When high-profile PR pros are incompetent, the image of the entire industry takes a hit
It's been a bad couple of weeks for PR, with a trio of recent stories confirming the layman's worst prejudices about our industry and its professionals.
First, there was the advice offered by Michael Brown's press secretary. Brown, who resigned as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of its lackadaisical response to Hurricane Katrina, was a closet metrosexual, taking time out while people were dying in New Orleans to e-mail agency staff and brag about his Nordstrom attire: "I am a fashion god."
That prompted his press secretary, Sharon Worthy, to forward some image advice: "You just need to look more hard-working," she told Brown. "Roll up the sleeves." (This advice was not intended metaphorically.)
Perhaps more serious is the predicament of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who is either a liar, or someone who has no problem representing people who lie to him.
Two years ago, McClellan reassured the press that Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby were not involved in the attempt to punish Ambassador Joseph Wilson by blowing the cover of his CIA agent wife. "I spoke with them so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved," he told reporters.
Now it's clear that both were involved. McClellan has been evasive in answering questions about whether Libby and Rove lied to him or whether he lied to the media - and by extension the public. "I'm very confident in the relationship that we have in this room and the trust that has been established between us," he said last week. It's a strange definition of trust that allows for blatant dishonesty, but in the black-is-white, up-is-down world created by the current administration, not a surprising one.
Finally, there was the strange case of the consultant to the pharmaceutical trade group PhRMA who commissioned two writers to develop a novel that would portray Canadian drug importers as terrorists. The work of fiction was to feature Muslim terrorists (motivated by greed rather than religious fervor) poisoning drugs imported into the US by poor and elderly patients who can't afford the higher prices in the US.
So there you have it. PR people rely on superficial matters of presentation in an attempt
to obscure poor performance. They lie for their clients. They deal in fiction.
The only hero in these stories is PhRMA's Ken Johnson, who called the consultant's scheme "idiotic" and "Looney Tunes." Johnson is obviously more representative of the PR industry as a whole than the people making the headlines. But it's the idiots people will remember, and the "Looney Tunes" image that will stick.
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 18 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.