HOLMES REPORT: The Scanlon affair offers yet another example of the PR industry taking a hit in the headlines

A couple of years ago, when Lizzie Grubman made head-lines, I lamented the fact that the mainstream media identified her as a PR person.

A couple of years ago, when Lizzie Grubman made head-lines, I lamented the fact that the mainstream media identified her as a PR person.

Grubman, I argued then, was in PR the same way that the guy dressed up as a chicken outside Ranch One is in PR. Sure, there's a level on which she and he are helping their clients relate to the public, but the fact that people who practice such a narrow form of PR can define the industry - as they do for many in the media and many in the general public - represents a sorry state of affairs. Now come the even more damaging headlines about alleged "PR consultant" Michael Scanlon, who last week - in the words of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) - was "hiding out in his house with the blinds drawn," apparently hoping to avoid a subpoena from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is investigating his work for six Indian tribes on gaming issues. A probe by The Washington Post indicates that Scanlon and lobbyist colleague Jack Abramoff worked with conservative religious activist Ralph Reed - a longtime opponent of all forms of gambling - to encourage the state of Texas to shut down an Indian tribe's casino in 2002, then persuaded the same tribe to pay them $4.2 million for an unsuccessful effort to persuade Congress to reopen it. The Senate committee, meanwhile, is investigating charges that Abramoff and Scanlon worked to manipulate tribal elections, helping to elect candidates who, in return, paid the pair a staggering $66 million, much of which was used for private investments, ranging from restaurants to real estate. In one e-mail, the pair discussed how Scanlon's firm, Capital Campaign Strategies, would charge another client $5 million - $1 million to cover the cost of the work, $4 million to be split between the lobbyist and the PR man. Other e-mails between the two referred to their Native American clients in derogatory terms. Scanlon, a former press secretary to ethically challenged House Speaker Tom DeLay (R-TX), appears from these e-mails to be not so much a PR person as an influence peddler, trading on his connections rather than his strategic communications skills. His Indian gaming clients appear to have been attracted more by the promise that Scanlon and Abramoff could provide access to DeLay and others than by any specific campaign ideas. This is not to suggest that relationships aren't important. Trust earned over time through hard, honest work gives PR people valuable credibility with reporters and others. But in today's PR world, a persuasive communications strategy will deliver all the access a client needs, though access alone will never guarantee persuasion.
  • 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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