On Spam, Josh Bernoff and Pointing Fingers – Responding to the Call to Clean up the PR Industry

Pointing the Finger at PRSA

While perusing my RSS feeds, I came across a blog post by Josh Bernoff (Senior VP of Idea Development at Forrester Research and co-author of Groundswell) titled “PR professionals — clean up your industry.”

Interest.  Piqued.

In the post, Bernoff excoriates the public relations profession and specifically the Public Relations Society of America for spam email and lazy PR pros who send irrelevant pitches his way.  In the post he highlights five companies:  Seagate, GlassPoint, Calysto, Allen & Caron, and 5W Public Relations.  Arthur Yann, VP of Public Relations for PRSA did a great job of responding the very same day, and Bernoff graciously printed his response on behalf of the organization.

Before my [obnoxious] rebuttal, I’d like to point out that I completely agree with Bernoff; there are far too many PR people running around firing off irrelevant press releases in all directions like so much birdshot from a .12-gauge.

Moreover, I share Bernoff’s loathing for spam and unsolicited contact (so much so that I’ve gone so far as to track down the originators of unsolicited faxes and emails and contact hosting companies and file complaints with the state attorney general’s office).

I’d also like to say that I loved Groundswell; Bernoff and Li wrote a fantastic book that – unlike most nonfiction works – doesn’t coast on a few breezy anecdotal examples and factoids.  It’s grounded in quantitative analysis backed up by research.

However, claiming that the public relations profession has an obligation to clean itself up is as unreasonable as claiming that the sales profession has an obligation to clean itself up.  I’d also like to point out that, in point of fact, PRSA does have a “code of conduct that reflects the difference between right and wrong” and also a “certification for people who behave properly;” two facts that are readily available to anyone who googles “PRSA code of ethics” and “PRSA certification.”

I checked PRSA’s member directory and found the following about the handful of companies he named specifically:

  • Seagate: out of 52,000 employees worldwide, only one is a PRSA member.
  • GlassPoint: zero PRSA members.
  • Calysto: zero PRSA members.
  • Allen & Caron: zero PRSA members.
  • 5W Public Relations: out of 67 employees, only one is a PRSA member.

PRSA can’t spank people who aren’t members.  Part of the problem of unprofessional people equipped with technology is that a handful of them can do a lot of damage with relatively little effort.  That damage can usually only be repaired by repeated positive one-on-one interactions.  It’s kind of like trying to stop the tide from coming in armed only with a Solo cup.

When you point the finger, four point back at you.  Well … if not four, at least one.  Surely Forrester Research has never spammed anyone, right?  Whoops:

I’d love it if all of the spammy, obnoxious, lazy public professionals were loaded up into a rocket and fired into the orbit of a distant planet.  Their poor conduct invariably affects me in my dealings with the media or the general public which may hold past interactions with PR people against me.  But I work to win their trust one interaction at a time.  I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it.  That’s why I embrace the term “flack” (to the point of having it emblazoned on my employee ID card).

In addition to conducting myself in a respectful fashion, I also try to promote those same practices in others.  That’s why I’m a member of the board of the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA, and a professional advisor to the Public Relations Student Society Chapter at Grand Valley State University.

The good thing about bad PR people is that it’s easier than ever to cut them off at the knees for their tactics with the power of social media; email blacklists can easily be shared.  Just ask Chris Anderson.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity for Forrester Research to turn the tools against these people.  Create a tool that allows disgruntled recipients of shoddy PR pitches to submit their blacklist suggestions (along with documentation of the pitch) to a database that people can download blacklist updates from.  I’d happily volunteer a few hours a month to help vet submissions.

2 thoughts on “On Spam, Josh Bernoff and Pointing Fingers – Responding to the Call to Clean up the PR Industry

  1. Josh Bernoff says:

    Thanks for a substantive contribution to the discussion.

    Your idea about a tool to vet submissions is intriguing. I’m thinking about it.

    Regarding cleaning up the industry . . . sure, we can’t stop PR professionals who want to behave badly. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a Better Business Bureau type of recognition of those who behave well?

    If I worked in PR, I’d want to show I was one of the good guys.


  2. Derek DeVries says:

    A BBB for PR people (and marketers and social media “experts”) would be fantastic. I’d enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate that I’m someone that aspires to a higher ethical standard.

    I can remember back when I was an undergrad reading in my textbook that PRSA had dropped its judicial process for expelling members decades ago given the difficulties it ran into trying to administer it. This was the essential problem:

    “During the first 50 years in which PRSA had a code of ethics, only 10 in 232 cases investigated resulted in formal sanctions against members for unethical behavior.” In six of those cases, sanctions followed findings in public courts, “meaning that only four formal sanctions resulted from investigations … the enforcement system simply was not effective in holding members accountable.”


    Membership in PRSA (and achieving the Accredited Public Relations certification) is moderately expensive (annual membership runs $290 and the exam is $385) which is one of the reasons why only about 10 percent of PR practitioners are members. You lose your APR certification if you drop your PRSA membership.

    Another complication for PRSA is the fact that it relies on sponsorship dollars from some of the largest/most prominent PR firms in the country – some of whom tend to employ the most egregious/high-profile violators.

    Ketchum, for example, was involved in the video news releases scandal AND the payolagate scandal (with Armstrong Williams) during the Bush Administration (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Ketchum) – the Congressional Budget Office found the practices to be illegal and they certainly violated the PRSA code of ethics. However, Ketchum is also a big supporter of PRSA and it’s difficult to determine who was involved in those scandals (and if they weren’s PRSA members, they couldn’t have been sanctioned).

    There are also other areas where practices are commonplace in public relations, but they might be considered unethical by the public like ghostwriting, speechwriting, etc.

    Any voluntary system of screening would have to be low-cost or free to attract a critical mass of members. It would also have to have some sort of judicial process similar to what PRSA used to have to allow for evidence to be documented and presented to a neutral decision-making body. There would also likely have to be levels of unethical behavior (that perhaps barred a practitioner from re-applying to the list for varying periods of time).

    It may be, though, that an online review site could be a viable option (much like Epinions.com). Clients or those affected by unethical practices could submit/document the behavior in a searchable database, and other users could rate their submissions (helpful/not helpful/flag).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s