Government giving PR bad name

It's now official. Communications by ruse, artifice, and false-face has been not only acknowledged and condoned, but fully legitimized and defended. And by none other than the US government.

It's now official. Communications by ruse, artifice, and false-face has been not only acknowledged and condoned, but fully legitimized and defended. And by none other than the US government.

While we've been appalled for months over the allegations that the Lincoln Group, a Washington, DC-based PR agency, has been conducting a program of broad-scale payoffs to Iraqi media for favorable US coverage, the disturbing rumors were never confirmed by the Pentagon.

Last week, however, The New York Times and other media outlets were told that an inquiry ordered by Gen. George Casey, senior Iraq commander, confirmed that the rumors were indeed correct.

More disturbing was the fact that the admission was coupled not with a red-faced apology or recriminations, but a blatant defense of the practice as fully legal and an indication that it may continue.

As the Times reported: "The findings are narrow in focus and conclude that the Lincoln Group committed no legal violations because its actions in paying to place American-written articles without attribution were not expressly prohibited by its contract or by military rules."

One might argue that "all's fair in love and war," and psywar propaganda is historically an essential weapon, exempt from the niceties of accepted communications theory or the etiquette of the PRSA code.

But as our Business for Diplomatic Action group of PR and advertising professionals has dedicated itself to counteract the hostile, anti-US attitudes of most populations around the globe (including our allies), those sentiments have continued to rise steadily.

According to surveys we receive from Pew Research and Zogby International, and as detailed by Richard Edelman at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, US credibility is at a new low. But instead of launching an aggressive effort toward openness and transparency to rebuild trust, the administration, in its wisdom, has taken the opposite path: calculated obfuscation and employment of a surrogate indigenous cheering section that was bound to be unmasked. It was. And the payola program has backfired dramatically.

At this point, America has lost far more in credibility - meager as it already was - than it ever could have hoped to gain in propaganda skirmishes. The incident only reconfirms the suspicions of the rest of the world, whose population has long been dubious of the altruism of our invasion motives, the WMD illusion, the Abu Ghraib prison specter, and other pleasantries.

And if America is the loser, so, too, is our industry. Already bruised and weary from the embarrassments of leading PR pros exposed in high-profile cases as charlatans of stagecraft in the past five years, we now endure the ultimate: The PR ploy has been stamped and certified as US government standard.

But where's the outcry from our industry? After working for half a century to convince the public that the traditional image of the image-maker should no longer be that of the "Spin Doctor," we now stand here with our pants down.

Isn't it high time we hitch up our trousers and conduct the damage control for which we've been trained? Isn't it long overdue that we demand that the Pentagon cut the hypocrisy - let alone spurious strategy - and reverse its policy of faux communications?

If we were our own counsel, would we not rededicate ourselves to renewing faith in our profession as one that amplifies truth, not fiction?

Ted Pincus is a business columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, a finance professor, consultant, and the former owner of the Financial Relations Board.

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