One of the ways to identify an organization that has lost its ethical compass is to look for signs of intellectual dishonesty in its communications. If you buy that premise, you have to acknowledge that AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, but now merely an acronym) is in some serious trouble.
Last month, the AARP made a lot of headlines when it decided to support a Republican proposal for Medicare reform that will expand prescription drug benefits for some older citizens, but which also seems designed to undermine Medicare over the long-term, possibly paving the way for a privatization of the system.
There are questions, obviously, about whether the elderly will benefit from the reforms, but you wouldn't know that from AARP, which fielded and then publicized a survey designed to show that most of its members supported its position. But the survey asked the kind of leading questions that show up in political fundraising mailers: "Do you believe America should go to war in Iraq, or should we allow terrorists a free hand to plot the downfall of civilization as we know it?"
Even Karl Rove would likely have been embarrassed at AARP's attempt to load the questions. For example: "Even if this plan won't affect you personally either way, do you think it should be passed so that people with low incomes or people with high drug costs can be helped?"
If those being surveyed were familiar with the bill, that might not be such a bad question, but 62% of those polled said they were either completely unfamiliar or not very familiar with the specifics of the bill. Given their unfamiliarity, they had to take AARP's word for it that the bill would, in fact, do what the question said it would. But that's the very point that's under debate.
So when the organization put out a statement claiming that "a resounding 75% of AARP members polled... said that the proposed Medicare legislation should be passed because it will help low-income elderly and those with high prescription drug costs," it was using one of the sleaziest techniques in the business. You don't do that if you have an intellectually defensible position.
Already 15,000 members have quit the group over its position, and many more say they plan to do so when they come up for renewal. They have come to recognize that the AARP these days is less a member association than it is just another big insurance company. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but it doesn't look good that Bill Novelli, who's running the organization, once represented the pharmaceutical companies that come out on top in the GOP's so-called reforms.Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 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.