A Rebuttal to Cohen’s Attack on PR

As many of you know, our profession came under attack earlier this month in the form of a commentary from CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. I wasn’t originally going to respond to Cohen’s ridiculous denunciation, but your emails have changed my mind.

If you don’t know the general allegations, Cohen begins by addressing Scott McClellan’s new book and that McClellan, a PR pro, lied to the American people about activities within the Bush administration. Cohen goes on to say that all PR professionals are liars.

Show me a PR person who is “accurate” and “truthful,” and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.

My first reaction is that Cohen is engaging in the very behavior he condemns when he unscrupulously applies the actions of one to all. I saw on the news a few years ago where a dentist was groping his patients while they were under anesthesia. But, I would never accuse every dental professional in the world of such abhorrent behavior.

As much as Cohen likes to mock PRSA’s code of ethics, his is a blind and unsubstantiated attack. The myth that PR pros are “flacks” whose job it is to lie is merely that, a myth. Reporters rely on PR pros to deliver accurate information and should that information prove to be false, you can bet that PR pro will be blacklisted. I have seen it happen. And, not just to us. I once took on client who didn’t know he had been blacklisted because of misinformation to media. I had to work hard to rebuild reporters’ trust in that client. Trust that is necessary to do my job. So, the truth is that Cohen’s statement should be the reverse: show me a PR person who lies and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.

Cohen also claims that PR is an industry the very essence of which is to try to convince people that a turkey is really an eagle.

This hits on a common misunderstanding of PR that I would like to set straight right now. Spin. For a long time now, “spin” has been linked to lying. It is not. Spin is merely “having or conveying a particular viewpoint” (as defined by the Encylopedia Britannica and dictionary.com).

The word spin as it relates to PR comes from its original definition: “to produce yarn by spinning.” When women used to spin yarn on spinning wheels, they frequently did this in groups and, to pass the time, they told each other stories. In time, the phrase to “spin a yarn” came to mean to tell a story. PR – or spin – is is simply the art of story-telling.

To tell a good story through the press, one must have accurate facts to support it. A young entrepreneur who started his company in his dorm room…that’s a good story that would be best told with photos, early clients, and anecdotes from former classmates and professors. An industrial designer who became frustrated with the diminished capacity of his vacuum cleaner decides to create a new one…a former football player who simply could not find a pair of blue jeans that fit him, so he created his own line of jeans…this is spin. This is story-telling. This is PR.

For another rebuttal to Cohen’s scathing attack, I give you author Bill Schwartz (pen name Stanly Bing) and EVP of Communications for CBS News. In this rather hilarious video, Schwartz addresses Cohen’s accusations – even stating that people who call us “flacks” are in fact “hacks.”

Now, there is one point Cohen makes which I will concede: Public Relations professionals should do a better job of positioning what we do. The challenge there is that the best PR pros are invisible. The best PR pros (in my view) are never quoted. We are behind the scenes. The more people know what we do, the harder it will be to do it. Although my close friends have all come to love and admire good PR through their relationship with me, they are also more savvy at spotting the “PR” behind a company or product and that makes it less effective. Plus, to disclose more about our role, takes some of the spotlight from our clients, which is just all kinds of wrong.

With that in mind, I leave you with advice from the great Shel Holtz: There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about whether PR people should shine a light on their own efforts, since it has traditionally been viewed as inappropriate. But the world has changed and social media have made it more acceptable to write about the work you’ve done on a client’s behalf—with that client’s permission, of course. It would also be great if someone started a clearinghouse site or blog that aggregated cases of PR conducted in a way that would make Cohen and his ilk rethink their assumptions.

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