Cohen: Flacks Follow-Up

Having blasted the public relations industry in an on-camera essay for CBS News' "Sunday Morning" program, I am now the target of a public-relations effort to ridicule my effort, my points, my character and integrity. I expected nothing less. I mean, when you make fun of people whose job it is to burnish public images you've got to expect they are going to, well, burnish their own public images at the expense of your own. I am not taking it personally.

Of course, my essay generalized about the PR profession. That's what 450-word essays do. I am sure there honest and accurate public relations people out there just as there are (somewhere, I suppose) honest journalists and lawyers. But the self-righteousness of the PR responses to my polemic masks a denial of the most basic truth about this silly kerfluffle: public relations people may believe they are honest and accurate and chock full of integrity in the work they do - but lay people do not necessarily share that belief. And isn't appearance on a par with reality in the crazy world of PR spin?

The point of my essay was a simple one - that it was hypocritical to the point of hilarious for those in the PR field to point a finger at Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, and declare that he had violated the ethics rules that "govern" the industry. I am sure that everyone who makes a living as public relations professionals would like to distance themselves from McClellan's shameful conduct. But the gulf simply isn't far enough, not by a long shot, to sustain the argument. Point a finger at McClellan, sure. But point the finger at yourselves, too.

I did not generate the link between McClellan's book and the rules of PR ethics. In a million years I would not have figured out that link. Instead, it was generated by a public relations type who late last week raised the question. Had the American Bar Association connected the dots first I probably would have written an essay on lawyers instead of flaks. And already there are scores of journalists who are wringing their hands at their own failures to ferret out McClellan's lies. Give the reporters credit on that score-at least they are doing their own series of self-evaluations (mea culpas, really) to figure out what went wrong.

The best comment on the topic came from one of my friends, a lawyer. He wrote: "In an academic sense, your hyperbole is inaccurate and therefore, perhaps, unfair. There are certainly ethical PR folks out there. But, like lawyers and the Fourth Estate, there have been so many bad actors who for so long have abused the public's trust, that the hyperbole pretty accurately represents the feelings of most in the public, and is sadly not that far from the truth. The PR industry needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs (as do lawyers and the media) and work to restore the public's faith."

My friend is exactly right - on all counts. Anyone out there on the vanguard of the concerted effort to discredit me and my essay want to take issue with his main point? For years now, I have railed against dishonest and hypocritical and cynical lawyers and judges and politicians. Really, you can look it up. Anyone want to argue with a straight face that the PR industry is somehow immune from the same criticism? Do people in the PR world believe that it's all beer and Skittles when they get up to a podium and that the public any longer automatically buys their spin? Some of the responses at the Sunday Morning site help me prove this is not so.

Sure, I live in a glass house and I threw a stone. I am sorry if it offended some of you. But consider it a wake-up call. For a profession that lives or dies on public perceptions you folks in public relations have as much work to do as the legal profession and the journalism profession (and the political profession) in changing the negative attitudes of your now-cynical audiences. And blaming me for calling attention to the problem - in a hyperbolic way, I freely admit - isn't going to make things better.

Don't be, like Claude Reins in "Casablanca," shocked - shocked! - to see yourselves painted with the same brush that over time has tarnished lawyers and politicians and advertising gurus. Instead, as a few of you suggested in your comments, use it as an opportunity to discuss among yourselves how a profession built on spin can survive with its credibility intact in a world where people are more sophisticated than ever in ferreting out such spin from the truth.

I'm sorry I compared your PR association to the Burglars' Association of America. That wasn't nice. But of course there is no Burglars' Association of America. At least my animal analogies worked, though, right?
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