PR leaders must practice honesty, as well as preach it

My friends and colleagues, Bill Nielsen and Jim Murphy, have recently presented bold challenges to the PR profession.

My friends and colleagues, Bill Nielsen and Jim Murphy, have recently presented bold challenges to the PR profession.

In his remarks accepting the Arthur W. Page Society Hall of Fame Award in September, Murphy called upon the profession to use its considerable capabilities to help the US regain its leadership standing in the eyes of the world.

In delivering the annual lecture at the Institute for Public Relations dinner in November, Nielsen stated that the profession should adopt a global agenda, one that could include reminding Americans of just how business works, enhancing our understanding of the world and its many crises, and helping lead the return to a more civil and less polarized society, one better equipped to address the many issues we face.

I was fortunate to succeed people like Murphy, Nielsen, Marilyn Laurie, Dave Drobis, and others in serving as president of the Page Society for the past two years. As my term draws to a close at the end of the year, and I prepare to hand over the reins to another proven leader, Roger Bolton of Aetna, I have been reflecting on the issues confronted by our profession in these two years. It has been a troubling time in many respects, and yet in the words of people like Murphy and Nielsen, we see reasons for hope.

In my first year as Page Society president, we published Building Trust, a book in which leading CEOs commented on the governance issues that large corporations face in the wake of highly publicized ethical lapses. As we publicized the book, I found myself not only defending the views expressed in it, but also defending the very legitimacy of a PR organization having the temerity to publish a book on the subject of trust.

Then came 2005 and Armstrong Williams. His admission that he had accepted fees from Ketchum to produce commercials in support of the "No Child Left Behind" Act for the Department of Education, while also speaking in support of the initiative as a commentator, set off a media frenzy that raised numerous questions about our profession's most prized asset, our credibility.

This followed on the heels of charges by the city of Los Angeles that Fleishman-Hillard, its PR firm, had padded bills and inflated the number of hours spent on client business.

Another stream of articles questioned the deceptive nature of VNRs. These incidents resulted in Congressional hearings and comments from President Bush on the inappropriate use of PR. And to top it off, the year is ending with new revelations of a widespread pay-for-play effort engineered by the US military designed to plant favorable stories in the Iraqi press. This year has become our own annus horribilis.

I spent much of 2005 confronting these issues, in panel discussions, in speeches, at Page Society gatherings, and in response to media inquiries. Many of these appearances were on college campuses or at events sponsored by leading business schools and universities, at places like the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, the Newhouse School at Syracuse, Columbia University, the College of Charleston, the University of Alabama, and even my alma mater, Vanderbilt University.

The students I've met at these events are clearly troubled by the reputation damage the profession has experienced. Some are even questioning their decision to major in PR and communications. What I have told these students is that although these are times that have raised numerous questions about PR, they also represent a period of great opportunity for it.

In many ways, those who lead organizations are more mindful than ever of the impact of damage to reputation. The most enlightened are seeking reputation counselors who can serve alongside financial, legal, human resources, and operational experts in helping them make more informed decisions. The work we do is important. These leaders recognize the profound impact it can have on the organizations and clients we serve.

Nielsen and Murphy have issued bold challenges, but I will offer a more modest one. The events of the past few years have undeniably damaged our profession's reputation. Each of us as leaders and practitioners must acknowledge this and accept part of the responsibility to repair it. In doing so, I'd challenge us all to weigh the first two of the Page Principles when offering our counsel to the organizations we serve: "Tell the Truth" and "Prove it with Action."

We must be brutally honest with ourselves, and come to terms with some of the strategies, practices, and tactics we have employed over the years that have been at best disingenuous and at worst deceptive; we know the difference. It is that simple; it is that complex.

By doing so, by helping companies and clients make better decisions that are transparent, credible, and truthful, we'll stand a much better chance of preaching and practicing another Page Principle, "Conduct PR as if the whole company depends on it." In many ways, it does.

Tom Martin is the outgoing president of The Arthur W. Page Society. He is also SVP of corporate relations at ITT Industries.

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