Michelle Olson, APR, 2021 PRSA Chair
On Thursday, Business Insider reported that Blade Air Mobility’s public relations representative over the three years leading up to its going public in January did not exist. “Simon McLaren,” the aviation ride service’s spokesperson who’s been on social media and quoted in various major news outlets, and the ostensible author of a company blog, was made up of whole cloth by the company’s leadership, which earlier told the media that McLaren was an actual employee.
Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal masqueraded as McLaren at various points, and told Business Insider, “…it was just not appropriate for a CEO to speak,” and that fabricating a spokesperson was a common practice for small companies that are stretched for resources and untrained in PR.
What Blade did was unethical, and it doesn’t take a public relations professional to know that. This was a flagrant misrepresentation that damages Wiesenthal’s and the company’s credibility with numerous audiences, including its employees. ICR, the PR firm recently retained by Blade, will have to address fundamental issues with its client if trust is to be earned back.
PRSA’s Code of Ethics specifies a number of operating principles that were violated by Blade’s practices, including fundamental commitments to honesty, integrity, and the disclosure and free flow of information.
It’s understandable that business leaders by and large are not familiar with PRSA’s Code of Ethics or public relations practices generally, but they certainly recognize that damage to essential credibility and trust can destroy any organization. That’s why Mr. Wiesenthal’s claim that “There are a lot of small companies that have done this and continue to do this, but at a certain point you outgrow it, and we outgrew it” is especially troubling. The fact that the statements of the fictional McLaren were true, as claimed by Wiesenthal, does not in any way excuse the deception.
Company size has exactly nothing to do with acting responsibly, or in dealing honestly with the news media and other stakeholders. And it remains unanswered why a “pseudonym,” as McLaren’s identity was characterized by Blade’s CEO, was needed in the first place.
While it’s a positive step that Blade has retained public relations representation, organizations of any type in any industry should know that PRSA and its more than 18,000 members can provide guidance to help businesses avoid consequences that would result in much higher financial and reputational expenses than hiring ethical public relations counsel.