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Gini Dietrich

The PR Industry’s Performance-Enhancing Drugs

By: Gini Dietrich | May 23, 2011 | 
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I was riding my bike yesterday, thinking about this whole Lance Armstrong case getting stronger, and it occurred to me that athletes aren’t any different than PR professionals.

A couple of weeks ago, when the Burson Marsteller/Facebook story broke, many, many, many people called me naive. They stated examples where PR professionals create whisper or smear campaigns. The statement, more often than not while calling me naive was, “It happens all the time.”

It happens all the time.

I refuse to believe Lance has remained so staunch in his innocence for so long and he really is guilty. I refuse to believe this man, who is a cycling hero to me, really did use performance-enhancing drugs. When former teammates have come out and said they saw him inject drugs, I refused to believe it.

We all need heroes and Lance is mine.

Sure, I get that he’s not a nice guy, but watching him race is one of the most amazing things a cyclist can see. It’s inspiring and motivating. He’s a real hero.

And, apparently, he does drugs. Just like Barry Bonds and George Hincappie. Even the Bulls’ Derrick Rose has been accused.

It happens all the time.

But does it make it right?

A few years ago, I got into a debate with the CEO of one of the large PR firm/ad agency holding companies. He said our jobs, as PR professionals, is to tell the story for the client, any way that gets it into the news. I believe he even used the word “spin,” which really got me going.

The vision of Spin Sucks, and now Spin Sucks Pro, is a big one. It’s to change the perception of our industry. It’s to change this idea that we’re spin doctors and show that we’re ethical human beings who don’t lie or spin the truth to get attention for our internal or external clients.

I realize we’re small and we’re fighting the global conglomerates who believe in whisper or smear campaigns, just like the athletes who do drugs. It gives us all a level playing field if we all do it, right?

Just because everyone decides to jump off the top of the Sears Tower, does that mean you should too?

It has to start somewhere.

I wish we had a grand jury in Los Angeles to call in leaders of PR firms and make them testify under oath. I wish there were a body that regulated our industry and forced us to uphold the ethics that PRSA outlines for its members.

But we don’t.

So what are we going to do about the performance-enhancing “drugs” in our industry?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

101 comments
NancyM.
NancyM.

Public Relations professional do have a reputation of adopting a 'the end justifies the means' concept and the end is always the what the client wants. They twist the truth and do everything they can in order to get what they want or what their client wants. I respect those who do things the ethical way in a profession so ruled by manipulation.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

Not much more to add to this on Gini, but it's an important discussion that needs to continue. The problem is that most of us reading Spin Sucks already think that; it's the spinners and smears who are rolling their eyes, laughing their way to the bank... and hopefully some felony charges when they do get caught with their ethics down, knowingly promoting lies and frauds. Wish I had more, FWIW.

RyoatCision
RyoatCision

Really apt comparison Gini—thank you so much for sharing. It is frustrating when naivety is used as a kind of defense against unethical practices. It’s an argument that is made across industries, and it basically means nothing. What I appreciate is your hope here, and I do believe that for every unethical campaign there are tons more pushing legitimate messages backed by honest, hard working PR pros. @ryoatcision

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

I'm sorry for the challenges you are encountering with a personal hero. Unfortunately, Armstrong appears to be cut from the same cloth as so many others: tell the same story long enough and loud enough and it will be true, or at least you can continue to cash in until it all comes crashing down. It appears to be the same within your industry, with humongo firms trying to redifen the truth as it fits them, dragging everyone else down to the "vault" level, (The vault in the bank is always in the lower level, right?). What can you do? Continue to tell the truth and call out liars. Remember that a marathon begins with a single step (peddle)? and successful races are run not as a whole but in sections. Some sections are slower, faster, easier or tougher and sometimes you rest through one section to be ready for the next.

mkedave
mkedave

As a competitive cyclist and a PR pro, I know that reputation is earned as much on the bike as it is off the bike. It's hard to compete for ethics and it's hard to compete against the unethical, but either way, honesty is always the sustainable strategy for long-term success.

ParkRidgeDDS
ParkRidgeDDS

What are you going to do??? You are going to keep on doing what you have been doing ...you are going to continue to do the thing you know how to do best....and that is to be the highly ethical, amazingly caring and incredibly creative PR agency that has an amazing community that follows you and believes in your vision and your ethics and your moral aptitude....because...at the end of the day....the really good "guys" always win....and all of the work, passion and energy that you have put into Arment Dietrich and Spin Sucks Pro will generate it's own momentum and, it may take awhile, but others will see that commitment and ethics will always succeed. (okay...stepping down from my soap box now) ( I got a little caught up in the moment here....*shuffling away quietly*)

mdbarber
mdbarber

I prefer to be optimistic and think that we can make a difference here and other places advocating for transparency and ethics in our profession. If we don't speak out, if we don't support PRSA's strong stand, if we just shrug our shoulders, we are just as guilty as Burson and Facebook. And, the profession will begin a downward spiral. We need to defend ethical public relations and make sure the guys who do bad stuff are on notice that we're watching. I had a boss who always told me "water on stone and eventually the stone will break." I have to think we are the water and the big agencies/companies who currently feel invincible are the stones.

cparente
cparente

Good post. I also posted on this, and got into it with a PR pro from the UK who seemed IMHO to be making excuses for BM. Here's that thread from the PR and Comms Professionals LI group: http://tinyurl.com/3udbzud

dinodogan
dinodogan

It has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime. What better place than here. What better time than now!

~RATM

Corianda
Corianda

As a student heading into the PR world all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, this is especially frustrating. Having to constantly justify my (hopeful) career choices and face disheartening and uncomfortable realities has stripped the sheen off. I have heard that it's us youngin's though, having grown up in an era lacking any sort of privacy, that will make the biggest strides towards transparency. We're used to our business being all out in the open. Often quite literally.

In the meantime, thanks to people like you @ginidietrich who can serve as positive role models!

barrettrossie
barrettrossie

Unfortunately, liars and cheaters win occasionally, albeit usually in the short term. I appreciate the good guys who lead by example.

JohnAkerson
JohnAkerson

I'd like to freshen the argument. For many years I was a big Lance Armstrong fan. One of the colleges I went to was Appalachian State University. Lance kind of used the mountains in and around ASU to get his mojo back, to get his love of cycling back after he recovered from all the cancer treatments. For many years, I rode in a different bicycle-based charity ride 10-20 weeks per year. I agree with John Falchetto that human bodys are not designed to ride 130 miles a day through the alps every day for 20 days. Completing the Tour is difficult. Winning is amazing. Winning without drugs, in consecutive years, is amazing

For arguments sake, lets agree that Lance Armstrong did use a bunch of drugs... Lets say that he cheated - he knew it. He cheated further when he worked over his drug tests to come out negative, and lets say that he lied about all that cheating.BUT:When we agree on all the lying, cheating and such, lets also say that he did all this so that he could start a charity - so that he could run a charity, so that he could use his fame as a cancer survivor who returned to win amazingly grueling races, and ultimately he did it to raise huge amounts of money for cancer research and cancer treatment so that he would make life better and longer for thousands of other people stricken by cancer. Lets say that his charity was raising $54million per/yr by 2009. http://www.livestrong.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Strength/Financial-Information (not getting to the nagging question about "Why haven't they posted any financial information since 2009??") - but LETS say that he did all those bad things... so that he could do all the good things. I wonder if that balances out the character issues and ethical issues.

More to the point, what would that (doing evil for good) look like in a PR world?

rustyspeidel
rustyspeidel

I think it's really hard to compete against unethical players. They don't care if they cheat, only if they win. Sadly, that's such a slippery slope and soon enough the clients are expecting that "level of service." I think the only way to make this work is to fire clients like that, and make sure as part of the interview process with prospective clients that transparency and ethics are a core value that you share. If you can get there, don't take the gig. If the money is that important, well...

PattiRoseKnight
PattiRoseKnight

In 1977 I had to admit to myself that Elvis Presley took drugs (with the help of Geraldo Rivera); everyone after that got a little easier.

KensViews
KensViews

I learned much about ethics in PR when I worked for Jean Way Schoonover, and her sister Barbara Way Hunter, at D-A-Y Public Relations and Ogilvy & Mather PR. I hope it's OK to share my tribute to Jean, who passed away in April. PRSA just posted it: http://bit.ly/m9GYB0

MikeLee
MikeLee

We do have those that will call PR pros to task. They are called journalists. Not content producers, but the good ole' 4th estate.

jeffespo
jeffespo

As with everything cheating and half-withs tend to ruin things for all of us. My good buddy @KeithTrivitt has been railing on this for a while now on behalf of the PRSA. Problem with their code of ethics is that not every PR pro needs to be a member so may not subscribe to those things you call ethics. Would you look to force all flacks to be members?

janbeery
janbeery

Unfortunately, I think the best we can do is to not compromise our own integrity and be consistent in our ethics.

It always saddens us when we see someone who we admire fall from grace. Or seeing a smear campaign targeting someone else.

I don't think in an imperfect world we'll ever see that go away. Sadly, we do the best we can and control and manage what we have the power and authority to oversee.

jackielamp
jackielamp

I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately. What bothers me the most is that unethical PR practices (smear campaigns, etc.) occur more than any of us would like to believe, and although it doesn't make it right (in my opinion), it still can work. Often times it achieves the desired effect. And maybe we can recognize it because we're in the PR industry, but can the general public figure it out? (Unless of course word gets out like BM/Facebook)

So, it can be somewhat of a catch 22. But that sucks. I guess I'll go with your "I refuse" statement by saying that I refuse to think the unethical methods will prevail in the long run. Is it naive of me? Maybe so, but I sure hope not.

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

I wasn't going to comment until your last sentence; then I got lured in. Your "drugs" and my "condoms" from Saturday's post (About Condoms & Social Media) and I'm leaving a link b/c it's highly relevant to this discussion (http://soulati.com/blog/condoms-and-social-media) is all about character. @johnakerson wrote an incredible comment on my post referenced above. Drugs and condoms are merely tools that need to be imbibed, used by the humanoid. Said individual who elects to do so will indeed suffer the consequence and rightly so. It seems, to your point, of having Lance as a cyclists' role model that we (the fans and supporters) suffer. And that goes hand in hand with trust. The crux of the matter is character and trust -- it appears, sadly, that neither is existent and everyone suffers.

Whitney Punchak
Whitney Punchak

I've been trying to wrap my head around what happens to PR companies who do this. Technically it's libel or slander which are, of course, illegal. But legal action isn't always taken. It's concerning that this can happen multiple times seemingly without consequence.

I've never seen what happens within a PR company when this happen, and I'm curious - what are the consequences? Does the company itself handle its own situation? Does a third party get involved?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RyoatCision It's unfortunate that one bad apple spoils the bunch. It just makes it harder for us.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@barryrsilver As a friend said to me last night, "He's never said, 'I didn't dope.' He always says, 'I've never tested positive.'" I guess it's all in the SPIN.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@mkedave My cycling coach makes all of us sign something saying we won't dope or do any kind of drugs. He's very serious about it. Just that little sheet of paper with your signature makes some people think twice. That's what I think the PR industry is missing - consequences for unethical actions.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@mdbarber I prefer it as well. And, as you and I have discussed, here and in other places, we will prevail, even if it takes a really long time.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Corianda I didn't recognize this avatar! I hope you're right - I'm all for you young 'uns creating serious transparency!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@barrettrossie Boo hiss! :) I know...they do win in the short-term. We just have to keep looking at the bigger picture.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@JohnAkerson This is like the Michael Milken argument. Let's sell junk bonds, go to jail, and then come out and create a foundation to help entrepreneurs. In my book, it's all bad, including doing evil for good. Let's say he had that much foresight and could conclude that if he did drugs, and he won, he'd be able to raise $54MM every year. My bet it's not that all, but competitiveness taking over and doing whatever it takes to win.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@rustyspeidel I only care if I win and I don't cheat. And you know me well enough to know I have to win. But I don't cheat to do it...and I do win. Lots. Do I win every time? No, but I win more times than not. But I agree that the rub comes in working for/with clients who expect it. Won't happen here. Ever.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@MikeLee Sure, and that's what happened in the BM case. But what are the real consequences? It's doubtful that anything bad really will happen.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jeffespo @KeithTrivitt Keith and I have this debate all the time and I've become super educated on the role PRSA plays in our industry. I would LOVE to see BM and other agencies in Silicon Valley and DC called before a grand jury to discuss their ethics. But the fact of the matter is that it's not going to happen. We don't have a regulatory board nor do we have to take any tests or get certified in order to do our jobs. So the bad ethics run amok while the rest of us fight the good fight. Not to say we don't make mistakes (or won't); it's all in how the mistake is handled and whether or not "I'm sorry" is uttered.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@janbeery Perhaps the imperfect people will not be raptured then! Bahahaha! I couldn't resist one more jab. :)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jackielamp It might be naive, but I'm right there with you! And we'll look awesome in our shoes.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Whitney Punchak That's the thing, Whitney. There are no consequences. So why would they stop? Think about it this way...if Facebook came to you and said, "We have a $10MM budget and we'd like to hire you!", what would you say? But what if they said, We have a $10MM budget and we'd like to hire you! Oh, and BTW, we need you to lie about our competition. But we'll give you $5MM upfront to do it."

Money does evil things to people.

Corianda
Corianda

@ginidietrich I know, you can actually see my face. Not facing my boyfriend nor devouring a taco. Crazy, right?

JGoldsborough
JGoldsborough

@ginidietrich @jeffespo @KeithTrivitt Good stuff, GD. All three of you and several others here do a ton to fight the good fight. We have ti keep blogging about, tweeting about and discussing these issues. That is the responsibility we have as PR people and communicators. If we let up even a little, that's when things can really spin way out of control (pun intended).

Whitney Punchak
Whitney Punchak

@ginidietrich I was afraid of that. But I was hoping that there was something out there that I wasn't aware of.

Other professions that have governing bodies, for example engineering, really make sure that their members behave. For engineers, you can actually go onto a website, search any engineer's name and see if they've been blacklisted for unethical conduct.

Of course our regulatory bodies are voluntary, unlike engineering, but it seems like they don't have any teeth. I think it would be nice to see a stronger self-regulation and consequences in PR.

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

@HowieG @jackielamp @ginidietrich It doesn't bleed into the corporate world, it comes from the corporate world. If you think Swiftboat was a grass roots movement without polling, alternate ads and professional insight, would you like to buy a bridge? Further if you see nothing wrong with it, you are entitle to your opinion. You're also part of the problem. Feel free to DM, we can discuss further.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@jackielamp @ginidietrich I think the Political Attack Ads, RoboCalling, False Mailers stuff that we as a nation refuse to reject kind of bleeds into the Corp world. Why shouldn't an Agency try to Swift Boat Google on behalf of Facebook.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@Whitney Punchak @TheJackB @rustyspeidel @ginidietrich It would make a good blog post.. or really an ethics seminar as people tempted by security (I'll admit, I'd like some "F-You!" money) try to hedge their bets. What is just vague, oblique or misleading vs. lying? What if their 'due diligence' didn't reveal such lies and erroneous facts b/c they intentionally did a bad job of research? How many ways to skirt the letter of the law, bend it so you just eke by? IDK... just food for thought.

Whitney Punchak
Whitney Punchak

@TheJackB @rustyspeidel @ginidietrich Would definitely make a good blog topic. And that's a good point about responsibility to others.

I had to laugh a little at your ongoing conversation with friends - I have the same one going with mine. We're all 20-something's and more or less only responsible for ourselves. But because we're currently looking for jobs our main point of discussion is whether we would take a high paying job that has negative effects on society or a low paying job that has positive effects. Atm, we're split about 25-75 in favor of the low paying one. Maybe it's because we're from the west coast and the hippie culture is wearing off on us. :)

TheJackB
TheJackB

@Whitney Punchak I don't think that we can make blanket assumptions that everyone can be bought- there are too many variables.

That being said it is not always easy to say no, especially when your responsibilities include others. If someone offered me ten million dollars to do something that wouldn't put me in jail, I might have to think about it.

That is enough money to take care of my children for life and give them something that I might not otherwise be able to do. I want to say that I would turn it down and that it wouldn't be a question.

But honesty dictates that I might listen to the offer, but then again I might not.

It reminds me of an ongoing conversation with friends. We are all fathers in our forties who talk about "fuck you' money. It is similar to the outline above. How much money do we need to just walk away from work and do whatever we want. Think I might have to blog about this one.

@rustyspeidel @ginidietrich

Whitney Punchak
Whitney Punchak

@TheJackB @rustyspeidel @ginidietrich That's a scary thought. That everyone has a price or a point where they'll "break".

But I don't think so. I've heard too many people say that the money "just wasn't worth it" when faced with an unethical decision to believe that everyone has a price.

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