attempt was made to charge me $1,275, the rate for PR people. That’s totally contradictory.

I love the work of PR Watch and the Center for Media and Democracy. I own an autographed copy of "Toxic Sludge is Good for You" and frequently use Sourcewatch.

Keep up the great work - and keep asking tough questions!