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Jack O'Dwyer
Jack O'Dwyer is editor-in-chief of the J.R. O'Dwyer publications. He can be reached at jack@

March 21 , 2006

PRSA's lawyer, Arthur Abelman, is demanding that we retract charges in an editorial Feb. 2 on this website that PRSA practices "false bookkeeping," uses "continued false accounting," and is engaged in "blatant bribery."

Our lawyer, who reads everything we write, says don't retract anything but explain our charges further.

What was most striking about the Abelman letter was that it ignored 12 other points we made about PRSA including charges that it is "undemocratic" because it has blocked 80% of members from running for national office since 1973, and has failed to use its blast e-mail to find out the opinions of its 20,000 members.

We also criticized the continued dominance of accredited members when the 2004 Assembly voted to let non-APRs join the Assembly.


To complete this action, PRSA should let non-APRs on the nominating committee and should allow non-APRs to petition for a special Assembly meeting.

If non-APRs are o.k. for the Assembly, they should be o.k. for the board.

The fact that PRSA is so undemocratic in so many ways is galling to us because the U.S. is spending precious lives and countless dollars to promote democracy in Iraq and elsewhere.

How PRSA can be so insular and so out of step with the nation's supreme value is a mystery to us. It's out of step with its own code of ethics which mentions the need for "informed decision-making in a democratic society."

Also not mentioned by Abelman was the failure of PRSA to take up the issue of letting students join from any of the 4,000 colleges in the U.S. instead of just the 270 recognized by PRSA.

This is an inequity to students in the other colleges and another indication of the exclusionary, elitist policies of PRSA.

Abelman says the fact that he doesn't mention our other points does not mean he admits any of them. But he doesn't rebut them, either.

The sketchy, 10-line letter of Abelman doesn't give any specifics about our claim of "false bookkeeping" by PRSA.

Staff Time on Conference Too Low

PRSA reported $103,000 as "staff time" on the 2004 national conference in New York. Former officers and directors tell us about half the staff spends about half the year on planning conferences years in advance. The dollar amount is over $1 million and could be close to $2 million, they say.

We believe them because arranging for more than 130 speakers, producing elaborate programs and other printed materials, and making advance visits to various cities must consume a lot of time. It's obviously far more than the $100K or so claimed each year on the PRSA audit.

We would be only too glad to argue these points with Abelman but we should really be talking to Jeff Julin, treasurer of PRSA, based at MGA Communications in Denver.

Treasurers Can't Speak Publicly

But under long policy, no PRSA officer or director except the president can talk to us or any press. This is a bizarre policy that can only backfire.

It has. The PRSA search committee for a new COO to succeed Catherine Bolton has told senior members that PRSA needs to attract "the Society's next leader" and asks them whether the leader should have such traits as "visionary" and be a "charismatic leader" and "an accomplished speaker."

This is a slap in the face to Rhoda Weiss, president-elect, and Julin, who is an odds-on bet to be the next president-elect.

Obviously, the search committee does not see them as "charismatic," "visionary," etc. How can they be when they've put themselves under house arrest by hiding out from the press their entire careers at PRSA?! How can you be charismatic if you're never seen in public?

Also in the same "no-speaking" boat with Weiss and Julin are the Assembly, district leaders, past presidents, chapter presidents, and the College of Fellows. All seem to have taken vows of silence on matters that should be under discussion.

Ex-leaders tell us that dissidents fear they will not get their budgets passed (such as for travel, food and hotels); that they will miss out on key appointments, and that people will stop talking to them. They fear being "frozen out."

Big Deferred Dues Account Needed

We also feel it's false and misleading for PRSA to book a year's advance dues from a member as cash when a year's service is owed for these dues.

Other professional trade groups like the American Medical Assn., American Bar Assn., AICPA, American Society of Assn. Executives, and PRSA's peer organization, International Assn. of Business Communicators, all have substantial deferred dues accounts.

PRSA in 1991 had such an account worth $904,767. Why was it drawn down to $310,000 as of Dec. 31, 2004, when PRSA was much bigger than it was in 1991? PRSA income was $5.2 million in 1991 vs. $10.9M in 2004.

June 'Leaders' Rally Deserves Criticism

Abelman wants us to retract our claim that the June weekend in New York for chapter presidents-elect is "blatant bribery."

We have been critics of this bootless meeting since it was started four years ago and called it "bribery" on March 20, 2005 without getting a letter from Abelman.

Instead of meeting in New York for ego-massaging by the PRSA staff (this is the ultimate ego-trip), the presidents-elect should be at a spring Assembly that can vote on much-needed PRSA governance reforms.

Each president-elect gets $500 in cash from the Society and the weekend costs $100,000 by PRSA's own count. How come Assembly delegates don't get $500 to help defray expenses? They don't even get a break on the conference fee, which is about $1,000 depending on whether there is early registration. Also, they are forced to spend two extra nights at a conference city when the Assembly could just as well take place on the Monday afternoon of a conference. The delegates are not "coddled" while non-voting presidents-elect are.

We're not accusing the presidents-elect nor PRSA of a crime. "Bribery," says our Webster's dictionary, means giving something, especially money, to "induce someone to do something illegal or wrong."

We think it's wrong for the presidents-elect to be "schmoozed" out of their voting rights by having their egos stroked. A good part of the meeting is also spent by staff telling about all the PRSA services available to them.
This mutual love affair should be replaced by hard-working chapter delegates making needed reforms such as decoupling the board from APR; opening up the PRSA website to member opinions; letting the Assembly meet all year long by teleconference, etc.

PRSA had a spring Assembly until 1985 when, after a big battle between the board and Assembly over moving h.q. out of town, the board permanently cancelled the spring Assembly, saying it was too expensive.

The entire 40-person PRSA staff, except for COO Betsy Kovacs, said it would quit if h.q. left New York. The board said it would be too expensive to replace the staff and voted to keep h.q. in New York. Seven chapters had submitted materials that were about two feet high in favor of moving and were aghast at the decision. Some chapter leaders wondered if the national board ever had any intention of leaving New York.

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That is just what the PR profession needs. How can the leading PR trade organization even think about suing a publication that covers the industry! It is mind-bogglingly stupid, and will further damage the image of PR.

Ron Levy (3/22):
When we say an idea "is crazy," we're not really saying that the proponent is insane. A "blizzard" of press releases is understood by PR professionals to mean many of them, not that releases have falen from the sky like snowflakes, and a "ton" of clippings implies a large number of them, not 2000 pounds.

When a restaurant reviewer says a steak was "hard as a rock," that's interpreted by readers as meaning a very tough steak, not as one that is like petrified wood turned into stone.

Freedom of expression, which I'm sure PRSA and its managers and counsel favor just as much as Jack O'Dwyer does, requires that a literary critic should be able to say that a writer "murders" the English language, that a playright's work s "sickening," that a rival politician's proposed plan "stinks to high heaven," or that when an association (or PR executive) pays for many business meals, it's "bribery."

Probably a columnist shouldn't, and I wouldn't, say that someone being criticized "sounds like a real nut case," but doing so would be obviously pejorative, not a statement of the subject's mental competence.

I myself wrote that it was "a ripoff" when it was revealed how much WPP was paying Martin Sorrell. I wrote that he was worth much more, but really it would be unreasonable to sue me for accusing the WPP board of ripping off Martin Sorrell.

The leading lawbook on libel -- "Libel, Slander and Related Problems" by Robert Sack and written in plain English -- teaches that the courts have held NOT libelous calling someone "a bastard"..."rotten"..."a sleazebag who kind of slimed up from the bayou"...a "mischuginer" (the Yiddish word for crazy person)..."dishonorable and deluded" "asshole"..."a liar"...and other such terms.

Dow Jones was sued unsuccessfully for calling a public relations person "a clod," and Curtis Publishing Company was sued for calling a plaintiff named Birdsong "one of those bastards," but Judge Maris decided in the Birdsong case: "It is perfectly apparent that the words were used as mere epithets, as terms of abuse and opprobrium. Such words of vituperation and abuse reflect more on the character of the user than they do on that of the individual to whom they are intended to refer. It has long been settled that such words are not in themselves actionable as libeous."

Missing the point (3/22):
Your dues money at work, ladies and gentlemen. Ridiculous to the point of embarrassment.

Thinkman2 (3/21):
Sometimes institutions are the authors of their own downfalls. PRSA should consider that.

Bill Huey, Strategic Communications, Atlanta (3/21):
Let me say publicly that if PRSA persists in this silliness, I will resign my membership and urge others to do the same. I already know members of long standing who have resigned. I have never paid more to an organization and gotten less from it than PRSA. In a time when transparency and disclosure are governance bywords, PRSA is drifting in the opposite direction.

And the idea of a lawyer writing threatening letters to one of the nation's only news outlets for the PR industry is the last straw. Jack O'Dwyer knows nothing about this in advance. I simply wanted to use this forum to state my opposition to this low-down tactic.

Arnold M Hubeman President Arnold Huberman Associates, Inc (3/21):

"But under long policy, no PRSA officer or director except the president can talk to us or any press. This is a bizarre policy that can only backfire."

For a group with the title Public Relations Society... to act in this fashion negates any positive benefits they may have. Membership in PRSA has never been a determining factor in our selection of qualified candidates and, as they get more insular and self-protective, this will be reinforced even more.

They do not serve the profession well.


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