PRSA International Conference Update: PR Pulls Back from Reporter Relations


By Jack O’Dwyer, Publisher/Editor, O’Dwyer’s

Jack O'Dwyer

I’ve seen a remarkable shift in the behavior of corporate and organizational PR people in the past 45 years—from all-out interaction with reporters to the current nearly full flight from them.

PR has taken the path that advertising did back in the 1950s—out the corporate door and into the PR firms.

Companies used to have their own large ad departments that created and placed ads.

But they eventually realized that creativity does not thrive in the hot house of one company. Creative types need the stimulation of other creative hotshots and the chance to work on a variety of assignments.

A similar thing has happened in PR. Almost all of what I call “PR,” meaning ongoing interaction with reporters, has gravitated to the agency side.

It is there that PR pros pursue the Holy Grail of PR—endorsement of your product or service by an expert third party. What others say about you is far more important than what you say about yourself.

These days, that expert can be a blogger as well as a beat reporter or editor with an established news medium.

Trade publications, including the O’Dwyer Co., have long written about the dozen or so PR specialties such as healthcare, tech, financial, food, beauty, travel, etc.

The leading firms in these specialties can easily be found via a search on Google.

We have tracked the explosive growth of PR firms in the past couple of decades with several of them topping the $100 million mark. Growth is often in the double-digits except in years of a general economic slide.

Corporate Side Is a Different World

The corporate and institutional side has become a different world for PR people.

Their every word with reporters is apt to be tracked by corporate management.

A corporate PR executive said in the mid-1990s that corporate PR departments “experience a press call like a drive-by shooting.” Defensiveness was in. “Outreach” to reporters by holding events or just visiting editors at their desks was a tactic that vanished.

Today, that call will not get through at all to a PR pro. It will be intercepted by an assistant who will grill the reporter on the purpose of the call and demand to see the reporter’s “credentials.” The call will then be relayed to PR pros and most probably the legal and financial departments. A reply, if any, will be in the form of an email.

Wendell Potter, 20-year veteran of Cigna who authored Deadly Spin, says that in his experience and that of other corporate PR pros he knows, the only “conversations” with reporters these days is emails.

The late Ted Pincus, founder of Financial Relations Board, the biggest investor relations firm, who spent the last five years of his life as a financial journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that he was shocked by the sea change in corporate attitudes to the press.

“Profiling hundreds of companies, I’ve seen an amazing syndrome of nervousness, terror and paralysis grip the executive suite,” he said. Email and voicemail were employed as barriers rather than as conduits.

A major element, of course, is the Internet. It provides a frightening deluge of information and has made the lives of reporters far easier and more productive than ever.

Given this background of institutional reticence, I was not at all that surprised on Oct. 15 in Orlando, Fla., when the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) decided that I was no longer welcome after 40 straight years of my covering its legislative Assembly.

Hotel guards and PRSA staffers blocked my way as I attempted to enter the room. No other reporters covered this crucial meeting, either.

Leaders of the PRSA, faced with costs rising faster than revenues and reporting a $852,720 loss for the first nine months of 2011, had put forth a $30 dues increase to $255 that had run into stiff opposition from rank-and-file members.

Leaders and staff did not want this reporter to hear the arguments for and against this hike, as well as details of what programs might have to be cut.

So the solution to just block this reporter from attending did not seem all that strange to them.

No other trade reporter has covered the Assembly for at least 15 years and I didn’t see any of them Saturday.




  1. Lourdes Perez Ramirez on October 17, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I know. I agree with you and this is very sad for a “professional organization” like PRSA. I am also a journalist and a PR professional. I have protested their focus on “the bu$ine$$ ca$e” that insists that in order for PRSA members to occupy leadership positions, we need to be APR-certified. That is just a strategy to increase their dwindling coffers, because testing is a good bu$ine$$. I have told them I’d rather go get an MBA (which I did) than wasting my money on a volunteer certification that doesn’t have any value. In fact, in Puerto Rico, they have opted to license PR professionals, but that is OK because that makes us more accountable for what we do. And we do work, constantly, with the press, without whom we would not survive, even in the Internet era.
    Keep probing PRSA; they have gone too far.

  2. Keith Trivitt on October 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks for your note, Lourdes. However, I’m not sure where you got your information regarding our “Business Case for Public Relations.”

    It is an industry advocacy campaign that helps educate the business community on the strategic value of PR. The framework for The Business Case for Public Relations was created with the help of public relations industry leaders, some of whom are not APR certified, but are no less exemplary in their leadership and knowledge.

    The goal of the Business Case is to drive industry recognition and growth by helping professionals in the field educate key audiences about public relations’ roles and outcomes, demonstrate its strategic value and enhance its reputation. One does not need to be APR certified in order to derive benefit from PRSA helping to advance the business value of public relations, such as we are doing through our Business Case program.

    Again, the Business Case is an industry-wide initiative. We recognize that not all public relations professionals are APRs but all can benefit from PRSA leading the effort to advocate on their behalf and to advocate and advance the business value of public relations, which we are working hard to do every day.

    You can find more information on our Business Case here:

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director
    Public Relations Society of America

  3. arthur yann on October 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Just to add to what my colleague, Keith Trivitt, has already said here.

    PRSA has excellent relationships with the national and international
    media, many of whom are attending our events this week. The PRSA Code of Ethics, which all members of PRSA are required to follow as a condition of membership, promotes the “free flow of accurate and truthful information.” As such, our policy is to give any member of the media access to our leaders, volunteers and events.

    However, as we espouse and require ethical behavior on the part of our
    members, we cannot tolerate and accept unethical behavior on the part of
    a representative of the media. We have provided Mr. O’Dwyer with a
    23-page document that outlines our concerns with his professional
    conduct, which recently prompted the Society of Professional
    Journalists (SPJ) to invite Mr. O’Dwyer to resign his membership in that

    We encourage Mr. O’Dwyer to make this document public, so that the
    casual observer can better understand the context in which our decision
    was made, and decide for his or herself why we have taken this
    unprecedented step.

    Arthur Yann is vice president, public relations, for PRSA.

  4. Jack O'Dwyer on October 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Art Yann has penned the usual ferocious attack on me.
    But the Society’s charges against me, and they are only charges that they dare not make to my face, pall beside the massive theft of O’Dwyer Co. intellectual property from 1980 to 1994. I never stole anything from the Society.
    In that ongoing scam, the Society was selling in the 1990s about 3,800 “information packets” loaded with articles and entire chapters of books from dozens of authors and publications like the New York Times, Ad Age, Time mag, and many specialty publications. O’Dwyer magazine and NL articles were by far the most copied. We purchased 12 packets and found 100 pages of copied O’Dwyer articles being sold. At least three O’Dwyer articles were in many packets and sometimes, seven or eight. So three times 3,800 is 11,400 copies.

    PRSA defended the practice, saying it was a “library” and could send one copy at a time. But it immediately removed all O’Dwyer articles and others for which it did not have permission. Without that content, the entire service was folded.

    Yann is wrong in saying the SPJ invited me to quit because of concerns with my “professional” conduct. I expressed profound disappointment with SPJ for failing to chide PRS for blocking my access to the 2011 Assembly and other conference events. SPJ executive director Joe Skeel said SPJ would not issue a blanket condemnation of PRSA, which is not what I asked for. I asked for it to support my admission to the 2011 Assembly. He invited me to quit if I persist in asking the SPJ to criticize PRS. I most certainly am not going to quit, but will increase my coverage of SPJ.

    As for the 23-pages of charges against me, there is a link on the O’Dwyer website to them, which I put there as soon as I got the charges. Yann can also provide the link in this discussion. One of the main charges is that I incorrectly chastise the Society for false financial reporting. PRSA books dues as cash when they should booked over the course of the dues year. That is bedrock FASB. PRSA says that since members won’t get their money back, it can be considered cash. No, it’s still a liability. The Society says this is “acceptable.” I thought it was a fan of “best practices,” not “acceptable practices. The Society could show “good will” by presenting the balance sheet both ways.

    The other charges are that I am unfair in pointing out that COO Bill Murray has spasmodic dysphonia, which causes a halting quality in his speech. If he appeared before the chapters regularly and spoke in public places about the “Business Case for PR,” I would praise him for overcoming this handicap. He has never spoken to the New York chapter in nearly five years in office and only spoke to two of the 110 chapters that I know of. He has never hosted a press conference. He came to my office on March 19, 2010 and said the Society had simply “chosen” not to deal with anyone from the O’Dwyer Co. It seems to me that his speech condition may be inhibiting his public schedule. As “president,” he should be out in the public and with members constantly.

    The other charge is that I was unfair to CFO Phil Bonaventura when he joined the Society several years ago.
    I pointed out that he was a lapsed CPA who had not taken the required 40 hours of “contact” courses each year for several years and had not paid the annual $240 registration fee. He could not practice in public but could use his CPA designation within an organization. Following my observation, he registered with the New York State Education Dept., which administers professional licenses, paid the fee and took the required courses.

  5. Joette Storm, APR, Fellow PRSA on October 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Dear Jack,
    Over the years I have wondered what was at the core of your disagreement with PRSA. What I hear in your comments is the desire for respect for what you produce. As in many disputes the parties trade comments, but do not engage in dialogue about the wants and needs of each.

    As a journalist, you wish to be accorded some respect for your work. You certainly have been producing a publication for a long time.

    Members of the Society wish to be acknowledged as well for their efforts to establish standards and gain respect for our profession. Part of that standard is accreditation. And because licensure is not available for the most part to support a standard, we seek accreditation to demonstrate to ourselves and others that there is a body of knowledge and a code of ethics we adhere to.

    For many of us, myself included, accreditation is the opportunity to benchmark our knowledge, skills and abilities and identify the areas in which we hope to improve. It isn’t about money. I paid for the process myself and as a public servant had no expectation that the credential would increase my federal salary.

    If PRSA has improperly used proprietary materials, we should respond to that allegation once and for all with the guidance of legal counsel. Then the dispute can be put aside and each party allowed to work for the good of this democratic society.

  6. Jack O'Dwyer on October 18, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to engage in this discussion. If only PRSA leaders and staff would talk to me, go to lunch with me, visit the O’Dwyer offices, etc., there would be progress.

    As for APR, I applaud education in any form. But the members of PRSA have overwhelmingly rejected the concept of accredition for 45 years. It was started in 1965 and currently only 18% of members APR. Only they can hold office which makes PRSA in violation of its own Code that champions democracy. Even worse, new members are not warned that they will be second class citizens until they pay another $410 to be APR. Only then can they seek national office. The APRs will look down on them as not “fully committed” to the Society and PR.

    Twelve authors explored a lawsuit against PRSA in 1994 after the discovery of the wholesale copying was made by me. PRSA immediately cancelled the service that was selling about 3,800 info packets a year.

    Ten of the 12 authors are still alive. PRSA should meet with us and go over the boxfull of copied articles that I have in my office. It’s not a legal debt but a moral one. Since ethics is the “most important obligation” of a member, PRSA should acknowledge that, ethically, it still owes the authors.

    PRSA thinks I am persecuting it and concentrating on it. That is false. We have covered unethical and wrongful behavior in numerous associations and companies. The Overseas Press Club, for instance, was embezzled out of its building by its manager who stole $300,000. He committed suicide. The Club went from 3,600 members to less than 200. It has about 500 now.

    The Publicity Club of New York was also embezzled and went from 800 members to less than 100. IABC, in 2004, was hit with a multi-million dollar lawsuit after it lost $1 million on the ill-fated TalkingBusinessNow website. The executive director was criticized and she sued IABC and one of its officers. These stories were extensively covered.

    Currently we are covering the book called “The Tylenol Mafia” which contends that Johnson & Johnson was in control of the Tylenol capsules in 1982 when seven people in Chicago were murdered with them.

    We cover irregularities wherever they happen and I could name you dozens of other instances of this. Currently, we are covering the debacle at the International PR Assn. Its staff and some of the officers disbanded the Council, which is the equivalent of PRSA’s Assembly. Numerous leaders have quit in protest. I met some of IPRA’s former officers at the PRSA conference in Orlando and they told me that even as officers they could not find out how the money was being spent.

    PRSA is different in that instead of accepting criticism and changing its ways, it clings to outmoded and unethical practices like confining board and officer posts to the APRs. Ethically, it should warn prospective members about the need to be APR in order to run for national office.