PR and the Scott McClellan Controversy

Regardless of how you feel politically about former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s explosive new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, it raises a lively debate about public relations–both the ethics behind the practice and its erstwhile relationship to the truth. The default reaction among much of the public and the media is that PR professionals have no ethics and a tendency to massage the truth, deny it or just flat-out lie if it suits their clients’ needs.

My response is that people, especially some of our nation’s most prominent journalists, who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (my other response is that I’m embarrassed to use such a tired if apt metaphor).

Of course, “truthiness” has become part of our collective lexicon, and even the Bush administration’s most ardent supporters would agree that the government plays fast and loose with the facts. One could argue, in fact, that the central struggle of our times is the search for (and, in some cases, the battle against) objective truth itself.

The White House Press Secretary is, for better or for worse, the country’s best-known and most prominent PR person. McClellan’s admission that he knowingly lied about certain policy issues has set off a new firestorm of knee-jerk criticisms of PR people.

So how do PR professionals respond? Some are vocally defending the craft’s integrity.

I believe we just need to put our heads down and continue to do good work that speaks for itself. I view my role as a facilitator of communication and understanding. As a PR professional, my primary job is to deliver my client to the attention of the media and the public. It goes both ways, too: My ear is constantly to the ground trying to pick up what the public and the media really think of my clients.

One thing I will never do is apologize for “spin”–except I will humbly do so to any journalist who has never let a relationship with a source or an advertiser influence or compromise an article or report.

With few exceptions, I am not holding my breath.

My argument here is not to condemn journalists, but rather to simply state that we are all culpable to a certain degree in waging war on the truth at various times. It could involve something as simple as telling a relative you liked their horrible cooking to something as grave as the invasion of a sovereign nation.

Want some real outrage? How about this. The current White House press secretary doesn’t know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was. Such breezy ignorance of relevant history should be more offensive to Americans than the gut-wrenching ethical, political and philosophical struggle of one of her predecessors.

Posted by Joe Paone

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