Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant
The phrase, “We have met the enemy and it is us” has been attributed to many people. But who can truthfully deny that the idiom too often also applies to our craft, the public relations business, and to our elder kin, the advertising industry (and to many of the clients we represent). Because if there is one certainty in life, the public doesn’t trust us; neither does the media. And who can blame them given our sorry history, which includes:
- Promoting products that kill us.
- Promoting clients that destroy the environment.
- Promoting foreign governments that mean to do us harm.
- Promoting products that give false hope.
- Using celebrities as experts about products they hawk and probably don’t know anything about.
- Making excuses for clients during PR crises.
- And worse of all, being proud of deceiving the public and the media.
I believe it will be very difficult for communicators to regain the trust of the public if PR and advertising firms keep on operating the way they do – meaning the bottom line is the most important factor in deciding which clients to represent.
Public Relations: In conversations with journalists friends of mine, as well as none “pro” friends and relatives over many years, the same roadblocks to trust emerges:
- During PR crises, in the great majority of instances, instead of accepting blame and saying they will fix the situation, blame is often the last thing a client will admit. Statements are given that are not factual. In many cases, boiler plate statements are issued and the truth does not emerge until after government investigations.
- Camouflaging facts is near the top of the list of many crises PR strategies. Of course, the constant lying of current government spokespeople since the election of President Trump and the president himself, adds to the lack of trust. But blaming the situation entirely on the Trump administration would be inaccurate. The lack of trust began decades ago because of the unsavory actions of the pioneers of the PR industry (which continues as I write this; only the names are different) and their manipulating and misleading the public on behalf of deceitful clients. Just check the responses to recent PR crisis situations of Facebook, Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, the NFL’s on-going concussion problems and Equifax (only space limits naming others) and the initial responses are denying the reality of the situation. Go back in the past and study, the PR responses during the BP oil spill or when an Orca killed a trainer at SeaWorld, and the responses of tobacco company officials during congressional hearings and most often the one element of the crisis plan that is missing is to immediately fess up to wrong doings. (Never lie, but don’t necessarily tell the truth, is often part of today’s media strategy. History shows that was not always the case; sometime PR crisis plans included lying. In today’s White House lying is the default answer to any PR crisis.)
Advertising: This brings me to our kin folk in the advertising industry, whose motto should be “truth in advertising is an oxymoron.”
- Want to lose a few pounds and look like the eye candy babes trying to sell you on a product? Do as celebrity A does. (Forget about genes playing a factor. Eat what you want, as long as it’s our product, and you too can look like a super model, or at least like a knockout.)
- Own your own home or need life insurance? Don’t bother checking with a trusted family member or advisor. Would Tom Selleck or Alex Trebek lie to you? (You can assume they only have your best interest at heart, After all, they’re on TV.)
- Want to buy a great computer? Believe Peyton Manning and all the other celebrities hawking products. (They certainly wouldn’t pitch a product that they’re not experts on just for the money. Would they?)
- Want to get well? Ask your doctor why you’re not taking the latest medicines that are being hawked on TV. (Who knows? Maybe your doctor hasn’t seen the commercials.)
- Want to have fun? Chug a few brews. (It’ll make you popular with the babes.)
- Want to stop losing money in the stock market? ‘Try us. We have the answers.” (As long as the market goes up?)
- For many years, tobacco companies used movie stars and men in white coats pretending to be doctors to sell the benefits of smoking, even when the health hazards were known. (While almost all of President Trump’s claims of fake news are unfounded, cigarette ads created by the Mad Men can truly be labeled fake ads.)
Since the government crackdown on the tobacco industry, fake ads are no longer permitted. Below is a recent technique.
“A TOBACCO COMPANY THAT ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT HEALTH. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?” was the headline of a full page ad in the January 22 Wall Street Journal. The body of the copy was a supposed q and a with the CEO of Philip Morris International explaining why he wants his company to stop selling cigarettes and come up with a less harmful alternative. Call me a skeptic about the reasons stated in the ad, which I consider just another of the misleading ads and tactics that the advertising business has produced regarding smokes over the decades. (Google tobacco advertising and you’ll see famous actors – Ronald Reagan, Lucille Ball, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Betty Grable among them – endorsing cigarettes. And the no-shame ad agencies also had actors pretending to be doctors who hawked the benefits of smoking. This deceitful advertising continued until the 1960’s when cigarette companies were prohibited from hiring athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities to promote their products). Then on January 23, a similar ad in the WSJ featured a faux interview with the COO of the company, followed by another on January 24 with the scientific and public commutations official. All the ads contained a similar question: If the company is serious about lessening health problems associated from smoking why not just stop selling cigarettes? The answer of the execs was the same in all the ads: If we stop selling cigarettes tomorrow it won’t make a difference. People will just switch to another brand. Then, in the January 25 WSJ, the faux interviews continued with the companies general counsel saying laws governing tobacco are outdated and don’t keep up with product innovation. Sought of like it’s the government’s fault that we don’t have healthier products. (To me, a similar theme runs through all the ads: Why should we be the only company to immediately stop selling a product that causes serious health problems?)
Of course, public relations practitioners also did their best to convince people that they should smoke. Edward Bernays, who many say is the father of PR, linked Lucky Strike cigarettes to the women’s liberation movement, and staged a demonstration at the 1929 Easter Parade, having fashionable young women photographed flaunting their “torches of freedom” – Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Anyone who isn’t brain dead knows that smoking causes serious health problems and that dishonest advertising and public relations agency campaigns are in the DNA of tobacco companies. Many of us have been in the communications business long enough to remember how the top executives of cigarette brands denied knowing in sworn testimony before a Congressional committee that they weren’t aware the smoking causes serious health problems and that cigarettes are additive. PR or advertising agencies. Who did more harm to the public? I ask. You decide.
(I wouldn’t be surprised if the next tobacco advertising campaign will blame smokers for not having the will power to cease using the deadly health-causing products. The ad industry already blames alcoholic drinkers for their problems by tagging liquor TV commercials with “drink responsibly.)
It’s not just Philip Morris International that tried to convince people of its holier than thou positions through full page print ads, which, of course, prevents immediate criticism from opposition groups.
A couple of days after the tobacco ads appeared in the Wall Street Journal another business whose history is littered with deceit, Wells Fargo, took out a two page print ad in the January 27 New York Times titled, “This is about real change…” A similar ad appeared on January 30 and February 2-3 in the Wall Street Journal and the February 1 and 3 Times.
Call me a cynic. But as someone who has lived through years of dishonest tobacco advertising, including outright lies by tobacco executives, and who has seen the government regulators charging Wells Fargo with continuous fraudulent activities over the past few years, it will take much more than a few full page ads to get me to trust both businesses again. (While I view the ad contents skeptically, I’m happy for the newspapers. They can use all the print ads they can get.)
Too often, in my business, the PR business, agencies do the opposite of what Mr. Fink wrote. The truth of a situation takes a back seat to honesty. During a PR crisis, strategies will attempt to make a client in trouble look good, despite the harm done to society. And I’ve yet to hear a PR CEO condemn agencies camouflaging the bad with eyewash strategies. “We do our best to make clients that deserve to be trashed look good,” is too often the credo of PR crises specialists.”
As if there wasn’t enough distrust of the public relations and advertising businesses among the public, the constant lying of President Trump’s PR flacks have added to it. Where is the outrage and criticism of PR people and organizations to having Trump’s communicators tell half truths, use “alternative facts” or sprout outright lies?
While I don’t expect PR people to have the courage and speak out about how White House PR spokespeople are adding o the public distrust of all PR practitioners, at the very least agencies can refuse to represent companies whose products do damage to society, refuse to burnish the reputation of bad actors, (both companies and individuals), and to ensure, and mean it, that if employees refuse to work on a client because of philosophical differences it will not be held against them.
Over the years, I have had clients tell me that the differences in major public relations agencies are few. And that there are many reasons that a company selects an agency, including personal relationships.( In my own case, I had at least three very major Burson-Marsteller clients tell me the reason they selected B-M was because of media recommendations – one from a Business Week editor, the others from the business editor of the old United Press, when it was still a major media player. Editors told the prospective clients that they thought I brought an aspect to media relations that was different from other practitioners – the ability to pitch them with multiple angles on a story and that I understand that a pitch must work for the media as well as the client. That was my belief when I was a reporter and editor at
Given that a number of clients have told me hat they see little difference between the capabilities of major PR agencies –the most important difference being the personnel assigned to the account, not the name of agency – there are several things that good citizen corporate decision makers can do to make agencies be more careful about clients they represent.
- Before signing on with an agency, potential clients should study agencies client list and eliminate agencies that have a track record of representing corporations and individuals that deserve bad reputations.
- Corporate PR people can check with their media contacts about the truthfulness of the information PR agencies have provided.
- The foreign governments that agencies represent are a good barometer of an agency’s moral principles. This is easily checked out.
- The companies an agency represents during PR crises is a good indicator of the values of an agency; also easy to check out.
Above all, potential clients should take into consideration the integrity and ethics of an agency, which can be done by speaking to past and present agency clients, keeping up and having a relationship with PR trade pubs and marketing writers of major dailies and demanding to interview members of the account team that will be assigned to the client. (I personally know of two situations where major clients asked for certain personnel to be on their account team and the agency responded by saying, “That’s not how we run our business.” When the clients said, “I don’t care about your structure, I only care about my account team, the agency capitulated to the client’s request rather then lose the business.)
The phrase, “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” dates back to Roman times. I wonder how many people in our business adhere to that idiom.
Two years ago, Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of money management firm BlackRock, in letters to CEOs of public companies, said that in addition to achieving strong financial performance, public companies must show they make a positive contribution to society or risk losing his firm’s support.
What the public relations business and its parent, the advertising industry, needs is an individual, like Mr. Fink, who is willing to speak out against what is seemingly the communication’s business motto –“the ends justify the means.”
But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the