Posted by Amanda Chapel
An accountant, a researcher and a public relations consultant all apply for the same job with a large company. The interviewer calls the accountant into her office and asks, "What does two plus two equal?" The accountant replies, "Exactly four." Then the interviewer calls in the researcher and asks the same question. The researcher answers, "On average, four - give or take a 3.5 percent variance for error, and of course, properly weighted against a representative control group." Then the interviewer calls in the public relations consultant and asks her, "What does two plus two equal?" The public relations consultant gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and whispers, "So, what’s your budget?"
What a riot. How true! How charming and disarming!
Well, apparently with all the bad news in the PR Industry, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has decided to try that approach. They’re going to lighten things up some. They’ve decided to launch “Comedy Training.”
This comes only a week after, Jack O'Dwyer, publisher of the renown O’Dwyer’s Newsletter, nearly begged PRSA in an Op-Ed to stand up and do something about the PR’s declining reputation. Jack said, "With no PR organization presenting a positive view of PR, PR's bad press has continued unabated." To counter The New York Times' Frank Rich accusation that PR is “empty gestures that lack of substance,” to substantively answer Der Spiegel calling PR professionals the “Masters of Deception,” to correct a recent Harris/PRSA poll that found that most Americans think PR is just another 'sales tool' lacking any redeeming public service qualities... etc. etc. etc... the association issued a press release last week: PRSA PROCLAIMS SEPTEMBER ETHICS MONTH.
PR Ethics! NOW THAT’S COMEDY!!
Even for PR -- a virtual font of irony, farce and flamboyant jesters -- this takes the cake. Nothing more powerful that self deprecating humor... well maybe when the self target feigns innocence.
From the announcement:
Apparently, PRSA’s Commedia dell'arte is BEPS. According to PRSA, “The nine-member Board of Ethics and Professional Standards is responsible for educating PRSA members and the public at large concerning PRSA Member Code of Ethics and counseling PRSA leadership on ethics issues. The PRSA Code revisions of 2000 fundamentally changed the role of BEPS from ethical compliance to education and inspiration. Today, BEPS assumes a powerfully positive role to educate, explain, motivate and inspire.”
“Inspire!” That’s rich. Hucksters and charlatans seem particularly inspired as they whistle all the way to the bank and back.
On Sept. 5, 12 & 26, BEPS will conduct a series of teleseminars which will focus on "recent high-profile ethical problems ripped from headlines, bylines and web blogs." In panels titled, "Resolving Bad Ethical Practice Situations,” participants will: Learn how to apply the PRSA Code of Ethics to current situations; Work through ethical dilemmas in real time; Understand ethics issues, as well as other kinds of business or organization issues; and Learn from highly experienced people dealing with very sticky problems.
Of course, money WILL trade hands. The cost is $190 for members and $290 for non-members. Considering the extent on the industry’s problem, you’d think it would be free and mandatory. But comedy is showbiz. God, I love PR.
SOME AREN’T LAUGHING
Some of PR’s biggest cynics do not see the humor. For one, Jack O’Dwyer’s not laughing. In his coverage of the announcement, he points out the hypocrisy that “PRSA Has Ethics Issues.” For instance:
Perhaps PRSA should clean its own house first? Sure, but seriously folks... that’s not the point. Jack’s apparently missed the joke altogether. He missed the very thing that makes it so funny.
THE PROBLEM IS IN THE COMIC/TRAGIC TENSION
Here, service issues aside, PR has become the business of surreptitious selling. Jack understands that. "PR gets into a lot of trouble because sales and marketing masquerade under the name PR. Marketing and sales are one-way messaging whereas PR is a relationship of give-and-take and done in public. Only when companies use and dialog with the press is it PR. When they refuse to answer questions, it's marketing. We must draw a line in the sand between PR and marketing. They are both mutually exclusive of the other. Most 'PR' firms today are marketing firms."
Okay, not that the essence of the comic tension needs explanation (as if we haven’t spoiled that joke already), but the combination of rampant smarmy selling and an environment without policing or enforcement is the very thing that makes the idea of ethics hysterical. Here, Robert Frause, who was BEPS chair in 2000 when the code and judicial panels were scrapped in favor of a new code without enforcement procedures, called the code "a joke." In a recent industry Op-Ed “Have Lying and Deception Become Job Requirements for PR Professionals?”, Jim Sinkinson, Publisher of the Bulldog Reporter said, “Just as we will never stop criminals by lecturing at them, we will never stop PR professionals from lying by self-righteously brandishing ethics resolutions at them.”
Again, there’s nothing more powerful that self deprecating humor than maybe when the target feigns innocence. So... if a PR pro doesn’t know she’s being unethical, is it unethical? That seems to make the PR ethics joke a gift that just keeps on giving. The issue seems irresolvable.
In a recently released study "The Prevalence of Women in PR," one of the key finding was that women have a greater capacity to lie. But the definition of the word gets a little murky. “The word ‘lying’ usually implies a teller's awareness of spreading untruths; but women are comfortable altering reality and shifting mindsets through PR. In their minds that’s not a lying. Similarly, the concept of “ethics” requires a conscious awareness of right, wrong, good, evil, and responsibility. Apparently, if you don’t think you’re being unethical, it’s okay!
And so it goes around and around and around... and just gets dizzyingly silly. As such, BEPS’ chair Rickey compromises, “As proponents of ethical behavior, we continue to merit our seat at the decision-making table.” There’s the punch line: it’s as proponents, i.e. “promoters” not “doers.” It ultimately reduces the “practice” of PR today to the ultimate oxymoron, i.e. action and responsibility are not necessary.
Here, I’ll close this with a little story: A friend of mine at a major PR firm was called as a witness in a legal dispute over some malfeasance on an account. He was the account director. In the prep for trial, the defense attorney representing the firm asked him to describe what work he had done on the account. My friend answered with a total straight face, “Let them try to prove that I ever actually ‘worked’ on that account.” Bah Dum Bum... tishhhhh.
God, I love PR.
HAPPY ETHICS MONTH!
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Hunter Thompson once wrote, "I don't know a newspaperman who can say the word 'ethics" without pissing in his pants from sheer guilt." You can imagine what the damage will be for a PR person.
Ethics in PR is like rules in a knife fight.