OP-ED: Sadly, 'spin' and 'lies' are still common at some firms

I saw an old cartoon from The New Yorker published in the April 20, 1998, edition.

I saw an old cartoon from The New Yorker published in the April 20, 1998, edition.

The cartoon depicted a sinner at the Pearly Gates speaking to St. Peter as he stands in judgment before entering heaven. The kneeling sinner begs, "Wait, those weren't lies. That was spin!" I guess he was an unethical PR consultant who slipped too many times on the slippery slope or conveniently had selective amnesia regarding the truth. A harsh depiction, but the sad truth is there are many in our industry who choose lies over truth every day. Spin is a lie; we all know the difference, but some choose to lie anyway and eventually face the harsh consequences of their actions.

Unfortunately, there are many PR firms out there that cheat their own clients every day, hoping to never get caught. Padding of client bills continues like a virus traveling across the internet. For example, some senior executives, especially at large firms, have a track record of doing this because of "a need" to be at least 60% to 70% billable themselves. Although they spend most of their time crisscrossing the country or globe to win business for their agencies, they are still expected to be billable in a never-ending race for more money. Sadly, some resort to writing down hours they never worked. Others justify this lie by saying, "Everybody does it." Well, let's make it perfectly clear: Some PR firms are more ethical than others and walk the walk instead of just talk the talk. Some choose truth over money and do not pad their bills, but many are lying with their billings hourly.

The lies and unethical behavior are not only alive within the heart of many PR pros. Deceit is also rampant within the corporate communications divisions of many national and global corporations. For example, an Enron investor relations executive recently cut a deal with the SEC "to settle charges for insider trading and assisting in providing false and misleading information about the fallen energy trader's units and earnings." How soon will it be before we see various top corporate communications pros taking a perp walk to jail due to their own lies and law-breaking activities? Will a senior executive from a leading PR firm be far behind?

We are only fooling ourselves if we think our industry's exempt from the scandals occurring in corporate America. Every major corporation in crisis has a PR firm providing financial communications and investor relations counsel. We are being naive if we think some PR consultants who reviewed manipulated financial numbers, and/or developed "spin" messages to lie about the inflated or manipulated reports, don't also deserve to be in handcuffs and in jail.

A few months ago, I had lunch at a leading university club in midtown Manhattan with the CFO of a global corporation in crisis. I am providing crisis-communications and litigation-support PR counsel to the corporation's senior executives and board. I recently had been asking him some very probing questions from a worst-case-scenario perspective. In the middle of our lunch, the CFO broke down and said he could not lie anymore. He asked me to take him to a quieter place to talk. He then told me he had been "cooking the books" at the company for the past six years. He also mentioned his mentor and former CFO of the company had done the same thing for five years before him. He said he lied and was deceitful for the money, and he now regrets ever working for the company and making such a stupid decision that he and his family will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, my client is now traveling on the path of truth and realizes that the truth will truly set him free to rebuild a sound reputation in the long run. It will not be easy, but with true honesty, humility, transparency, and accountability, my client will be able to rebuild character, integrity, and trust - the building blocks of an excellent and truthful reputation.

If we are completely honest, we will admit that we all have areas in our lives in which we struggle. Because of my faith as a Christian, I turn to God to keep me on the path to truth. My wife is also in the loop on everything related to my business. I have relationships with several senior executives with more than 40 years each in our business who are still mentors and whom I have asked to be my accountability partners.

Some individuals in our profession believe that they are supermen or superwomen and can do it on their own without any accountability or help of any kind. They've convinced themselves that they have no struggles in any area. Their hubris and ego-centered lifestyle are killing them and all those who care about and love them because they are running from the truth.

How can we counsel any client before we have a plan to help ourselves?

Before I enter the Pearly Gates, I want to sleep soundly and live an honest life. Thank God I have a plan that not only saved my life, but allows my PR agency, which specializes in reputation management, to be very fruitful.

  • Mike Paul is president and senior counselor of New York-based MGP & Associates PR.

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