“Rupert O’Dwyer and the PRSA Phone Hack” or “Ethics Schmethics”

The ongoing skirmish between Jack O’Dwyer and the Public Relations Society of America has taken some dark turns in recent weeks as O’Dwyer has amped up his accusations against the professional organization (which is saying something as O’Dwyer has analogized PRSA to the Third Reich in the past).

Alexandra Bruell at Advertising Age wrote a very thorough piece dissecting the conflict (“PR Group Accuses Writer of Phone Hacking: In Wake of Murdoch Hearings, PRSA Points Finger at O’Dwyer“).

It’s highly salient that O’Dwyer did not deny the phone hacking in his blog (arguing instead that it would be perfectly legitimate if it did indeed occur):

“He accuses us of improperly listening to Society teleconferences. Those teleconferences should be open to members and non-members as well as the press since PRS claims to speak for the entire industry.”

As he’s well-known for dogging his sources, in perhaps the most perfect example of hypocrisy O’Dwyer was unavailable for comment.

Unfortunately the years of unsuccessfully battling the PRSA appear to have embittered O’Dwyer, who makes deriding the group as regular a practice as morning coffee.

It’s disappointing because I used to be a fan of his writing.  O’Dwyer is at his best when he’s raising difficult questions about PRSA’s obligation to influence and condemn the unethical practices of practitioners and firms.  Unfortunately the inter-procedural bureaucracy of the organization doesn’t make for very good or relevant criticism.

Echoing the sentiment expressed in the letter penned by Arthur Yann, VP of PR for PRSA, my own personal experiences with him have lead me to conclude that he no longer qualifies as a journalist.

The first problem I have with O’Dwyer’s conduct is that he continues to report on PRSA himself rather than turn over that beat to another member of his staff.

O’Dwyer’s personal coverage of PRSA is problematic because he has written at length about how he and PRSA compete for market share in providing public relations research and resources to professionals – this constitutes a conflict of interest.  It’s something condemned by both the PRSA Code of Ethics and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The second problem I have with O’Dwyer’s conduct comes from anecdotal experience.

Last year at PRSA’s International Assembly, I served as a delegate and thought I would lighten the somewhat dour mood by starting a flash mob (as I’d done the year before).  Just as John Forbes Nash had a unique (if distorted) view of reality, I thought it would be fun to re-enact the pen-gifting scene of the movie with O’Dwyer.  Somehow I managed to convince some other attendees to use their afternoon break to join me in presenting O’Dwyer with pens.

I thought it was all in good fun, but unfortunately O’Dwyer had a narrative to peddle about PRSA and the flash mob provided him with desperately-needed grist.  His only purpose at PRSA events appears to have become digging for dirt (and manufacturing it if none presents itself).

Rather than fact-checking (in which he would have readily run across my blog post describing the event), O’Dwyer wrote up the flash mob as evidence that an insurgency was defiantly thumbing its nose at the PRSA leadership by congratulating him on his reporting.

O’Dwyer then sought me out for an interview, practically salivating at the prospect of being able to fill his blog with quotes from a dissenter.  I declined, and O’Dwyer concocted the conspiracy theory that I had been silenced by PRSA leadership.

Unfortunately a subsequent blog post from me correcting O’Dwyer’s coverage caused a complete 180-degree shift in his tone.  Where he had previously been flattered at the prospect of the flash mob as a congratulatory pat on the back, he was now characterizing it as an “attack” and hyperbolically comparing himself to the journalists “disappeared” by death squads in Central/South America.

These two examples make it difficult to consider what O’Dwyer is doing to be “journalism.”

It would be great if an accommodation can be reached (perhaps by allowing another member of the O’Dwyer staff to cover the PRSA beat to lend more objectivity).  Here’s to hoping.

[Addendum: My wonderful significant other summarized things by noting “being a naysayer is not the same as being a truthsayer.”]

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