Buffalo State PR Prof. Deborah Silverman made her debut this month (“PRSA Ethics Month”) as ethics chair in two dubious ways—providing a mild comment to the New York Times after Ketchum was nailed trying to trick food writers, and giving an exclusive first column to Mediabistro’s PR Newser when this should have gone to the entire PR trade press.

Not only did she appear to excuse Ketchum in the NYT by saying “the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for PR,” but she added that Ketchum has an “excellent reputation for high ethical standards.”

It’s hard for us to believe she forgot the dustup that engulfed the industry for months from the beginning of 2005 after USA Today outed a Ketchum/Dept. of Education contract that included a $240K payment to media figure Armstrong Williams to promote “No Child Left Behind.”

Silverman, who described herself as a “PR professor of ethics” in the PR Newser post, replaced Tom Eppes of Charleston, a solo practitioner responsible to no one but himself, who now is busy working on a doctorate at the University of North Carolina.

Silverman, however, who did not return phone calls or e-mails, is with an institution of higher learning, Buffalo State College, a 12,000-student member of the state college system. It is not to be confused with the University of Buffalo with 29,000 students, the largest of the 64 New York state colleges.

Teachers and scientists do not turn their backs on information but seek every last scrap of it with zeal. They prize the historical record of anything and listen to all voices. Facts and knowledge are revered, not feared.

PRS Ethics Head at UofN Quickly Resigned

The predecessor to Eppes, Prof. Gail Baker of the University of Nebraska, lasted about four hours (sub req'd) after we informed Chancellor John Christensen and others of ethical abuses at the Society.

We included documentation of the sale of authors’ articles by PRS without their permission, the undemocratic nature of PRS that bars 80%+ of members from running for office (but doesn’t tell this to prospective members), and Baker’s refusal to answer our phone calls or e-mails.

The e-mail went out at 11:55 a.m. on March 20, 2008 and at 3:49 p.m. we received a one-line e-mail from PRS staffer Joe DeRupo saying “Gail Baker is not the chair of the EB.” She had been listed that way on the PRS website earlier in the day.

This blog is an open letter to Silverman as well as BSC president Aaron Podolefsky, chief of staff Bonita Durand, PR director Jerod Dahlgren, BSC newspaper editor Julia Merulla and others.

Abusive Practices Listed

Below are abuses in approximate order of importance.

1. Failure to warn prospective members they won’t be eligible for national Society office until they become Accredited. Non-APRs can’t serve on the Ethics Board nor hold office in some chapters.

2. Providing late and substandard financial reports. IRS Form 990 withheld from the 2009-10 Assemblies. The 2010 return is not yet available. Booking dues as cash violates FASB Section 958-605-21-1.

The Society claims it’s “acceptable.” It should show the balance sheet both ways at a minimum. The major professional groups (ABA, AMA, AICPA, etc.) all defer large amounts of dues. Also, the Society frequently refers to “best practices” for PR pros and never to “acceptable practices.”

Not-for-Proft Budgeting & Financial Management, by CPA Edward McMillan, says a “common, major accounting error” of associations is “failing to use the deferral method for dues income” since dues represent “an entire year’s worth of membership.” Booking dues as cash results in financial statements that are “overstated and misleading,” he writes.

PRS Attacks Freedom of Press

Bill of Rights
3. Blocking press coverage of the Assembly by forbidding, since 2010, any photographs or recording of the Assembly by reporters.

Irrationally, the Society allowed reporter Jack O’Dwyer to cover the Assembly but refused to give him “credentials” to the conference itself. The Society now won’t give him “credentials” to either for 2011, sending him 23 pages of complaints about his coverage but refusing to face him in person.

Freedom of the press is a right granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution and in America an accused person has the right to face his or her accusers.

4. Withholding transcripts of the Assembly since 2005 and refusal to provide transcripts of teleconferences. These are like the “slow-motion” replays that are common in sports journalism that give fans needed details.

5. Blocking PR reporters from accessing the audit or quarterly reports. They are in the members’ area and reporters are not allowed to join the Society. No reason is given for this. Reporters are members of PR groups including IABC and IPRA.

6. Professing “commitment” to Sarbanes-Oxley but failing to have outsiders on the national board and failure to have an audit chair on the board who is a financial expert.

Leaders Don’t Face Members in-Person

7. Refusal of leaders including chair Rosanna Fiske and COO Bill Murray to regularly face members in person. Fiske, while spearheading a drive to increase dues by $30 to $255, has only appeared before one chapter, Miami, her own, according to available records. Murray has not addressed the New York chapter in 4.5 years. No in-person, face-to-face discussion of the dues hike are planned except at the Assembly.

8. Refusal to have a year-round list of the 270 or so Assembly delegates. They have until Aug. 15 to post their names. Also lacking is a transcript of what they say and a delegate-by-delegate record of how they vote. Insiders have this since the delegates vote by numbered electronic devices.

9. Blockage of news of key member initiatives such as the 2006 move by Central Michigan to give the Assembly power over the board, copying ABA and AMA. No other chapter supported CM whose bid lost by a 261-19 vote. CM called the Assembly “a rubber stamp.” PR Society news media carried no mention of the proposal made in April 2006.

10. Leaders defend the $140,000 “Leadership Rally” that brings chapter presidents-elect to New York each June, compromising their independence, even though budget cuts are needed and national seeks a $30 dues hike. The Assembly is mostly chapter presidents and presidents-elect. Attendees at the “Rally” get a $550 stipend plus five free meals.

11. Removal of the single list of the 110 chapter presidents from the Society website forces anyone who wants such as list, including the presidents themselves, to download all the sites. This website has done that and makes the list available to anyone who wants it. CLICK HERE FOR LIST (PDF).

12. Removal of the names and contact points of about 47 h.q. staffers, leaving only seven names. This loss of information makes it impossible to track staff turnover.

13. Society made huge decisions without any input from the Assembly including the move downtown in 2004 for 13 years, eliminating use by the New York chapter, and cancellation of the printed members’ directory. Leaders refuse to discuss having a PDF which involve no printing or mailing costs by national.

Threats to Reporter Ignored

14. Refusal to investigate or disavow threats of physical violence made in person and in a letter to Jack O’Dwyer by an Assembly delegate following the 2010 Assembly. VP-PR Arthur Yann has e-mailed that a national director witnessed this incident.

15. Refusing to compensate numerous authors after selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their articles from 1980-94. An expose by O’Dwyer’s ended the practice.

16. The costly re-write of the bylaws at the 2009 Assembly violated major tenets of Robert’s Rules that forbid use of proxies and that demand that all articles in a revision be presented to the Assembly. Other advice ignored included not trying to do a revision at a regular meeting and having a large committee with all elements represented. Ten of the 11 committee members were APR when APRs are only 18% of the membership. Legal costs and bills from law firm Venable totaled $299,793 from 2007-09, an average far above previous years.

17. Further tightening insiders’ grip on governance by restricting officer nominations to those who have served on the board. The 2009 revision, turning its back on the wisdom of the founders who barred directors from returning to the board, provides that directors can serve two, two-year terms in a row and can come back indefinitely after skipping one year.

One Conference in New York in 23 Years!

18. Not allowing members to work at their own h.q. since about 1980, although the major professional groups such as ABA, AMA, AICPA and ASAE have large numbers of their own professionals on staff. Only three of the 50+ Society staffers are members and they are under tight control of management.

19. Failure to discuss the unusually high percentage of Society income devoted to staff pay/fringes--$5,529,699 in 2010 or 52.5% of revenues of $10,513,366. Average percentage of similar-sized groups is close to the 40% or lower range. Many groups have kept a New York h.q. but put “back office” operations in much cheaper locales.

20. Avoidance of New York as the site of the national conference (only once in the current 23-year period) has cost the Society millions because New York has by far the biggest audience. The 4,000 record for attendance was achieved at the 2004 conference in New York. Oddly, Philadelphia was the conference site in 2007 and will be again in 2013 while no New York conference is currently scheduled.