It is reported from time to time that the PR industry’s image stinks. And it’s not news that there is considerable distrust of PR practitioners by their media cousins. Many journalists don’t try to hide their contempt for PR people – which can be attributed to a mixture of irritation and genuine concern about the dubious tactics that are sometimes employed.
Some of the tactics criticised by journalists present issues more perceptual than real, but others pose serious problems that need to be excised from PR root and branch.
The perceptual problems may be referred to as ‘grey PR’. While not necessarily unethical, these tactics need to be scrutinised before being employed. They include offering free trips to journalists, stunts presented as serious activities (‘Headache Awareness Week’), research designed for marketing purposes (‘why doctors think chocolate is better than chewing gum’) or what I term ‘white spin’ – arguments based on legitimately-held beliefs but that emphasise such views to the exclusion or diminution of others.
Grey PR is selective without being untruthful. It requires close ethical scrutiny before use.
Then there’s ‘black PR’, which is unambiguously unethical because it deliberately denies people the honest information they require to make reasonable decisions. In effect, black PR is a coercive force in society. And in denying proper information it can do harm.
It can take any of these forms:
§ Astroturfing. Phony grassroots campaigns initiated to provide the appearance of mass community action. The funding source of the astroturf campaign is hidden, as are its true motives, and therein lies its dishonesty.
§ Conflict of interest. A PR firm works for two organisations (often competitors) or on separate but related projects without disclosing the nature of its interest. In these situations it is not unusual for matters to arise that are counter to the best interests of one of the clients. There is no disclosure and the client does not realise the firm is serving two competing and conflicting interests.
§ Disinformation. Deliberately spreading information known to be false.
§ Third party techniques. Recruiting surrogates to hide a client's message behind someone else's face. Putting scripted messages in the mouths of seemingly independent spokespeople is deceptive.
§ Black spin. Disseminating untruths or half-truths where there should be accurate or fuller disclosure.
The antidotes to grey or black PR are the joint application of disclosure and ethical compliance. Disclosure is achieved through transparency – letting the real clients and objectives be known – and a sense of broad accountability to the society which provides the source of our well-being. Ethical compliance needs to be part of the culture of every PR company and, at an industry level, probably requires an external, independent body to monitor and enforce it.
In Australia, we have a body – the Public Relations Institute – that should be concerned to ensure the good reputation of the industry but which does not seem to be effective in this pursuit.
JWM quit the PRIA some years ago because we believed it was not transparent, did not communicate its affairs to members, failed to account for its decisions and was weak on compliance.
The PRIA’s recent limp effusion on astroturfing (see elsewhere in this blog), failing as it did to recognise either the existence of the current debate or the PRIA-supported event that triggered it, has only served to reinforce views that, in Australia and elsewhere, the industry is quite properly regarded with suspicion.