When I left Carnegie Mellon University some years back my friends and colleagues threw me a terrific farewell party. I will always remember that event, and I will always remember those friends and colleagues with a special fondness and appreciation. Those folks made my time in Pittsburgh a highlight of my professional life.
One of the greatest gifts I received at my going-away party was a case of beer one of our designers had personalized for me. The label on each bottle said, “Hale’s Ale.” But what I liked best about that label was the slogan that accompanied the name: “Not a Boot Liquor.”
I long ago drank the beer, but I have kept a bunch of the bottles and have proudly displayed them. The double entendre in that slogan has meant a lot to me. I was humbled that my co-workers thought of me in that way, that they believed I stood up for them and our profession, that I had been willing to tell the truth no matter the consequences.
In a recent exchange of e-mails with long-time friend Roland King, who has just retired after a storied career in higher education public relations, I was reminded why I have long admired and respected the man.
“I think you and I share an all-too-rare candor in our dealings with others—probably in both our personal and professional lives,” Roland wrote. “I know that has sometimes gotten me in trouble with those who don’t value that quality.”
Honesty and integrity mean everything to me (and to Roland), and they should be the foundation of behavior for all public relations professionals. They are also fundamental values recognized as the bedrock of our profession in the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics. Unfortunately, in practice and with some who claim to be practitioners of our profession, it doesn’t always work that way.
The profession is plagued by some charlatans, phonies who work “the con” to convince leaders of organizations they hold the key to solving public relations problems that face their organization, business or institution. Some of these impostors have discovered the easiest entry point into an organization can sometimes be the president or chief executive officer or an influential member of an organization’s board.
It is easy to understand why his route may represent the path of least resistance. Presidents, CEOs and board members command larger budgets than their PR staff and the price tag of these consultants’ proposals is likely to exceed the capacity of the in-house staff’s budget. They also know presidents, CEOs and boards don’t know the public relations business well enough to ask any hard questions. They have no idea how to discern the value and feasibility of what is being proposed. Some PR consultants recognize there is no need or value in engaging with leaders of in-house public relations operations because once they have sealed the deal at the top **it will run downhill.
I have witnessed this charade first hand and watched consultants make absurd, claims and ridiculous promises that even well intentioned leaders have come to embrace. These consultants recognize that once they make the sale to leadership they cannot lose. No matter how poorly they perform they know the CEO and board members will never acknowledge they made a poor management decision. They’ll collect their six figure (or more) fees and move on to the next mark they can find.
Because these con artists are outside the organization they are pitching they are “experts” to the presidents and board members. That label rarely gets applied to public relations staff inside. The cachet enables the consultants to question and critique anything with impunity, and to propose projects and programs the pros who work within an organization know are a waste of time and resources.
If your organization engages with a public relations consultant it is essential that your voice is heard in evaluating the capability and feasibility of the proposal no matter the entry point into your operation. (Of course, ethical PR consultants will seek out the involvement of in-house staff.)
It is critically important to stay tuned to perceptions and politics within your organization to guard against the incursion of PR con artists. That means fostering a relationship of trust and respect with organizational leadership. It also means building an understanding of public relations strategy and tactics. By doing these things you may be able to inoculate yourself from this kind of invasion. Failing to do that, it comes down to this: You must weigh in with your honest assessment of the consultant and the efficacy of the proposal. It is your responsibility, no matter the outcome.
Sometimes outside public relations counsel and expertise are sorely needed. And I need to temper my screed by emphasizing that I have met and worked with a good number of first-rate public relations consultants, pros whose work I have admired and respected. I trust them and I believe in them because of their honesty and integrity. They confirm my belief in the value and principles of our profession and make valuable partners in building the lasting relationships and eliciting the beneficial behaviors we need to succeed internally and externally.
It saddens me that the business remains so misunderstood by organizational leadership that scammers who have eschewed honesty and integrity for con artistry and financial gain continue to embarrass our profession.