The pundits and the PR community are all sharpening their pencils and will be slugging it out over Scott McClellan's new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.
What is meant to expose a cultural unpinning in Washington politics is poised to become yet another overall indictment of the public relations profession.
CBS News Analyst Andrew Cohen sent out the first volley this weekend with his snarky commentary where he said, in part:
Apparently, an industry the very essence of which is to try to convince people that a turkey is really an eagle has a rule that condemns lying…
“…You can't try to convince someone that a milk cow is really a racehorse without lying. You can't build a profession based a deceit and spin, then create ‘ethics' rules that call for honesty, and then criticize McClellan.”
The Public Relations Society of America volleyed back with an open letter to Cohen that read, in part:
Curiously, you also assert that lying is no big deal. To the public relations professional, that is far from the truth. To “try to convince people a turkey is really an eagle” would leave true professionals eating crow, if they could eat at all.
Andrew Cohen presents his point of view as “the truth”
Is PR Paid to Lie?
All of this comes as I prepare for a discussion with about 150 communicators at Blog Potomac in Washington D.C. on June 13th on the subject of ethics. How appropriate that this particular controversy brings to bear is the age-old argument, “Are public relations professionals paid to lie?”
As a public relations professional we are paid to be advocates for our client, be it an internal or external client. The first tenant of the PRSA Code of Ethics is ADVOCACY.
But does that mean we are to be an advocate at all costs?
The second tenant of the code answers that question. We are required as professionals to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth, in other words, HONESTY.
Two Paradigms of Public Relationships
If one fully understands the juxtaposition of advocacy and honesty, then the true power of public relationships comes to bear.
As I first wrote in an article for Bulldog Reporter late last year there are really two paradigms of public relations, the broker and the image builder.
Broker: An intermediary between an organization and its stakeholders to find mutually beneficial solutions.
Image Builder: The image builder looks at communication as a zero sum game, where the immediate interests of the organization trump that of its stakeholders.
To be sure, there are some shades of gray in between, but most organizational communication comes from one of these two lenses. The first camp believes its image is built on the strength of the relationships and trust it shares with its stakeholders, while the other believes that image is something to be constructed and nothing more.
The second camp is the PR universe that that Andrew Cohen and others see, but it certainly isn't the one that I see on a day to day basis.
The Solutions Are Few
Unless there is some kind of legislation to the contrary, I think that people will continue to practice in one or the other of these camps, with some floating in between. And the PR of the PR industry will continue to suffer.
However, make no mistake about the fact that I believe the true power lies in the role of broker between an organization and its stakeholders. This is the area where an enlightened organization can make powerful inroads with its stakeholders. It is the true purpose and meaning of PR and can pay huge dividends.
Until this kind of behavior is legally enforced, there will always be those that focus on crafting reality, instead of working with management to reflect reality. And until such a time, ethical behavior will be a largely personal and organizational decision.
Step Out of the Bubble
The last tenant in the IABC's Code of Ethics probably says it best, “Professional communicators are honest not only with others but also, and most importantly, with themselves as individuals; for a professional communicator seeks the truth and speaks that truth first to the self.”
McClellan seems to have lost track of his personal ethics as he got lost in the political culture of deception. As in PR, not all politics are deceptive, but there is the possibility of being so insulated from the real world that you lose track of what it right and wrong outside of the bubble.
One of the best ways to do this is to step outside of the insular corporate or organizational culture from time to time. This ability is the hallmark of exceptional communicators.
The PRSA and IABC Code of Ethics are simply part of this compass. Far from laughable, these touchstones have historically served many practitioners in navigating an ethical career in public communication.
But they aren't magic. Individuals must choose the harder and more complicated path of relationship building over the easier and more expedient path over the constructs of a smoke and mirror show.
And as most smoke and mirror shows go, they are impressive while they last, but in the cold light of day they are seen for what they really are – a fantastic delusion.
Andrew Cohen's Commentary
UPDATE: Andrew Cohen responds to the criticism that he has painted too broad a brush over the PR profession and admits that he lives in a glass house. Once again proving that generalizing is a dangerous affair.
UPDATE 2: PRSA Chair & CEO Jeffrey Julin issues video response to CBS Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen's commentary challenging the integrity of the public relations profession.