HOLMES REPORT: Paying someone to speak on a client's behalf can generate more questions than answers

Word that a speakers' bureau working on behalf - although apparently without the knowledge - of American International Group had sought to recruit "independent" experts to attack New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer drew a brief flurry of coverage in the national media recently, along with some half-hearted outrage from Spitzer's office, which seemed more amused than alarmed by the whole episode.

Word that a speakers' bureau working on behalf - although apparently without the knowledge - of American International Group had sought to recruit "independent" experts to attack New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer drew a brief flurry of coverage in the national media recently, along with some half-hearted outrage from Spitzer's office, which seemed more amused than alarmed by the whole episode.

To deal with the obvious issue first, if you're going to offer people money to attack a high-profile figure, it's a good idea to check their politics first. If they have made their admiration for the individual and his crusade clear, it's probably not a good idea to ask them to join your campaign, and it's an even worse idea to share with them your proposed talking points. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the writings and character of Jeffrey Sandman, associate dean of the Yale School of Management, for example, could have predicted that he would be on the side of Spitzer's campaign to restore a little bit of integrity to the insurance industry, and that he wouldn't likely be convinced by anti-Spitzer talk - such as the suggestion that altering "long-standing industry-wide practices is better left to regulators who understand the industry." If regulators had been even slightly interested in changing those practices, they would not have been so long-standing. The larger issue, however, is whether paying so-called independent experts is (1) ethical and (2) useful on a purely pragmatic level. It is, as last week's newspaper reports indicated, a fairly common practice in the public affairs arena. But using paid spokespeople is only effective if it's done unethically - if the fact that they are being paid is hidden from the media and from the public. And even then, it's likely to be ineffective in the long run, because we are living in an age of transparency, which means any financial relationship will almost certainly be disclosed eventually - undermining the credibility of the spokesperson and raising the question of how come you couldn't find someone who was prepared to make your case because it was right, rather than because they were slipped a few thousand dollars under the table. All this is especially true in today's Washington, where a resourceful public affairs executive should be able to find a spokesman for any cause who is motivated by ideology rather than cash. In many ways, then, the difference between using a paid spokesperson and a genuinely independent third party to make your case is the same as the difference between advertising and PR. The latter has a credibility that the former will never enjoy.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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