Bill Huey, Strategic Communications, Atlanta (11/22):
Haven't read the book, but sometimes calling a spade a spade is tonic. Especially in health care, where the propaganda (Medicare death panels) has been out of control for a long time. And do I need to bring up Citizens for a Free Kuwait, or that egregious Wal-Mart grassroots campaign a few years ago?
Kevin Foley, CEO, KEF Media (11/22):
Richard - Thanks for weighing in on this. It's instructive for readers to know that Potter's new home is at the Center for Media & Democracy where all PR (other than that done by the CMD itself) is judged evil. Potter's got the title, Senior Fellow there.
You might recall we fought the great VNR battle with these guys 4-5 years ago and learned a great deal about their own use of propaganda, distortions and half truths to attack our segment of the PR industry. Like you, I was greatly offended at the time by their assault on the honorable work we do on behalf of our clients and their gross mischaracterization of PR practioners as deceitful, dishonest or worse.
Potter should do a little homework, too. He claims "And ethics do slip. PR often crosses the line into misleading, withholding or simply lying. And when it does, society suffers…"
He needs to talk to John Stauber, one of CMD's founders who, during the Mad Cow scare of the late 1990s, pretended to be an expert on Mad Cow disease when, in fact, he has no scientific or medical training whatsoever. That didn't stop him from doing numerous national interviews during which he predicted a Mad Cow disease epidemic that never happened, such was his alleged expertise. Then, of course, Stauber sought to cash in, writing a book about the mad cow hysteria he helped hype and was called out by the Milwaukee Journal for promoting it with, yes, a publicity campaign complete with a press kit that included "suggested questions."
I'm all in favor of watch dogs and truth be told, Potter's insights have been an eye-opener where the national healthcare debate is concerned. But painting everyone in the PR industry with such a broad brush is completely disingenuous.
Brian M (11/22):
It's hard to deny some of the tactics Mr. Potter has been railing about, but painting the whole PR industry with that brush is just sloppy and dilutes any legitimate claims he makes against certain players in the healthcare space. I expected a more pointed and focused critique with this book and so far I haven't seen it. I've not yet completed the book, however.
Wes Pedersen (11/22):
"Propaganda" is the word Eddie Bernays thought best described what he and others would soon call public relations. I have been a propagandist and I am damn proud of the work I did during the Cold War. "Propaganda" is still a true term for public relations. The Nazis abused it beyond comprehension, but that does not abort its meaning.
Joe Honick, GMA International Ltd (11/22):
Out of respect for Mr Edelman and his impassioned comments, I hesitated getting into this discussion. If the whole PR world were populated with Edelmans, Foleys, Dillenschneiders et al, that would be nice. But that would not be a fact. Fact is, as I have also commented, that there are firms that will embrace almost any kind of business just for the business, and that is what helps to diminis the image of the image making industry.
Specifically, it took little more than a couple of million to help bring a murderer like Gadaffi to a great welcome return to the UN. It was not the finest hour for PR when the Saudis splurged more than $14 million in less than six months in a sucessful effort to smother a trillion dollar lawsuit by 9/11 victims' survivors and continue those successful efforts with both Bush and Obama administrations. Nor can we hold our heads high with the billion dollar investment in private PR that helped to sell the two endless wars begun a decade ago.
Mr Edelman, while not unique among ethical practitioners, can be classed as special, given his leadership. But, Mr. E, and others, please do not shrink from the realities that some pretty hefty outfits have been quite happy to align themselves for the buck on some quite questionable efforts. Clients are not like medical patients where all are entitled to treatment without regard to who or what they are. It is up to the PR firms and their leaders to evaluate with whom they are willing to associate for the money.
On Potter's side, PR is indeed about control as can be see from the PR services firm announcing yesterday that because of high expenses for the company, all employees must take for the last four days of this week an unpaid vacation. It's take it or leave it, and even if you leave it, you still have to take it in the purse. PR is indeed about control.
Kathleen L. Lewton (11/29):
I have read the book in its entirety, several times, for a review I was writing. I would hope that everyone else would read it -- carefully. There are many things to criticize Wendell for, and he deserves the criticism, but I believe he went to great pains to be clear on his views about our profession.
What Wendell actually wrote is this:
“It is not my intention to write a book that condemns an entire profession. Many – probably most – PR professionals follow guidelines established years ago by the Public Relations Society of America, an organization that encourages ethical behavior among its members and all PR practitioners and of which I have been a proud member for more than three decades.”
That seems, at least the way I read it, to make it quite clear that Potter is not indicting all of his colleagues. There are several other similar statements in the book, and at one point Potter even offers an excuse for corporate PR people who strayed into unethical behavior, noting that they and their companies operate under unbelievable pressure from Wall Street. He also clearly places blame on himself.
He says: “About forty-five thousand people die in American every year because they have no health insurance. I am partly responsible for some of the deaths making up that statistic.”
And then he describes in painstaking detail the clearly unethical practices that HE took part in. He doesn't shirk any blame or even attempt to say someone else made him do it. He notes that initially, “I didn’t feel then that we were doing anything unethical or underhanded. We were all well read and well educated . . . ate at the best restaurants, houses in the right zip codes. We knew people in Congress and the White House . . . we were powerful and influential. The American dream didn’t get any better than this.”
But in the book's most searing sections, he describes things he did that he KNEW were unethical. He admits and owns up, about what he did even when he knew it was wrong. I've heard the debates about Wendell's actions, specifically about what's called his "whistleblower" appearances in the media and before Congress.
I've been told that he should have quit, but then remained silent, because a) he knew that what he did was unethical and b) he was well paid by CIGNA and owed the company some loyalty. I can't quit wrap my conscience around that. I can't condone the activities he describes doing (I mean a front group is a front group and it's clearly defined by the PR industry as unethical), but I can't condemn him for telling the truth. The industry he worked in literally had a life and death impact on millions of people. If he -- like the tobacco and drug company whistleblowers before him -- felt the need to tell the truth, to alert Americans, I think that's not only his right, as an American first and foremost, but his responsibility. (I've lent my copy of the book so cannot double check, but I believe he did provide specific examples of what he felt were unethical practices when he levied criticism, rather than just naming names and speaking in generalities.) He put his information and his point of view out there.
Each of us in the PR industry, and all citizens, can read what he's written, evaluate his contentions on their merits, and develop an informed opinion about what was done -- and I think that opinion will be better informed because of Potter's book.
I was actually very proud that he took what seemed to be great pains to make it clear that he was NOT indicting an entire profession, to make it clear that the vast majority of PR people do practice ethically.
Again, read what he actually wrote: "It is not my intention to write a book that condemns an entire profession.
Many – probably most – PR professionals follow guidelines established years ago by the Public Relations Society of America, an organization that encourages ethical behavior among its members and all PR practitioners." As Joe Honick points out, it would be an ideal world if we could all say that every PR professional practices ethically.
Unfortunately, as Potter describes in great detail, there are those in our field (as in ANY profession) who do not live up to the highest standards. Potter was one of those, by his own admission. From where I sit, I think that by admitting and describing his failings, he has done a service to our profession. Rather than deny that unethical behavior exists -- which would be ludicrous and simply compromise our own credibility -- he confronts it and confesses, and tells the world that most PR people are ethical, and that he and those he names were the aberration. And he's certainly provided -- I hope -- a wake-up call for all of us, about how relatively easy it can be to start down the path of "whatever the company needs" and end up so far down that path that you feel your only option is to walk away.
I will always wonder if Wendell had, at some point in his tenure at CIGNA, tried to intervene, to look at senior management and say we cannot do this, we cannot lie, we cannot use front groups, we cannot try to destroy our detractors . . . . what the impact would have been. My guess is negligible in terms of corporate behavior, but probably significant in terms of Potter's futurewith the company.
But had he done that, perhaps the way he feels about himself and his work, and the way some feel about him, would be different. Blowing the whistle inside first would have at least been a good first step at trying to change the process and the outcomes. This is all a conundrum as old as our profession.
Every time I speak to an undergrad or graduate class of PR students, inevitably someone asks "what if a client asked you to do something unethical." We all give the same answer -- explain why it's a bad idea, explain why you can't do it, refuse to do it -- and that's followed by the "but what if you lose your job and you don't have enough money to live on" query, and the ultimate answer "It's a personal decision that only you can make." Wendell made that walk-away decision only after years of making the wrong decisions, and participating in unethical behavior.
A cautionary tale for all of us.
Scott Tillitt / Antidote Collective (11/29):
"Distorts" the PR field? I disagree. It *exposes* the PR field, or at least the dark side of it — some of which Edelman has practiced in the past. Wendell has responded in a blog post simultaneously posted on Huffington Post, Center for Media and Democracy, and his own site.
As Wendell says, "The reason I wrote my new book, Deadly Spin, was to explain not only how the insurance industry used the dark arts of PR to shape health care reform legislation, but also how many other special interests use them to influence how we think and act every day."
[Disclosure: I am proud to be a friend and colleague of Wendell's, and we're exploring ways that we together can use PR to the "good ends" that he notes in the book — one of which is spread the messages in "Deadly Spin." I left corporate PR years ago with that in mind.)
Kevin Foley (11/30):
Scott- Who precisely decides what constitutes "good ends" for PR and how does he/she/they earn his/her/their authority to sit in judgement? "Good" for who? "Good" why?
waterflaws in Denver (12/02):
PR is generally the province of those who can pay handsomely. My guess is that most of your readers are PR-firm-relatives and beneficiaries, and therefor have a natural tendency to be defensive about critiques of the business. Looking at it from the outside, and unable to afford its luxuries, I perceive it to be deliberately deceptive, disingenuous, and dangerous and despicable. It MAY not be the oldest profession, but it has similarities to it. They are the ones that give you "highs" and "rushes" at Walmart, cars that will "save your soul", "clean coal", "safe nuclear energy", pentagon spin, "green" oil companies, and "bring good things to light" but keep the bad things in the dark.
Kevin Foley (12/02):
Waterflaws - spoken with breathtaking ignorance, your biased conclusions drawn by...what exactly? You say you don't work in the industry or know anything about it, but you make the same sweeping condemnations as Potter (who, BTW, made bushel baskets of money doing PR for Aetna all those years). As my late dad liked to say, "Empty vessels make the most noise."
waterflaws in Denver (12/02):
Dear Mr. Foley, comment rules state, "Commentaries on subject matter are welcome. Personal attacks are not allowed." I believe your "comment" to me is a personal attack. You do appear to be a "master" at PR, however. PR isn't about being fair, or following the rules, is it. Perhaps you should notice that I gave some very specific "sweeping gerneralities". Say "Hi" to Daddy.
Kevin Foley (12/03):
Waterflaws- My dad passed away in June. Thanks for the sentiment.