Indifference over the Nike decision shows a lack of leadershipthroughout the industry

Is the PR industry entirely without leadership?

Is the PR industry entirely without leadership?

That's a question that needs answering in the wake of last week's California Supreme Court decision that corporate press releases are not worthy of constitutional protection. The court ruled against Nike, saying that companies defending themselves against activist attacks are engaged in commercial - not political - speech.

I'm not going to go into the details of the case, nor am I going to dwell on its consequences, except to say that the ruling restricts free speech, insults the public's intelligence (suggesting that consumers are not smart enough to weigh competing claims themselves), and deals a devastating blow to corporate PR practitioners across the country.

The last point was obvious when the suit was brought in 1998, but it's one of the immutable laws of PR that unwise companies sit idly by while issues develop into crises. One would have hoped that the PR industry would have been immune to this tendency, practicing what it preaches.

But in this case, it seems to have responded to numerous warnings - in this column and elsewhere - with little more than a shrug of its collective shoulders. That speaks of a fundamental lack of leadership in the industry.

One could argue that the largest professional bodies - the PRSA and IABC - long ago relinquished any claim to leadership. I can't remember when the PRSA last spoke out on an issue of national importance. Perhaps this is because industry organizations are often staffed by people who are there by virtue of their willingness to attend committee meetings, and not necessarily because of their accomplishments in the field.

Such organizations should look to the National Investor Relations Institute, which takes positions on important issues like Regulation FD, makes its views known to regulators, legislators, and other opinion leaders, and thus enjoys the respect of IR professionals. The PRSA, by contrast, is considered irrelevant by many senior PR pros.

It was disappointing to see the Council of PR Firms remain similarly silent as the Nike case went through the courts. Its members, particularly those in the public affairs and crisis management arenas, will be affected by this ruling. Clients who fear being sued for defending themselves with press releases are going to have less use for PR agencies.

It's not just the Nike case, of course. Industry groups have been slow to address other challenges as well, like the ability to attract top-quality candidates, or the issue of research and evaluation. (I'll exempt the small but industrious Institute for Public Relations from my criticism on that latter score.)

Surely now, the industry's real leaders - senior executives at big agencies and top-ranking corporate communications professionals - must recognize that they cannot sit back and expect trade groups to carry water for them. It's time for the real leaders to lead.

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