Reporters love to sit around swapping stories about lies their sources have tried passing off on them. Figuring out who’s telling the truth, who’s telling half-truths and who’s a bald-faced liar is part of the daily dance between reporters and sources.
Reporters love to sit around swapping stories about lies their
sources have tried passing off on them. Figuring out who’s telling the
truth, who’s telling half-truths and who’s a bald-faced liar is part of
the daily dance between reporters and sources.
But should PR pros have to step to the same tune with their clients?
Do they accept whatever a client or potential client tells them as
gospel, or do they run their own checks? And if they check, how deeply
do they go? Is everything - even something as trivial as a CEO’s alma
mater - open to question?
The issue was graphically raised by recent headlines in the San
Francisco Chronicle, which reported that a hi-tech CEO faked credentials
on his resume. The CEO blamed the PR agency involved - The Horn Group -
which in turn said it was only passing on information he had given the
agency (PRWeek, July 24).
PR pros contacted for reaction said they couldn’t imagine an agency
making up a resume for a client. And all said they do some level of
checking on potential clients as well as on topics like new product
announcements for existing clients. But in PRWeek’s recent ethics
survey, 62% admitted they don’t always have time to check out the
validity of information they are divulging to the press. And most
concede there comes a point where a client has to be trusted to give
accurate information. So where do you draw the line?
Knowing when to trust a client and when to raise questions becomes
largely a matter of instinct, knowledge about the client’s business and
just plain gut feelings, they say.
A rich tradition of lying
The topic of clients lying is hardly new. Industry guru Tom Harris
recalls once sitting in an interview with a client and a reporter,
listening to the client make up a hotel project that didn’t exist just
to enhance his company’s reputation. And Harris is not alone: in PR
Week’s recent ethics survey (PRWeek, May 1), 62% of respondents said
they’d been ’compromised’ in their jobs either by being told a lie or
being denied access to the full story.
What’s different today is what Harris calls the ’cult of personality’ in
the business media. Companies are no longer covered so much as CEOs are.
As a result, PR people are under increasing pressure to turn CEOs into
media stars. But does that mean promulgating information that is
exaggerated or downright false?
Another facet relates to doing PR for hi-tech companies. How do PR pros
evaluate new tech clients, most of which have no business track records
to check and many of which are in such esoteric areas that few people
understand exactly what it is they do, let alone whether they can
actually pull it off?
’Firms are probably looking more closely at the claims their clients are
making’ these days, says Glenn Karwoski, SVP and managing director of
Minneapolis-based Karwoski & Courage. Karwoski says his agency three
years ago walked away from a client involved in a government regulatory
dispute because ’a few things happened which led us to question the
extent of information we were getting.’ In such a situation, an agency’s
reputation and credibility are at risk, he says.
Ruder Finn EVP Robert Dowling says his firm does extensive background
checks for dot-com companies, in part motivated by past problems.
’Claims were made that weren’t true, bills weren’t paid,’ he says. ’It’s
always the exception to the rule, but it hurts.’ Agencies obviously
don’t like to talk about deadbeat clients, but sources say getting
stiffed by dot-coms is an everyday occurrence.
Filters of credibility
Ruder Finn’s first criterion for working with a dot-com client is ’how
real that business is,’ Dowling says. He usually won’t touch business
from a company still in the concept stages, even though many approach
him for PR help. He also runs financial checks, such as a Dun &
Bradstreet report, and has started asking for a month or two of fees in
advance from new tech clients.
Kyle Holmes, VP of business development with Dallas-based M/C/C, has
developed an expertise handling telecom clients to the point where ’we
know that industry backwards and forwards,’ he crows. That helps him
filter out potential clients who aren’t credible: ’Part of our
responsibility as a PR firm is to know who is credible as an authority
in an organization.’
Fleishman-Hillard gets a lot of tech business on referral from
management consultants, venture capitalists, law firms and others, using
those sources as filters of credibility, says Joan Krga, SVP and partner
in the firm’s Chicago office. ’A lot of what they tell you is easily
validated,’ she says, but adds, ’we have walked away from business’
rather than take on clients Fleishman felt were suspect.
Legal covenants in contracts can help as well. Katherine Hutt, president
of Vienna, VA-based Nautilus Communications, works with clients filing
direct public offerings. Her contracts include language holding the
clients responsible for any legal action arising from their falsifying
’There is no way a PR agency can verify everything, but you have to
protect yourself and a clause in your contract seems an appropriate
first step,’ she says.
But some note that by the time such a matter gets to court, an agency’s
reputation could already be in tatters.
’The business takes enough heat as it is, we don’t need to add
disreputable clients on top of that,’ says Michael Young, SVP with
Porter Novelli Convergence Group. ’At the end of the day, the most
important thing is the firm’s reputation.’ Agrees Karwoski: ’Once you’re
in a situation where the media feels it has to verify everything you
say, there goes your agency.’
Young’s answer is for PR agencies to become as suspicious and skeptical
as reporters are when they’re told a client’s story. ’If something
smells stinky, it’s probably stinky,’ he says. That can be especially
true in promoting new products or services. Firms need to be as diligent
checking out product claims of clients as they are in checking out
Two years ago, Karwoski spent two days with client Lincoln Reinsurance
to make sure a patented business knowledge management process it was
introducing was in fact something new. Even after he was comfortable
with the claim, he hedged a bit when approaching media - saying he had
not been able to find public record of anything like the product rather
than claiming unequivocally that it was new. That approach paid off when
Fortune magazine wrote favorably about the process.
’As long as you make a genuine effort, a good faith effort (to check out
client claims), that’s all you can be expected to do,’ Karwoski
Young chimes in: ’If someone wants to deceive their agency and others,
everyone is exceedingly vulnerable. That is an occupational hazard we
face.’ As a result, he says PR firms should ’have the same level of
healthy skepticism with clients as the media has with us.’ Good advice,
no matter what business you’re in.