Must ‘Ethical PR’ be an Oxymoron, Richard Edelman?

[Cross-posted on,, and]

A few days ago, the Sammie Lynn Puett Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) invited me to speak at the University of Tennessee’s PR Day. It was more of an honor to be asked than the students will ever know. I don’t think many of them knew I was a charter member of that PRSSA chapter back in the ’70s and that Sammie Lynn Puett, a revered figure on campus for many years, had been my teacher, student adviser and, later in life, my mentor.

Sammie Lynn had been a journalist before going into teaching and taught several journalism courses, including the first one I ever took, Basic News Writing. She also served for a while as a PR professional, and was determined to establish a comprehensive PR curriculum at UT. It hadn’t been fully fleshed out by the time I graduated in 1973, but I took every PR course offered at the time, including all of the graduate level courses.

The first PR textbook I ever used was Effective Public Relations by Scott Cutlip and Allen Center. First published in 1952, it is still considered the PR “bible” by many PR teachers and practitioners. In my view, one of the reasons it is called the PR bible is that Cutlip & Center, from the very beginning, preached the importance of ethics and ethical behavior. As I told the students at PR Day, I did not learn in PR school — not from Cutlip & Center, and certainly not from Sammie Lynn — how to set up fake grassroots organizations and front groups to disseminate false or misleading information in order to manipulate public opinion and influence public policy. I would not learn how to do that — and how prevalent such PR practices are — until many years later, when I was deep into by career as a corporate communications executive.

PR Has a PR Problem

The reason I wrote my new book, Deadly Spin, was to explain not only how the insurance industry used the dark arts of PR to shape health care reform legislation, but also how many other special interests use them to influence how we think and act every day. The reality is that most people are completely unaware of how this gets done, which is why Australia-based author and former London PR man David Michie called public relations professionals “invisible persuaders.”

I suspected I would incur the wrath of some of my former PR colleagues by disclosing the dirty tricks of the trade (one chapter is entitled, “The Playbook”), and I suspected right. Some of the attacks directed at me have been downright vicious. Clearly, Deadly Spin has struck a nerve.

Good. It’s about time.

The reason only a handful of PR people use PR in their titles these days is because PR itself has a PR problem, and for good reason.

That’s a shame because PR is not inherently evil or manipulative. As I wrote in the book:

PR has been — and is being — used to good ends. Even the noblest of causes can benefit from the services of a communications expert to clarify facts, disseminate information, and counter unfair arguments. And there are plenty of ethical PR people out there to do this.

“But,” I went on to say, “with PR so intricately woven into every major industry and movement in today’s mass media reality, the stakes of spin have become incredibly high. And ethics do slip. PR often crosses the line into misleading, withholding, or simply lying. And when it does, society suffers — sometimes tragically so.”

Edelman’s Offended?

One of the people offended by the book was Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman, which bills itself as “the leading independent global PR firm.” In Deadly Spin, I wrote that Edelman, renowned for touting ethics as a touchstone of the PR business, created a false grassroots movement as part of its campaign to help Wal Mart improve its image. I noted that in March, 2006 the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that Edelman recruited bloggers to publish favorable comments about Wal Mart, which was being widely criticized at the time for paying workers low wages and not offering health benefits to many of them. later exposed an ostensibly independent blog titled “Wal-Marting Across America” as an Edelman project. BusinessWeek outed it as a fake blog (or “flog”).

Richard Edelman confessed in his own blog that the agency had violated its stated ethical standards, but he stressed that he was not personally involved in the project. (Note: CEOs usually are not involved in such shenanigans. More junior staff members typically do the dirty work. My question is: Was Richard Edelman aware of the deception? As my friend and fellow Tennessean Howard Baker, the former Republican senator, famously asked during the Watergate hearings, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”)

Who’s Really Distorting the PR Field?

In a blog post dated November 22, Edelman wrote that: “Wendell Potter has done the public a great disservice in distorting the PR field in “Deadly Spin.” He went on to write:

Ok, Mr. Potter, since you are calling out Edelman, let me agree with you on a few points. Front groups should not be used to cover up the true intent of a client. Biased research surveys should not purport to be factual representation of the views of the public. Communications campaigns where clients say one thing and mean another are duplicitous.

But here is where you and I part company. Inaccurate representations of the PR industry — such as yours — “not so much for public relations as for public deception” — feed misconceptions of what we do. PR firms and their clients are dedicated to the long-term success of their business which is only achieved by honest and accurate communications, and that is the only approach tolerated at our firm.”

Oh, really?

One of my colleagues at the Center for Media and Democracy, Anne Landman, has done an enormous amount of research into deceptive PR practices, especially those used over the years for the tobacco industry. As part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco companies and 46 states, the tobacco companies were required to make public millions of their previously-secret documents that, among other things, showed the lengths they went to to deceive the public about the harms tobacco and secondhand smoke can do to a body. Anne has spent many hours poring over those documents, and when she saw what Richard Edelman said about my book — and about his own firm — she pointed out some the interesting PR plans that she had come across that Edelman developed and implemented for its tobacco clients.

One such proposal for R.J. Reynolds, submitted in 1978 by Edelman founder and chairman Daniel J. Edelman, suggested that Reynolds undertake a comprehensive public relations effort to “slow or reverse the growing negative trends in public opinion regarding smoking.”

In the proposal, titled “Taking the Initiative on the Smoking Issue — A Total Program,” Edelman proposed a number of questionable tactics, including a “press event on the passive smoking issue,” “a whimsical feature [publication] which seeks to bring out the humor of the smoker vs. non-smoker conflict,” “excerpts from some leading civil libertarians and editorialists on the ‘freedom’ issue,” a courteous-smoking appeal to smokers, a “Traveling Etiquette Spokesperson,” production of a film on “Smoker and the Non-smoker” that would address “issues that divide them other than the primary health issue,” and a Smokers’ News Bureau based in New York that would “generate news stories … showing that smoking is not as annoying to the nonsmoker as is widely perceived.”

Edelman further proposed commissioning a survey by a “nationally famous research organization” that would poll people on the “degree of annoyance of a whole range of obnoxious habits — i.e., body odor, bad breath, whiskey breath, loud talkers, foul language, sneezing, uncurbed dogs, etc. ” Edelman said,

The survey would include smoking, but our sense it that it will show that smoking is relatively insignificant as an annoyance compared with scores of other personal practices, against which there are no organized efforts.

Edelman noted that surveys done by both companies (RJR and Edelman) showed that “the smoker himself has no pride, feels guilty, ashamed, is not willing to defend or describe the pleasure he gets from smoking.” Edelman proposed to correct this by undertaking a campaign to associate smokers with “elegance, style, class, and intellectual responsibility — personality traits that can give him pride.”

The proposal shows how Edelman helped the tobacco industry minimize the health dangers associated with smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, and reinforce the social acceptability of smoking, even as public health efforts to discourage smoking were ongoing.

There is plenty more where that came from. When you have time, poke around the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library to get a real sense what how the game is played. It is one of the reasons (along with tactics used by the insurance industry) I named my book “Deadly Spin.”

How About Abiding by the PRSA Code of Ethics?

I will accept Richard Edelman’s word that nothing short of honest and accurate communications are now tolerated at his firm. That’s wonderful news. Now that that is indeed the case, I am inviting Mr. Edelman and other leaders in the profession to join me in finding ways to strengthen and enforce the Code of Ethics developed by the Public Relations Society of America, of which I have been a member (an accredited member at that) for three decades. That code, by the way, states that PR people must “be honest and accurate in all communications” and “avoid deceptive practices” and “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented (in other words, no fake grassroots, flogs or front groups, please),” and “decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this code.”

In Effective Public Relations, Cutlip & Center wrote that “accountability in a profession means that practitioners must face up to the consequences of their actions.” To hold PR practitioners accountable, the authors suggested the possibility of practitioners being required to obtain a license. They noted that Brazil has used that method to regulate the public relations industry since 1967. In Brazil, they wrote, “practitioners who behave unethically or otherwise inappropriately in the execution of their professional duties can be removed from the profession by having their license revoked, much like doctors or lawyers guilty of malpractice can have their licenses taken away.”

Considering the increasingly lethal consequences of certain PR practices in the United States today, it might be time to consider doing the same thing here.

What do you think, Richard?

P.S. — Edelman ended his blog post about Deadly Spin with this remarkable claim: “The reality is that today, thanks to robust mainstream and social media, there is immediate damage extracted to the reputation and the license-to-operate of any company, brand or PR firm folly enough to distort the truth.” If you buy that, let me show you a bridge I own in Brooklyn I could be persuaded to part with. The fact is, as we saw during the recent debate on health care reform, people who have an agenda, such as, say, insurance company executives hoping to shape reform to their liking, or to kill it if they don’t like it, have found the social media extraordinarily efficient and effective in disseminating lies to a gullible population. (“Death panels,” anyone?)

I will say this, though, there is potential for Edelman’s statement to be true. But only if people wise up to the dirty tricks of unethical flacks.

Enjoy the article? Subscribe below for regluar updates. Stay informed, make a difference.
Share this:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone

7 thoughts on “Must ‘Ethical PR’ be an Oxymoron, Richard Edelman?”

  1. I’ve been having the same thoughts myself. My approach would be to innoculate the public against such tactics by teaching people what the con is (i.e., innoculation theory used to show people what the tactics are). We’ve used this idea in the smoking prevention area for many years. During the 70s school-based programs were outspent 16 to 1 but we held the line against Joe Camel. If you teach someone the foot-in-the-door technique, they won’t fall for it anymore.

  2. Good point. It reminds me of Les Miserables. If you use unethical tactics for a good cause, is it still wrong? That is a question that this post addresses. If you create a campaign based on misinformation that eventually passes legislation that helps millions of people, is it still good? I think that is something that people in public interest pr struggle with a lot.

    Personally, when it comes to right and wrong, I think anything can be proved one way or the other depending on how much time you put into it and who you ask. It is all about framing. If it is a simple framing issue, then can it really be considered lying? There is someone on every side of each issue or there wouldn’t be an issue. Plus, I think that with bloggers and social media out there, it is so much easier to be unethical both on purpose and by mistake. There is more information going around, more people getting in on the conversation, and that ultimately leads for more games of telephone that leads to greater misinformation. I have heard that one of the greatest challenges that the next generation will have is not a lack of information, but rather determining what information is correct. As consumers, people need to get wiser on the issues, but that is tough with all the spin.

    For example, there was an issue on the ballot during the last election about ambulances fees in the county where I live. There was so much spin on each side it looked like if I voted for it that I would be making people pay fees for an ambulance even if they couldn’t afford it. If I didn’t vote for it, then there were going to be layoffs. It just confuses people. In the end, I don’t even know what I voted for, and I am an educated voter trying to seek some answers on this issue. I would say that it is less dark and more confusing.

    It is definitely a good philosophical question to embark on that I think we will be facing for years especially as new technology develops.

  3. I didn’t find the Public Relations Society ethical standards to be very useful. They seemed to be too vague. Public relations is about creating an impression about an organization. As a social psychologist, I would call that an attempt to change someone’s schema and it’s core that has to involve changing values, beliefs and/or attitudes. It’s about attempting to change a person’s attitude toward something (e.g., convincing a person that a company can be trusted, is deserving of one’s respect and/or makes quality products). Second, the PR communication has to successfully communicate accurate and complete information (no half-truths) in a way that is not threatening, deceitful or devious. Covert influence is always unethical. Third, the communicator’s evaluation of the situation (e.g., it’s a win-win situation so it’s OK if I do it.) may not coincide with the recipient’s evaluation and is not relevant in terms of deciding whether or not the communication is ethical. This seems to be a point that many PR specialist including Mr. Edelman miss. Ethical communication has to respectful of the existing values and attitudes of the communicator. For example, if a person bombards a person with anti-smoking messages after the smoker has asked the person to change the subject, that is an unwanted and therefore unethical attempt to change a person’s attitude, no matter how well meaning. Of course, experts in persuasion would argue that such an approach is likely to lead to psychological reactance and actually re-enforce the smokers existing attitudes and make it less likely that the smoker would listen to anti-smoking messages in the future.
    In short, ethical communication can only occur if 1) the recipient wants to hear the message, 2) the communication successfully communicates accurate and complete information (no half-truths) in a way that is not threatening, deceitful or devious and 3) it is respectful of a person’s existing values, beliefs and attitudes.
    Deceitful and devious means tactics include tactics that put psychological pressure on the respondent to change their attitudes. Deadly spin mentions many of these (e.g., the Bandwagon effect, everyone is doing it so you should do it). Historically, PR people have done what they believed at the time was a good idea but history shows they were wrong. Take for example, Bernays involvement with the CIA in Nicaragua. I’m sure in his mind, he was just helping his country. However, his efforts not only ruined that country for a generation, the CIAs use of similar tactics in the middle east is considered by many to be a significant contributor to the problems we see in that region today. That is, PR firms may have an inherent conflict of interest between representing their clients and treating their corporations potential clients ethically. Furthermore, it is not always easy to see the ramifications of a PR campaign on it’s intended audience but one has to consider the consequences on the audience and society as a whole, and not just in terms of what the client wants. PR firms have an inherent conflict of interest because their existence depends on clients and those clients may not be interested in ethics so that being an unethical PR firm because a requirement of success. When a PR firm or a company strays from ethical principles it’s essentially an act of fraud. Although in this country it’s not an illegal to do so, I would hasten to add that when Germans formed a new constitution after World War II, they had to ask the question as to why their prior democracy elected Hitler and allowed him to overthrow their democratic. A big part of their answer was truth-in-advertising laws. Perhaps the PR industry as well as others involved in persuasive communications should consider adopting the standards that Germany set for itself and work toward regulations, transparency or compensation models that enforce or encourage the adoption of those standards.

  4. I’m sorry if my English is not good enough. I’m a recently graduated PR professional from Argentine and I’ve read enthusiastically Mr. Potter’s article.
    I agree in most of the points he express, but I also think that our profession’s PR problem is based on our own perception about it.
    I’m not refering to all PR practitioners, but many of us (not including myself) think that PR is just a pot full of tactics, and that our profession consists in picking some of them randomly when we have to face a problematic situation; I consider that if we want to place our profession in a higher ethical level, we should reflect and debate once again about the deep sense of PR.
    I personally think that our duty is to decode and break up collective prejudices and to be reliable information providers in the process of building collective well-founded judgments. In this way, I slightly disagree with toddq, as I think that we can’t change people’s values, beliefs and or attitudes, but we can show them facts of which they are not aware, and that can make them change their own schema (or not).
    Finally I would like to say that I don’t know which are current Edelman´s ethic politics, but I wouldn’t be able to judge the firm for its doings from thirty years ago, under a different communication paradigm and with totally different players.

  5. Wendell, Why should anyone believe you aren’t still a shill for the health insurance industry? Your self-proclaimed role of “whistleblower” is an inaccurate able as nothing you’ve reported to date falls under the False Claims Act nor have you reported anything, other than anecdotes, that wasn’t already common knowledge.

    My hypothesis is that your current role is to frame controversies around the health insurance industry in terms that are favorable to the health insurance industry. And thus far it appears that you are doing a fabulous job in keeping the purported “media critics” focused on your new talking points.

    So, I go back to my initial question: Wendell, Why should anyone believe you aren’t still a shill for the health insurance industry?

Comments are closed.