A prosecution team shredded the reputation of PR last night at a mock trial of the profession held in New York City.

Emmanuel Tchividjian, Delbert Spurlock, Camila Lyngsby
Photos: Sharlene Spingler

The jury (audience members) listened to the argument about whether PR is "deceptive, non- transparent and of little value to clients or society."

PRSA's NY chapter staged the event at SUNY's Global Center on E55th St. It drew more than 80 people.

Paul Holmes, editor of Holmes Report, served as prosecutor, while Michael Schubert, Ruder Finn's chief innovation officer, countered as defense attorney.

Randy Cohen, who wrote the New York Times "The Ethicist" column, was the judge.

Raps Intellectual Dishonesty

Holmes launched a spirited attack on PR, saying the profession at times relies on spin and practices intellectual dishonesty. Trouble mostly occurs when the focus is on "transactional" rather than strategic PR.

PR is tarnished by hyperbole, lack of identification of paid spokespeople, failure to exhibit moral courage and omission of pertinent facts in order to burnish the reputation of clients, according to Holmes.

He decried the phoniness of Exxon promoting its efforts on global warming, while supporting groups like ALEC, which is dead-set against environmental safeguards.

L-R: Panelists Steve Cody, Michael Schubert, Randy Cohen and Paul Holmes.

Holmes cited a major PR firm that recently established a front group in support of management's view in Washington Redskins name controversy.

Conceding that the vast majority of PR people conduct themselves in an ethical fashion, Holmes blamed a "relatively small" bunch of people who hurt PR's image and cheat clients, employees and communities.

He warned that the rise of social media calls for higher standards of ethical behavior, noting that PR people are now directly targeting consumers and completely bypassing journalists, the traditional media-gatekeepers.

To Holmes, consumers are not aware of the "game played between PR people and journalists," making them more vulnerable to hucksters.

Deceivers, Not Liars

Fran Hawthorne, a regular contributor to the New York Times, and Delbert Spurlock, former Assistant Secretary of the Army and executive VP at the New York Daily News, were witnesses for the prosecutions.

Jacqueline Brevard

Hawthorne commended the audience for "looking like very nice people," but then said "your job is to make me write about things you want me to and steer me away from bad news."

She said PR people "rarely lie," but practice deception. They string along reporters from small publications with promises of access to the CEO, when in reality they are waiting for a call from the NYT.

Spurlock attacked PR as "monolithic" and a danger to civil society. He believes its wrong to fault Washington for gridlock.

SUNY's Global Center
SUNY's Global Center
Photo: SUNY

"The problem is New York," he said due to the city's role as center of world finance, commerce and communications.

To Spurlock, PR has led to the "destruction of journalism."

Practiced by Angels

Schubert acknowledged that PR may have some flaws but he's always acted in an open and transparent fashion.

Jacqueline Brevard, ex-chief ethics officer at Merck & Co., said all communications at that pharmaceutical giant adhered to the highest code of ethics.

Steve Cody, co-founder & CEO of Peppercomm, is proud to be part of the industry. He's also "walked away" from potential clients who are engaged in questionable behavior.

"PR is largely practiced by angels" is how Cohen summed up the defense argument in the case.

September is PRSA's national ethics month.