Edelman's Rescue Plan for the PR Industry

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?


Bob Burton's slam against Edelman "propaganda" is naiive and displays a full-fledged bias that is disingenuous. If you want to hate the public relations business in toto then you don't have to pretend to objectively analyze it. Everything that comes from the White House, or any other politician, from executives, lawyers, many artists, or even PR Watch, can be considered public relations. Maybe a world of silence would be free of propaganda but we all promote ourselves and our views. Everybody who posts a personal ad can be accused of "spin."</p> <p> With the ubiquity of the Internet the traditional forms of PR control are fading fast. There are few secrets anymore beyond deep, proprietary information. Big companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sun and Microsoft encourage employees to publicly blog without prior management approval. This is the big shift in communication that Edelman is addressing. Edelman should be commended for starting a blog and allowing comment, and exposing himself to slams by PR Watch. If his "500 influencers" is a flawed idea then he is at least trying. Does Burton have a better idea, outside of PR simply disappearing (as likely as lawyers disappearing). </p><p> Good PR is about telling your story effectively and concisely. Good PR helps you better understand yourself and your audience. Bad PR is when you hide the source of information, inflate billings, and falsely promote. The challenges of public relations strong equates with the legal profession. You can win in court and lose in public opinion.</p><p> Web sites like this one radically alter the game. Good PR people will try to understand this powerful, ubiquitous media and operate openly and appropriately within it. Bad PR people will attempt to manipulate and co-opt it. They will fail because the Internet is unforgiving and a cached document can live forever.<p></p> I have worked in public relations for 20 years and I was never a member of PRSA and was not aware of their code of ethics. There is no single body that speaks for the industry. Due to recent scandals many top PR firms (like Edelman) are formalizing and strictly enforcing a code of ethics. The same could be said of journalism, with the advent of the "Public Editor" and new avenues for readers to file editorial complaints.</p><p> Full disclosure: I worked at Edelman Worldwide in New York for one year, until July, 1999. I occasionally post to Richard's blog and have my own blog on PR. <a href="http://www.markrose.org" >See Mark Rose biography</a>

<p>Interesting argument from Mark Rose.</p> <ul><li>First he makes the rather ludicrous claim that "all communications is PR." This is an old dodge that goes back to the days of [[sw:Edward Bernays]]," who included everything from the Sermon on the Mount to Shakespeare's plays in his list of examples of "public relations." On the basis of a similarly overstretched definition, Rose then makes a straw man argument: since "all communications is PR," any critique of unethical public relations must by definition be demanding "a world of silence," which we all know is unrealistic.</li> <li>Then Rose shifts gears and begins talking about the "traditional systems of PR control," which he says are "fading fast." But if PR's "traditional systems" are about "control," that's quite a different thing from the other types of communications that Rose would have us believe are also PR. Posting a personal ad or producing a work of art is not a "system of control," but the public relations industry <i>is</i>. It's an organized effort to control the thinking of a target population, which is why Bob Burton was quite correct to describe public relations as "propaganda."</li> <li>Finally, Rose attempts to distinguish between "good PR" and "bad PR," offering some rather vague generalities about what constitutes the difference. I agree that there's a difference between good and bad PR, but the areas where Rose gets vague are precisely those areas where the differences between good and bad PR need to be clearly defined.</li> </ul> <p>By contrast, Bob Burton's commentary <i>was</i> specific. He didn't criticize PR simply for "all being bad." He criticized Edelman on the very specific basis of having been part of some of the recent scandals that have brought the public relations industry into further disrepute. Bob also pointed out that Edelman's proposed solutions to its image problem - such as cultivating a list of "500 influencers" - remain firmly within the industry's traditional "systems of control" paradigm and fail to fix the lack of transparency for which Edelman and other PR firms have rightly been criticized.</p> <p>Deliberate lack of transparency is the signature characteristic of virtually all unethical public relations, whether it be the creation of deceptive [[sw:front groups]], [[sw:video news releases]] in which paid spokespersons pretend to be reporters, or pundit-on-the-payroll scandals like the [[sw:Armstrong Williams]] affair. And there's a reason why these scandals keep happening. The public relations industry (as opposed to the work of "some artists" or "everybody who posts a personal ad") is a "system of control" in which the thing the PR firms try to control is public opinion. For the purpose of efficiency in achieving that control, it helps if the public doesn't know that those video news releases are paid spots, that [[sw:Karen Ryan]] isn't a reporter, or that Armstrong Williams has actually been paid a quarter of a million dollars to praise the Bush administration's education policy. Lack of transparency in these cases isn't an accidental oversight. It's part of the system.</p>

<p>Firstly Mark thanks for reading "Edelman's Rescue Plan for the PR Industry" and taking the time to respond. Sorry it's taken me so long to get around to responding but Sheldon has covered a number of my points in the meantime. </p> <p>But anyway, thought I'd still respond on some of your points. Firstly, I don't object to Edelman [[blogging]] at all – in fact I think we are furious agreement that it is a good thing. What I do contest is his suggestion that his five point plan would effectively address the ethical problems in the PR industry.</p> <p>You suggest that I have it in for the entire [[Public relations industry|PR industry]]. I divide the PR industry into three rough groupings – a) those activities which most people would agree are genuinely in the public interest (for example [[crisis management]] for natural disasters, tobacco control programs etc); b) those that could be classified as mostly harmless (which may involve event management, doing websites or annual reports etc); and c) those where PR is employed to ensure private or government interests dominate public policy debates about the health, social or environmental impacts of policies, products or technologies. </p> <p>The amount of work in the first category is relatively small while the 'mostly harmless' campaigns accounts for a larger chunk. My interest - and I suspect that of most citizens - primarily lies in what falls into the third category. (Think, for example, of the [[tobacco industry]]).</p> <p>Now for the more substantive points you raised on which we disagree. Yes "we all promote ourselves and our views". But if you are suggesting that that individuals advocating their point of view should be viewed as no different from what the PR industry does for its clients, then I disagree. </p> <p>Citizens' expressing their sincerely held points of view is something to be encouraged in a democracy. However, what the PR industry does is to largely cater for deep-pocketed corporations and government agencies. Often the greater the clients' controversy, the bigger the budget a PR company (or in-house department) will have to try and swamp public concern about their products or policies. </p> <p>Of course there are many big-budget PR campaigns that fail or backfire. But there are also many PR campaigns that succeed in stalling, if not preventing, important public policy changes. Their success relies not on the merit of the argument but simply on having more cash to fuel a stalling strategy.</p> <p>One of the significant evolutions in democratic practice last century was the shift in many countries from the property franchise to the universal franchise. It was recognition that the right to vote belonged to each individual irrespective of their wealth or sex. Part of the disquiet about the trends in modern democracy is how money politics is trying to reassert control – whether it is through political donations or by hiring lawyers, lobbyists or PR professionals.</p> <p>The reality is that the PR industry primarily caters for those who can afford its expensive services. (Yes, some companies do pro bono work for some non-profit groups or individuals but it really is a tiny, tiny percentage of what the industry does).</p> <p>Now I'd love to think that a wave of corporate and government glasnost is sweeping the world and will ensure that "there are few secrets anymore beyond deep, proprietary information." But I don’t see the evidence that would justify such optimism. By way of illustration, why is it that the client lists of so many PR firms are not disclosed?</p> <p>(Perhaps you could suggest some examples that illustrate your point just so I’m not misinterpreting what you meant).</p> <p>Sheldon has covered the problems with Edelman’s "500 influencers" idea well. I would take Edelman's enthusiasm for a more enforceable industry wide code of ethics and a code for his own company a little more seriously if he articulated a coherent position on video news releases (VNRs).</p> <p>But he doesn't. Instead what he proposes would amount to ending the deception of viewers of government VNRs but perpetuating it for those on the receiving end of corporate VNRs. It may be a pragmatic position but let's not pretend it's an ethical one. If Edelman can’t adopt a coherent position on VNRs why should we think an in-house code is going to be any better on issues that aren’t currently in the public spotlight?</p> <p>While I don't doubt you when you wrote that after 20 years in the industry you weren't aware of the [[Public Relations Society of America]]'s code of ethics, this surprises me. I had been under the impression that most people in the industry would have been aware of the PRSA's code, perhaps somewhat vaguely, even if they aren’t members.</p> <p>There are numerous problems with both the content and enforcement of codes of ethics in the PR industry, which I'll try to cover in a blog entry in the near future. However, the point in my previous blog was that [[Richard Edelman]] should articulate what exactly would make the enforcement of a new code more effective than the failings the PRSA experienced with the old one.</p> <p>Once again, thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

A couple of responses to Bob & Sheldon re: Edelman.</p> <p>Every OTC company that goes public is virtually required to employ investor relations and public relations counsel. I have worked for many start-ups and entrepreneurs who didn't have deep pockets. They barely had a shirt on their back. Entrepreneurs may excel at the big idea and pulling together a team to realize their vision but they often need serious help in communicating their business plan to a broader audience.</p> <p>Yes, big corporations have deep pockets for big-money PR programs. They have a lot on the line and 30,000 to 150,000 employees and a slew of investors, vendors and partners who depend on their success. Like advertising and other forms of marketing, public relations is part of the process, whether you need to sell a product, service or idea.</p> <p>The PR programs that succeed in stalling legislation and swamping public debate are unfortunate and fail as often as they succeed. Political parties, in my mind, are the experts at this. Look at the important legislation and appointments pending in federal government and how both sides of the aisle pull out their big guns and spin slogans and threaten and posture on television and in print media like we are waging an ideological civil war. Okay, “everything” is not PR but business, law, politics, and even education depends on it. That’s a fairly broad constituency.</p> <p>How do we cut through this? Think of the single blogger who is credited with killing the new EU Constitution. You could say that he is an obstructionist. You could also say he is a hero and patriot. He didn't have a printing press or a lot of money or connections. He had an idea and conviction. He cut through the clutter and people responded and he was the catalyst who bucked the government-sponsored PR machine.</p> <p>Blogs (Internet communication) are altering history in many profound ways. When I say there are few secrets anymore I mean that every employee of every company now has a soapbox to tell the world about what really goes on inside the once-protected walls of the office. H-P, Sun, and Microsoft are examples of large corporations who encourage employees to blog without prior management approval. Look at how we were treated to the internecine struggles at Los Alamos, of all places, through a public blog. Citizen-journalists (I count myself as one) are on the rise and they are finding a growing number of credible, paying outlets. They are not dependent on corporate media politics and they are not afraid to inject their voice in the news.</p> <p>Anyway, weren't we talking about Edelman?</p> <p>Besides being a second-generation PR guy, he is CEO of a company that has nearly 2,000 employees in offices worldwide and a host of clients who are jittery about their flacks being public. He is putting his views out there for the public and employees to pick apart. I think that is exemplary and other CEOs should follow suit. The 500 influencers? A flawed idea. So? Carl Pavano pitches good games but the Yankees can’t seem to back him up with enough hits to win. Chances are you will see him on the mound again.</p> <p>The PRSA code of ethics? I don’t know, I never took the PRSA seriously. Public relations is such a fractured industry that I don’t know if it is possible to have a unifying body. It may be up to each PR firm to develop their own code. We can then judge clients, and PR firms, by how closely they adhere to that code. News outlets are going through the same struggle as they discover journalists fabricating sources and sales people conspiring to inflate circulation figures.</p> <a href="http://www.markrose.org" >See Mark Rose biography</a>

Bob: Time to revisit? Edelman has been much in the news lately for its questionable blog antics. Most egregious might be his Silence of the Edelman routine on his blog. Can he hold forth about everybody else and refuse to even acknowledge his own internal deeds? Bad P.R. from CEO of the world's largest independent agency. Mark Rose <a href="http://prblognews.com" >PR Blog News</a>