Potter and Bloomsbury have pulled out all the PR stops in behalf of the book including 25 author appearances that will take place throughout the U.S.
He gained fame last year exposing what he felt were abuses by the healthcare industry in attacking President Obama’s health insurance plans.
Many PR pros do their jobs ethically and society benefits when their work combats disease and poverty, promotes literacy, and does other programs that benefit the community, he writes. But PR also is used to “create subversive front groups, discredit legitimate individuals or organizations, spread false information, distort the truth and instill fear,” he says.
There is no law or group that prevents any PR person from violating the ethics of the industry he says, noting the PR Society of America, of which he is a member, eliminated any enforcement in 2000.
Mentioned dozens of times in the book is APCO Worldwide, the second biggest firm in the O’Dwyer ranking with $100.3 million in fees in 2009 and offices in 29 locations. Potter worked closely with APCO when he was at Cigna.
APCO and American’s Health Insurance Plans, an HMO trade group, created Health Care America for the purpose of attacking the 2007 Michael Moore film called “Sicko,” says Potter.
APCO’s work for the tobacco industry and legal groups also involved “front groups,” he charges.
Edelman, the biggest PR firm with $440M in fees in 2009, is faulted on two counts—creating allegedly false “grassroots” movements in behalf of Wal-Mart, and using a van driven by a couple that went across the country and stopped in Wal-Mart parking lots.
CEO Richard Edelman says the tour was stopped as soon as he found out about it and said in his own blog that it violated the firm’s ethical standards.
Potter doubts whether distressed journalism is any match these days for the huge volume of corporate propaganda and spin that is being disseminated.
U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics as of May 2008 found 50,690 “reporter/correspondent” jobs with mean annual pay of $44,030 but 240,610 jobs for “public relations specialists” with mean annual pay of $58,960.
Many PR people have gone right into PR from college, skipping the traditional training at a news medium, he notes.
Potter, who appeared as part of a panel with Arianna Huffington at the 2009 PRSA conference, said he doubts her view that
“citizen journalists” can do the same job as career journalists.
“The sheer volume of information available online” plus the efforts of PR pros to “control content and perspective,” place a heavy burden on Americans trying to “distinguish real news from corporate spin.”
Potter’s description of Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol murders in 1982 and 1986 makes him at least the eighth victim of Tylenol myths this year.
He said J&J “immediately worked with news media to notify the public of the potential danger” and recalled “Tylenol from all store shelves voluntarily.” CEO Jim Burke then formed a committee to “determine the best way to prevent future deaths” and the result was “tamper-resistant packaging.”
Diane Elsroth, 23, of Peekskill, N.Y., died in 1986 from poisoned Tylenols that the FBI initially determined were taken from a bottle
that had not been tampered with.
Potter lists numerous deceptive devices that are used in communicating by all sorts of organizations including governments.
He advises readers to study all such devices so that they will be able to spot them in use.
At the top of the list is organizations with public-spirited names that in reality are funded by private groups with selfish aims.
PR firms, he says, are often used to “launder” funds of such groups by taking them on as PR fees.
Surveys, he says are often “sliced and diced” to the extent that it becomes “lying with statistics.”
Letters-to-the-editor in local publications may be the product of PR firms, he notes.
Diversionary PR campaigns that distract attention from a client’s problem are also popular, he writes.
In a chapter called “Perception Is Reality,” Potter warns against fear-mongering—citing loss of jobs, threat to public health, declines in standard of living, invasion of individual rights, etc., by organizations promoting a certain point of view.
Opinion can also be swayed by such techniques as “glittering generalities” that align causes with “democracy,” “patriotism” and “the American way of life,” he says.
“Blatant insults can be a very effective PR tool,” he says. “The organization doing the name-calling may associate the target of the insults with a negative or unpopular cause or person. Defending against name-calling can be difficult. Negative terms tend to stick, even if they are undeserved.”
Other techniques he decries are use of “euphemisms,” trying to create a “bandwagon” that sweeps up disbelievers, and “transfer” (linking with a respected individual or organization).