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Digital Age Gives PR Folks Easier Way to Say No

(I originally wrote this for PR Week magazine.)

An honorable tradition among lawyers is representing defendants whom they strongly suspect to be guilty, especially people with little or no ability to pay for their defense.

When the overwhelming power of the state is brought to bear against an individual whose freedom or even life may be at stake, we need an adversarial system – however flawed it often can be – to help protect the innocent.

The PR profession has its own justification for representing parties whose behavior, by almost any definition, warrants widespread contempt. Everyone has a right to push his or her own story, the logic goes, and expert help is a necessary part of the system.

Is this really true anymore, assuming it ever was? Not in the Digital Age.

I’m not talking here about the closer calls, where a client’s positive characteristics and deeds are many and transgressions are the smallest exceptions, or where the facts invite a serious debate over a nuanced public issue. Nor am I talking about the cases where a relatively small minority of opinion is on one side, but you can still make an honest case. No, this is about the truly bad clients whose records deserve deep contempt or who peddle hoaxes – the kind of clients that opinion-making organizations take on for purely mercenary reasons.

For them, it’s open season on truth. So we have pros who promote the virtues of a fear-ridden, impoverished nation run by a murderous kleptocrat. They concoct a fantasyland campaign for a company that mistreats workers, the environment, and shareholders while a compliant board of directors tosses loot to executives in amounts that would make Marie Antoinette blush. They torture language, obfuscating reality or denying it outright, deliberately trying to con the press and public.

Defending the indefensible, they generate fat fees. And they tell themselves and peers that they’re helping create a robust public debate, or just doing their jobs.

In the age of ever-more-giant mass media, images were made and unmade mostly via the press and advertising. Such justifications for doing the bad guys’ bidding, while still arguable, weren’t entirely ridiculous.

Today and especially tomorrow, anyone can tell a story, unmediated. In that media-sphere, the old rationalizations hold a lot less water.

So what am I arguing for? Naively, no doubt, I’m suggesting that PR folks decline some business.

Say no to the dictators and their apologists. Say no to the sleaziest CEOs and their minions. Say no to the piracy of candid discourse. Say no to the actors – corporate, political, whatever – who behave as though honor is a tactic, not a principle.

Tell them all that they can do their own imagery. They can use the Internet, buy advertising, and try to fool people without your help. Now they have access to global media in their own right. Let them use it.

I don’t know of any PR code of ethics that obliges disrespect for truth. Say yes to the value of liking the person you see in the mirror.

5 Comments on “Digital Age Gives PR Folks Easier Way to Say No”

  1. #1 Delia
    on Jan 23rd, 2007 at 8:38 am

    Dan, I don’t see it happening at any significant scale (which means the questionable client can always find someone else) any more than I see it happening for lawyers (plenty of criminal lawyers don’t want to know it if their clients are guilty…) D.

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jan 23rd, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    But Dan, this is nonsense: “Today and especially tomorrow, anyone can tell a story, unmediated”
    (it’s only true in the sense that you can talk to the crickets, if you enjoy that – if you want to be *heard*, it’s a different story entirely).

    I keep saying it: THERE IS RE-INTERMEDIATION!

    Microsoft wasn’t giving top-quality laptops to certain bloggers out of the goodness of their corporate heart.

    The advances in exploiting the re-intermediation are a PR flacks’ heaven. No fact-checking! Disclosure “optional”! No “chinese wall” between editorial and advertising! On and on …

    Today’s example:

    “The story was spread by users of Slashdot, reporters at The Inquirer and many politics and technology bloggers, whose reports all referred to ATA’s release and passed on its claims as Gospel truth. Credit definitely goes to ATA and Fitzgibbons for identifying a message and an audience that would whip up support for the removal of a proposal that threatened to increase the transparency of ATA’s direct mail endeavors. Let no one say that they are not skilled in their work.

    The bill made no direct mention of bloggers, but Fitzgibbons had the vision to recognize in the blogosphere’s endemic paranoia and aversion to fact-checking a perfect means of spreading opposition to section 220.”

  3. #3 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 23rd, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Seth, you can keep saying it. I’ll keep agreeing in part and disagreeing in part. The re-intermediation is not the utterly top-down system of the past half century. It just isn’t, and your repeated worries won’t make it so.

    Today’s example is definitely an interesting one, and there was a frenzy created on purpose by people who abuse the system. No question about that.

    But one of the organizations that opposed the section of the bill was the ACLU. I read the thing and concluded, reluctantly, that it was poorly drafted and could — could — invite some trouble.

    We need to expose the astroturfing. This bill wasn’t necessarily the way to do it.

  4. #4 Keith Kamisugi
    on Jan 24th, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Dan, I hope I’m not alone in my profession by saying this, but as a PR practitioner for 10 years, I’ve never believed in representing a client that I didn’t believe in. People/companies have no “right” to representation as it relates to PR.

  5. #5 Dan Gillmor
    on Jan 24th, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Keith, I’m sure you’re not alone, but obviously there are lots of folks in your profession who are happy to say Yes to anything that comes with money.