The Battle Between O'Dwyer and PRSA

Jack O'DwyerThe Public Relations Society of America, the trade group for the American public relations industry, and Jack O'Dwyer, who has specialized in reporting on the PR industry for over 40 years, are at war, and the battle is getting heated -- and harmful for PRSA.

Why should people care about this obscure fight? Because the conflict is a microcosm of the battle against the unethical and harmful PR trends that are hurting this country.

O'Dwyer's company, Inside News of Public Relations and Marketing Communications, publishes a monthly magazine, a daily blog, a weekly newsletter, and an annual ranking of PR firms that together have earned O'Dwyer a level of notoriety in the PR field. An article in the August 31, 2011 issue of Forbes magazine even called Jack O'Dwyer a "rather legendary" figure in the PR world. What makes O'Dwyer's publications unique is that they cover the PR industry from a journalistic standpoint, free from the one-sided, "rah-rah" boosterism that is the hallmark of most trade journals. O'Dwyer covers the PR industry, warts and all. He doesn't shy away from drawing attention to instances when PR professionals cross ethical lines. Thus O'Dwyer is one of the few people covering the PR industry who calls out bad behavior, as well as praising successes.

Like PRWatch, and an increasing cadre of PR veterans including investor relations pioneer Ted Pincus, who recently passed away, and the Center for Media and Democracy's own Senior Fellow on Health Care, Wendell Potter, O'Dwyer has been an open critic of the covert way many PR professionals have been operating over the last few decades.

At its inception, the PR industry was supposed to be a helping profession dedicated to fostering an honest, two-way dialogue between companies and the public, to help them better understand each other. As we at PRWatch have, Jack has observed that over the decades PR professionals have become increasingly manipulative and unethical, employing tactics to purposely hide the truth from the public, like establishing corporate front groups, commissioning purposely biased research and favorable opinions, and working through third parties to help alter public opinion. To further thwart journalists, corporate PR pros now increasingly require that any contact from the press and media be restricted to email only, so conversations can be managed by a company's legal and financial offices. The list of problems like this with the PR industry as a whole is long and growing, and O'Dwyer has been among those who have openly criticized this type of deterioration of PR.

As the Industry Goes, So Goes Its Trade Group

In the last few years, O'Dwyer has also started criticizing the industry's trade group, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), for mimicking this bad behavior by making moves that further obscure how PR professionals operate. O'Dwyer has openly objected to a host of PRSA's new practices, like the group's recent change to using listen-only teleconferences, where participants aren't allowed to speak. PRSA also adopted a policy prohibiting anyone at its meetings from recording presentations or taking photos. O'Dwyer also reports that in 2005, PRSA stopped issuing transcripts of their assemblies. All of these policies combined make it much more difficult to report on the group's activities.

O'Dwyer's list of grievances against PRSA -- and the above are only a fraction of them -- has made PRSA retaliate against O'Dwyer. PRSA started charging O'Dwyer a fee of $1,275 for each reporter his company sent to cover their conferences, while the giving out free passes to reporters from other publications that cover the PR trade, like PR News and PR Newser. PRSA also started confining O'Dwyer to the back of the room at their meetings, where it is difficult to hear speakers or sometimes identify who is speaking. When O'Dwyer asked for hearing assistance equipment to help him follow the proceedings, he was denied -- twice.

O'Dwyer's reporting provides the public with a window into the PR industry's activities. Blocking the public from being able to observe how PR professionals operate -- which is what PRSA is doing by denying Jack O'Dwyer credentials to cover to its meetings -- is the wrong way to react to criticism. Why? Because, in part, O'Dwyer's complaints against the PR industry, and now by extension to PRSA, are not just his own. They reflect the concerns of many PR industry watchers who see how modern changes in this industry further hide from the public how corporations operate, and are harming this country in ways American society has not seen before.

Moreover, PRSA's retaliatory moves against O'Dwyer's are more appropriate for a sandbox brawl than for PR professionals. PRSA's action to shut out O'Dwyer only confirm that PRSA is going the same way as the PR industry as a whole: towards more secrecy and obscurity from the public. That's one big, ominous omen for the country.

Preventing Jack O'Dwyer from covering their meeting -- even if O'Dwyer has criticized them roundly and asked questions they really don't like -- is a shameful and petty way for PRSA to deal with his critiques. It is also violation of freedom of the press that will damage PRSA's image long into the future.

Updated at 6:15 a.m. MDT


Ms. Landman, We find it curious that you or another member of your organization deleted the factual "reporting" error contained in the original version of this article — confusing former Philip Morris employee and tobacco lobbyist R. William "Bill" Murray with PRSA COO William M. Murray — without noting that you had updated/corrected the original text. Not only is this a social media faux pas, it also smacks of the manipulative tactics that you so willingly ascribe to PRSA and the public relations profession. Certainly you would agree that a forthright acknowledgment of mistakes is the province of ethical communications and journalism? For the record, the William Murray who heads PRSA also did not star in the movies "Caddy Shack" or "Stripes," though the amount of research you apparently did in preparing this article certainly classifies as "Meatballs." (By the way, you might want to delete mention of R. William "Bill" Murray's PRSA service on this page, as well: But, maybe you already did that, without telling anyone. For your readers who did not see the original version of this article, below is the paragraph in question: "It's of even greater concern considering that the group's current president is R. William "Bill" Murray, who worked as the top public relations and lobbying specialist for the tobacco industry for twenty years. Murray worked for Philip Morris, and was responsible for many of that company's later activities to camouflage, deny and corrupt the scientific and medical findings that cigarettes caused lung cancer, heart disease and a host of other serious conditions. Murray's background is not exactly conducive to openness and honesty with the public, but it may be helpful in understanding where PRSA's combative stance towards O'Dwyer is coming from." The other glaring errors (willful omissions?) from your article include the fact that PRSA sent Mr. O'Dwyer a fully footnoted, 23-page letter outlining the reasons why he has been denied credentials to cover our Leadership Assembly and International Conference, which you and your readers may find here: Further, our Leadership Assembly and International Conference are open to — and will be attended by — a variety of reputable journalists and bloggers. Finally, this "rather legendary" figure at whose altar you appear to worship also has been called "a public relations gadfly" by The New York Times. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. We believe that Mr. O'Dwyer's behavior, like yours, falls well outside the ethical standards espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists. Perhaps you believe, as he does, that such tactics are fair game. However, there are two sides to every story, and it would behoove you to pick up the phone (or visit a website) once in a while in an effort to determine the facts and report on them in a balanced, responsible manner. Arthur Yann Vice President, Public Relations The Public Relations Society of America

I regret the error regarding the confusion over two PR professionals with the same name. It has been corrected. Notwithstanding your 23 page letter of complaints about Mr. O'Dwyer, which I have seen, my opinion about policies that further increase the obscurity of PR operations and make it more difficult to for the public to cover the PR industry remain the same.

It's no surprise that this letter comes from a PR firm. What a waste of talent. People can make up their own minds as to what they consume. This is an industry that the world could do without, you wouldn't be so secretive if what you are doing is ethical. It's seems that you just don't want to let out the tricks that you've been using to fool people.

Ms. Landman, One additional — albeit highly salient — point. You also willfully omitted from your article the fact that Jack O'Dwyer is a member of the PRWatch staff, as outlined on this page: You, yourself, may want to visit the Society of Professional Journalists website ( and study its Code of Ethics ( It states very clearly that journalists should "act independently," "free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know" and "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." Arthur Yann Vice President, Public Relations The Public Relations Society of America

The article was updated shortly after publication to correct the error regarding the identity of William "Bill" Murray. A person of the same name did work in tobacco industry PR, however this is not the same person who now heads PRSA. We regret the error.

Mr. O'Dwyer has been an unpaid occasional contributor to PRW, but has never been a paid staff member. Here is how you made your mistake: Since we don't allow anonymous posts on PRW, in order to identify Mr. O'Dwyer as the author when we re-post his articles (instead of having our program listi him as "anonymous,") we had to create a profile for him on PRW with a brief description. This is how he ended up on our "Staff" page. It was the only way we could provide our readers with a description of him. Nice try, though, Mr. Yann. But even in he was a paid staff member, my opinion would remain the same about PRSA policies that move the organization towards being more obscure and secretive -- the same direction that corporate PR in general is moving. <blockquote>Q: So for my post, can you tell me a little bit about GMO? A: Sure. It’s a $100 billion institutional money management firm. Q: Do they only invest in land, or do they have a wider portfolio? A: They invest in a variety of different things. Q: Great. Thank you. At this point, I was getting ready to hang up when he piped-up with: A: I’d rather not be quoted on any of this. Q: Wait…what? You don’t want to be quoted declining to comment or describing the company? A: No."</blockquote>

Ms. Landman, I would like to suggest that you and PRWatch get your acts together, before you begin casting aspersions on PRSA and the entire public relations profession. I never said Mr. O'Dwyer was a "paid" staff member, only a staff member. I believe anyone might reasonably assume that, given his inclusion on your staff page at the link I provided (ostensibly, I'm now being asked to believe, among your various "paid" and "unpaid" contributors, though you make no delineation between the two). I also find it curious that you've since removed Mr. O'Dwyer's profile from that page. Is his anonymity no longer the concern that it was just eight days ago? (By the way, if his name is included on his post, how is it that the post is anonymous? And how does including his non-paid staff profile among your paid-staff profiles, without noting which is which, make him less anonymous than, say, including his name on his post?) So I believe the mistake, Ms. Landman, is entirely yours (nice try indeed). Of course, your bigger mistake is championing a journalist whom the Society of Professional Journalists invited to resign his membership. How ironic and convenient that you attack public relations ethics, while turning a blind eye to journalistic ethics, including your own. If you or any of your readers are truly concerned why PRSA approaches Mr. O'Dwyer in the manner we do, I'd encourage you to ask Mr. O'Dwyer for a copy of our 23-page letter that outlines our concerns with his professional conduct, and to publish it on your site, so that all can better understand the context in which our decisions are made. We won't even demand that you include our profiles on your staff page. Frankly, Ms. Landman, if PRWatch were a public relations firm, PRSA and its 32,000 members would be speaking out against the disingenuous and unethical practices your organization employs itself, as it masks its own actions behind a holier-than-though claim to the moral high ground. Arthur Yann is vice president of public relations at PRSA.

Mr. O'Dwyer has never been a paid or unpaid staff member of CMD recently updated the staff list to be more accurate, since you drew it to our attention that it was inaccurate. Our system automatically lists authorship of "Anonymous" for people writing for PRWatch who are not entered into our staff list. We listed Mr. O'Dwyer to permit us to correctly attribute authorship of a piece he had written that we re-posted. Sorry, but nothing nefarious there. Just trying to deal with the limitations of software. And I've read the 23 page letter, and it is just overdone as your comments here. The letter, just like your comments here, avoids addressing the questions Mr. O'Dwyer are I are asking, and our concerns that PRSA is following the PR profession by hiding more of its operations from the public and increasingly operating unethically. Why are you unwilling to disclose the names of PRSA members, even to other members? Why are you trying to limit public knowledge about how PRSA operates? Why are you trying to limit input from PRSA members by using listen-only teleconferences? Why won't you disclose the salary of your group's CEO? Why won't you freely allow the public to cover the proceedings of your meetings? What does PRSA have to hide? I haven't seen answers to any of these questions in your responses. Those are the questions we'd like to have answered.

Thanks for the insightful article! I am considering giving up my 30-year PRSA membership specifically because I'm so apalled at the hypocrisy of a PR association at war with its most attentive media observer.