Spinning the Moral Compass

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This article was first published as "Spinning the Moral Compass", PR Watch, volume 5, number 2, Second Quarter 1998. The original article was authored by Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Spinning the Moral Compass

I should have known that once the topic of "ethics" came up in a PR context, there would be fireworks.

The Compuserve computer network had asked me, along with my co-author John Stauber, to participate in an online discussion about our book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. One of the first questions came from a Compuserve user who asked if the public relations field had an "ethical code."

"The devil is in the details," I replied.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is the PR industry's leading professional organization, and it does have a code of ethics, but the code is voluntary, and violators rarely receive even a symbolic sanction. I noted the example of the Hill & Knowlton PR firm, which in 1990 fabricated false testimony in front of a fake "congressional hearing" as part of its work to help the government of Kuwait promote the Persian Gulf War. (For the devilish details, see the pages 167-75 of Toxic Sludge Is Good for You.)

"Hill & Knowlton has never suffered any consequences as a result of its unethical behavior," I wrote. "To the contrary, it remains a member in good standing of the PR industry and is still considered one of the industry's leaders. In fact, Robert Dilenschneider, who was president of Hill & Knowlton at the time of the fabricated hearings, is going around these days giving moralistic lectures about ethics to university classes and PR trade seminars."

That upset some flacks. "I am 36, a PR agency owner, and a member of the Counselor's Academy of the PRSA," replied Greg Jones. "As for your example of H&K, I know that they are now rebounding strongly from the Kuwait situation under dynamic new leadership. But to say that they suffered no consequences as a result is to demonstrate your ignorance of the profession."

"What consequences did they suffer?" I asked. "As a member of the Counselor's Academy of the PRSA, I'm sure you can readily lay your hands on any proclamations which the PRSA has issued condemning Hill & Knowlton's actions."

Of course, PRSA has never criticized the "Kuwait situation." It is true that H&K lost business after the war ended--largely because its biggest client no longer needed its services--but these losses can hardly be called "consequences" of its unethical behavior.

In April, in fact, I attended a pricey PR conference in New York called "Media Relations '98," which featured Bob Dilenschneider as a keynote speaker. According to Jones, anyone who lies to the media--even in wartime or a hostage situation--"can kiss your PR career goodbye." But there was Bob, large as life, being introduced to hundreds of top PR professionals as someone who had helped H&K by "tripling revenues and delivering more than $30 million in profit."

Like a lot of PR practitioners, Dilenschneider likes to talk an ethical game. His message at "Media Relations '98" was a diatribe against "spin," which he defined as "a deliberate and reckless disregard for the truth. I find spin offensive and destructive to our profession. It is to public relations what pornography is to art, quackery is to medicine."

Of course, he admitted a minute later, "to a degree we're all spinning all the time. . . . We're all advocates, I'll give you that." But, he added, "Credibility is built on trust. It's not built on tricks. If people think you're trying to trick them, they're not going to trust you. . . . What has happened to morality and ethics in this country?"

As an example of a "trick" that Dilenschneider considered unethical, he pointed to the example of Microsoft's recent attempt to fight a U.S. Justice Department antitrust lawsuit through a corporate "grassroots campaign" developed by the Edelman PR firm. The plan involved paying freelance writers and Edelman staff members to write pro-Microsoft letters to the editor and opinion-page editorials.

"They tried to conduct a synthetic campaign," Dilenschneider said. "The media got wind of it, and they made the story the sleaze alley of the computer industry."

Given Dilenschneider's own history as a "synthetic campaigner," it is hard to take these pontifications seriously. The PR industry certainly doesn't. After Microsoft's plans were leaked to the press, Inside PR, a leading industry trade publication, interviewed PR professionals around the country and reported that "they saw nothing remarkable or particularly disturbing about the campaign proposed by Edelman. The attitude of Edelman's competitors, for the most part, is one of 'there but for the grace of god go I.' "

"Based on what I've seen it's a fairly typical PR plan. It's what we do," said the general manager of the Washington office of one of the top ten PR firms.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

PR consultant Jim Lukaszewski, who led two workshops at "Media Management '98," had other perspectives on the relationship between ethics and public relations. A member of the PRSA Board of Ethics, he comes across as something of a moralizer within the industry, arguing that ethical behavior is the only way to avoid bad publicity in today's world.

At "Media Management '98," Lukaszewski led off his workshops with slide presentations of cartoons that provided a PR version of gallows humor. "I admire your honesty and integrity, Mr. Wilson, but there's no room for them in this firm," went one punchline. In another, a CEO informed his flack that "We're laying off half our staff and raising executives' salaries. Announce it to the media and put a good spin on it."

After the chuckling subsided, Lukaszewski introduced himself as "a specialist in managing other peoples' bad news. If there's a million gallons of toluene under your parking lot, I'm the guy you want to call." A consultant to Fortune 500 companies, he has worked with senior executives on issues such as product recalls, plant closings, chemical spills and hazardous-substance exposures. He helps clients prepare themselves to be interviewed on Sixty Minutes or Nightline, or to give testimony in front of congressional hearings. He also teaches communications at New York University and has written numerous articles for publications such as Public Relations Quarterly, PR Reporter and PR Tactics.

On his website (www.e911.com), Lukaszewski gives examples of some of his recent work. As the following excerpts show, his clients are typically major corporations that have been targeted for criticism by environmental, human rights, labor and other citizen groups:

  • "Provided . . . counsel to a large state-owned petrochemical company in South America related to its efforts to relocate neighboring villages now too close to its growing manufacturing facilities. The strategies developed addressed issues related to litigation, activist intervention by nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups from other areas of the world, anti-government action, the damage caused by cultural intervention, and long-term community-company relationship building."
  • "For senior environmental officer of Canadian natural resource company, provided strategic response recommendations for managing aggressive campaign by U.S. environmental groups against the company and its largest U.S. customer."
  • "Helped prepare executives of major U.S. defense contractor for annual meeting disruptions by anti-nuclear activists."
  • "Prepared directors, senior managers, and locally based executives of national financial cooperative for public demonstrations against farm foreclosures."
  • "Guided Fortune 500 toy manufacturer through attack by largest U.S. animal rights organization over the issue of animal testing."
  • "Developed specific, targeted, pro-active face-to-face communications response to noise, odor, and quality-of-life complaints by neighbors of a mid-size manufacturing facility."
  • "Counseled senior executives of major U.S. retailer/ merchandiser facing very public action by a national and international labor organizations protesting manufacturing practices in Central and South America."

The Ethics of Stonewalling

Where does the "ethical" part come in? At "Media Relations '98," Lukaszewski explained that he advises clients "to resolve the situation with the activist. It's unavoidable. We're eventually going to have to sit down with them. Let's do it today. We're probably not going to make them happy, but we can probably resolve it down to where they don't have a case. . . . Honorable action, on the ground, is the crucial ingredient, not media coverage. . . . If you're a crook, if you're a slimeball, then the media strategies I recommend will not work."

These comments came during a provocatively-titled panel discussion on the subject of "When the Press Attacks: Should You Stonewall or Cooperate?" Debating Larry Kamer of Kamer/Singer Associates, Lukaszewski took the side in favor of stonewalling. "Respond to the media only when your message goals are served," he said. "There is nothing in the US Constitution that says you have to call the press back." In order to communicate effectively in crisis situations, he advised that people should stick to scripted messages or shut up altogether. In order to keep friends and relatives quiet as well, he joked, "Duct tape is very handy."

The following day, Lukaszewski's message seemed at first to be diametrically opposed. Speaking at a workshop titled "Face the Press," he argued that PR strategy should be based on four principles: (1) "openness and accessibility"; (2) "truthfulness . . . unconditional honesty is the only policy"; (3) "responsiveness . . . recognition that any constituent concern is by definition legitimate"; and (4) "no secrets. Our behavior, our attitudes, our plans, even our strategic discussions must be unchallengeable, unassailable, and positive."

How do you achieve openness and accessibility while stonewalling? Lukaszewski's recipe consists of first making a list of the ten or so questions that a client most dreads answering, plus another list of questions that the client wishes someone would ask. Then, he writes out and rehearses scripted answers to each question.

During actual interviews, he advises clients to use "bridging language" so that their answers actually respond to their preferred rather than the feared list of questions. He has developed a number of specific phrases that can accomplish this bridging function:

  • "I have heard that too, but the real focus should be . . ."
  • "Opinions can differ, but I believe. . ."
  • "Here's an even tougher question. . ."

(The question you wish they'd ask is "tougher"? This must be some strange new definition of "unconditional honesty" that isn't in the dictionary.)

Lukaszewski also puts a tight time limit on interviews, allowing reporters at most half an hour to interview his clients. Otherwise, he fears, reporters will start to ask "off the wall questions" that don't fit the script. He advises clients to repeat all of their messages three times during the course of an interview, so that in reality reporters only get about 10 minutes worth of quotable material. To limit things still further, he has a standing rule that interviews should end as soon as a reporter hesitates for more than (literally) seven seconds between questions.

Lukaszewski even gives reporters printed versions of his scripted answers, which he calls "communications objectives." "It's amazing how accurate the reporters become when you give it to them," he said. "The communications objectives become the core of the story, generally."

The Predatory Press

Lukaszewski's campaign to eradicate candor is the natural consequence of the PR worldview, which has a love-hate relationship with journalists. They are natural allies when a company wants publicity and a reporter wants access, but in times of crisis, PR pros and journalists turn into natural enemies.

The paradoxical nature of this relationship was evident in the remarks that PR people made during my appearance on Compuserve. "Many--if not most--media rely heavily on information and assistance from public relations professionals," said Gwendolyn Moran. "My staff and I get calls from some of our media contacts to help them source articles . . . even when they're unrelated to the clients we serve. Because we are very involved in the communities and industries we serve, they know we are a good source of information."

In response to my critique of PR industry abuses, however, Moran's defense consisted of a "tit for tat" recitation of journalistic abuses: "From the point of view of the news media, there is nothing unethical about using information supplied by an unnamed source, and from the perspective of the unnamed source, there is nothing unethical about supplying information--and yet the effect is to create 'news' whose true source is hidden from its audience. Journalists think nothing of taking a leak and running with it--often ruining lives in the process."

Similar sentiments came from several of the speakers at "Media Relations '98." Lukaszewski, for example, justified his tactics as a way to help businesses cope with "an emotionally committed news media" made up of "alarmists, allegationists, interpreters, interventionists and speculators. . . . In the last several years we've seen an explosion of this emotionalization. . . . Their job is to spread the alarm, to get the word out. It doesn't matter if it's accurate or not. Their attitude is that it's better to save lives by getting the word out than to lose lives by not reporting something. They figure, 'It doesn't matter if we're wrong today because we'll simply correct it tomorrow.'"

These comments prompted an angry response from one workshop participant, "I am a former reporter, and now I am on the other side in public affairs," she said. "I don't think you can generalize. I think you have set up reporters as the enemy."

"No, no," Lukaszewski said. "I respect what reporters do. I really respect it." In fact, he added, "When the journalist gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror, what the journalist says is, 'I want to save the world from something today.' I admire this."

Fortunately for flacks, journalism's ability to save the world is increasingly limited. PR guru Patrick Jackson, the keynote speaker on the first morning of the conference, highlighted the idea that the "news media are no longer the first line of activity" for PR professionals. "The credibility of news media has never been lower," Jackson said. "Peoples' opinion of it is absolutely in the sewer. Journalists rank in the public's opinion with used car people. This is a change, but also it's a danger. Maybe for some it's an opportunity."

Why is it a danger? Because PR pros use the news media as a vehicle for delivering their clients' messages to the public, and the credibility of those messages depends in large part on public perception that the stories which appear in the news are written by independent, truth-seeking journalists. These days, however, Jackson said, "The reach and credibility of any publication is so minimized compared to the old days that you really have to have a campaign for each message that you want to get across."

On the other hand, the decline in credibility of the media, combined with its fragmentation into numerous market segments, creates opportunities for PR firms to bypass reporters entirely. "Why should we allow anyone to interpret us?" Jackson asked. "The classic trade-off was, the media deliver so much third-party credibility and such huge audiences, that we're willing to risk that they'll screw up the message order to have them deliver it for us. . . . Now we're so fragmented across issue lines and position lines that it can't deliver those huge audiences. . . . And I ask you, where is that credibility? In one recent study, over 50% of the respondents said that you cannot believe what you read in the news."

Of course, he admitted, "It's no shock to you that people don't trust PR types, nor do they trust politicians or senior organizational officials."

Byline Envy

A final look at the dicey relationship between journalists and PR people came during a "Media Relations '98" seminar titled "The Influence of Gossip Columnists on Mainstream Media." It featured Richard Johnson, editor of the New York Post's "Page Six" gossip column, and Deborah Mitchell, a writer for New York Magazine's "Intelligencer" column. Peter Himler, managing director for Burson-Marsteller (currently the world's largest PR firm) rounded out the panel.

In her opening remarks, Mitchell offered a jaw-dropping example of the news media's ability to live in denial of its dependence on PR-fed information. "I like to think that in fact there is no relationship," she said, and then immediately added, "I guess you're selling me on the fact that PR people run these gossip columns, and they really do. We all know that."

Himler concurred, recalling his early days working for a colorful entertainment publicist known in the trade as "Superflack." Shortly after he was hired, Himler said, "Superflack instructed me to head over to NBC studios as the new publicist for Art Linkletter. That day the show featured a reunion of the Mouseketeers. I took notes. My boss told me to write up what I saw and send it to [a gossip columnist]. I got back a note from the columnist that said, 'many thanks,' along with a tear sheet of my story, virtually verbatim as I had written it. I was astonished. 'So this is what we do in PR,' I thought. 'So where's my byline? Isn't this plagiarism? Until then, I really thought that all journalists went out and sourced their own stories.' "

Most members of the general public still think that journalists actually write their own stories, but both the media and PR industries know that enlightening people to the contrary would put the lie to the myth of independent journalism and destroy the profitable symbiosis of reporters and flacks.

Gossip columns may be more egregious than other sections of the newspaper when it comes to printing planted stories, but there are plenty of examples elsewhere, notably in the auto, lifestyles, entertainment, home and food sections. And in today's gossip-driven political environment, savvy flacks know that planting a story in a gossip column can "precipitate broader, more mainstream news coverage," in the words of the handout that accompanied Himler's workshop.

"Page Six" editor Richard Johnson gave a recent example of a story that originated in the gossip columns before going mainstream. "We had the story that Paula Jones was going to attend the White House correspondents' dinner, and then a couple of days later it was in the general news."

Is there an ethical standard that drives these collusions? Ethics did come up briefly during the gossip column workshop, when everyone agreed that the one thing a flack must never do is lie to reporters. It is okay if flacks and reporters mislead the public about the source of their news, but a PR person "crosses the line" if he or she gets caught giving false information to the press itself.

"One thing we haven't discussed yet is honesty. The McCartney thing," Mitchell said. The "McCartney thing" referred to the fact that Paul McCartney's family spokesperson had initially misled reporters about the location where Linda McCartney died. The following day, the McCartneys admitted that this had been a ruse to give the grieving family a little privacy.

"They don't realize the damage that they do," Himler intoned sadly.

From the narrow point of view of a gossip columnist or a flack, they might have had a point. It's a small point, to be sure--much smaller than the points that ought to be considered about the ethics of PR tactics for handling oil spills, wars, farm foreclosures, environmental disasters and nuclear weapons.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to feel that even this notion of ethics was based on a collaboration between PR people and journalists that many of the rest of us would find profoundly unethical. After all, who was harmed by the white lie that McCartney's representative told to protect him from the harassing hordes of reporters who would otherwise have descended upon him in the moment of his deepest and most private grief?

I said as much on Compuserve, and drew immediate ridicule from the circling flacks who by then were in an angry feeding frenzy.

"So, lying to the press is okay now, huh?" wrote Greg Jones. "I think it was outrageous, stupid, and reprehensible. I can't think of a justifiable reason to lie to the media."