The Rendon Group, a tight-lipped firm that gave Kuwaitis small American flags to wave for TV cameras in a slam-dunk PR move after the first Gulf War, has been working with the U.S. military for years and is a favorite whipping-boy of conspiracy theorists. But the latest uproar over its work is a phony debate and one that opens up another fissure in the PR industry's battered image.
So where's the support for a firm under fire?
Stars and Stripes revealed last month that Rendon's latest Pentagon pact (since terminated after the uproar) involves weighing the news coverage of war journalists in Afghanistan. Outrage ensued -- but it's mostly misguided, even paranoid.
In a switch from AstroTurfing and phony blogging, the latest PR scandal is one that would be easy for PR pros to push back against. So where is everyone?
Rendon is "accused" of providing a service any decent agency does for clients -- monitoring reporters' coverage and gauging their tone toward a particular issue or client. Putting your client on the phone or in the room with a skeptical (even hostile) reporter requires more preparation, better research and plenty of PR training. You see what I'm getting at?
The faux outrage directed at Rendon seems to make the giant leap to assuming that the Pentagon uses its reports to give the thumbs up (or down) to journalists' requests to report embedded with U.S. troops. I'm still waiting for any credible evidence on that front.
Kudos to PR pro Eric Dezenhall for being the lone industry figure to stand up for Rendon. The D.C. crisis expert, who is also one of the few pros to speak the entire truth about the vaunted Tylenol crisis and advises clients to push back hard against the press, notes in a Huffington Post op-ed that media place special emphasis on the publication of PR firm memos.
"A particular premium is placed on public relations memos because such is the shape-shifting power of flacks to brainwash the public against its will that during the height of an anti-trust battle, a newspaper headline read 'Microsoft Hires Public Relations Firm to Improve Image' (Well, yeah). The article went on to discuss how the company's then-CEO, Bill Gates, was wearing more Mister Rogers-style sweaters to soften his image. Will these bastards stop at nothing?"
The black helicopter crowd loves to take shots at John Rendon (pictured), who rarely does interviews. His most recent sit-down resulted in a hyperbolic Rolling Stone piece that pinned the path to the misguided Iraq invasion to topple Sadaam Hussein on Rendon's shoulders. There was John, right next to Bush, Cheney and Rummy. Quite a coup for the info warrior. [It's worth mentioning in light of Dezenhall's theory, that RS' thesis was heavily sourced by Rendon's contracts and memos.]
PR pros may remember when Waggener Edstrom accidentally sent its notes for Microsoft on Wired reporter Fred Vogelstein to the writer himself, sparking him to pen a story about the "dossier." That sparked a similar outpouring of outrage that a PR firm would dare to do it's job.
The links to stories and blog posts about the diabolic Pentagon-Rendon scheme to manipulate the press have been hitting my inbox, Twitter feed and Google alerts for the past two weeks. Most regurgitate the S&S story and jump to conclusions about the military, Rendon and PR in general. As usual in a PR controversy, its the media and public's lack of understanding about the industry that fuels the torches.
As Jeremy Pepper, director of public relations and social media at Palisade Systems and a PR blogger at POP! PR Jots, said of the "controversy" in an IM conversation with me:
"Even if you don't put it in writing, you naturally look at past articles and coverage to gauge friendly versus antagonistic media. It's just common sense for pitching and media tours, because as a PR person, it's your job if the interview goes south. Rendon is getting attacked because their document went public."