News Flash: PR Pros Caught Doing Their Job

May 12, 2011
USA Today: Applying the "lies" label without much support

You might have heard the story — reported by USA Today and given even more legs by Business Insider and several other outlets — about the big-PR firm execs who were “busted” doing, well, their job. Former CNBC news anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio aren’t exactly saints, but the substance of the criticism of the two seems off-base.

Yes, it’s a crafty form of hardball to pitch stories that tear down a competitor rather than build up a client, but sometimes high-level PR can be a dirty game. (Fortunately, the type of work we do and clients we have at Fast Horse, we spend much more time on the friendly, positive side of things, and media relations is but a part of what we do.) And in refusing to disclose the company or organization for which they were working, the PR pros are definitely on the wrong side of the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics, if that sort of thing means anything to you (emphasis mine):

DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION: Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.
Intent: To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.
Guidelines: A member shall:

  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
  • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
  • Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organization.
  • Avoid deceptive practices.

But in the stories I read, neither of those items gets much criticism. Instead, the focus is on two points:

  • the PR pros in question were spreading lies, and
  • the PR pros’ position as “high-profile media figures,” as USA Today described them

On the lying: USA Today and Business Insider — and probably many of the other outlets rehashing this story — mention that these PR pros were spreading lies about Google in this “whisper campaign” (which, by the way, really just seems like a fairly standard media relations effort, albeit negative). “After Goldman’s pitch proved largely untrue, he subsequently declined USA TODAY’s requests for comment,” the paper wrote. But there’s no explanation of exactly what’s untrue or how that’s the case. Rather, it seems like they’re dealing information that’s highly debatable, information that makes accusations with some support but that isn’t quite proven. That’s a hell of a lot different than “untrue.”

On their positions as “high-profile media figures”: Remember my description from the second sentence of this post? “Former.” They’re both former high-profile media figures. They both now work for a giant, well-known PR firm. Therefore, it’s not a scandal to be caught shaping how a story unfolds in the media. In fact, it’s their job.

UPDATE at 10 a.m. on 5/12: Writing for the Daily Beast, Dan Lyons came up with an article on this matter that’s well-reported and clarifies much of the gray area around this story. Among other things, he found that Facebook is the unnamed client who hired the PR guns to take shots at Google, and he actually points out the specific claims USA Today called “untrue.” Quoting the blogger who initially exposed the PR guys’ efforts, they’re not really “untrue” so much as they are “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Again, big difference.

[photo courtesy of captainslack on Flickr]