Spinbusters: exposing the dark underbelly of the PR industry

Public scepticism about much of corporate and government PR is well justified. Campaigns designed and implemented by PR professionals have dressed up self-serving commercial marketing as philanthropy, fuelled think tanks to run campaigns their clients aren’t prepared to own up to, and created corporate front groups to counter critics or commercial rivals. Others aim to quietly court and co-opt potential critics as a way of starving important public debates of oxygen.

Is there any realistic prospect that the PR industry can reform itself? In a submission to the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s inquiry into the ‘cash for comment’ affair, the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s then national president, Lelde McCoy, explained that the organisation’s ‘principal aim is to achieve adherence to the highest standards of ethical practice and professional competence’. The submission went on to state that the code of ethics requires members to ‘deal fairly and honestly with the communication media and with the general public, as well as with clients and other stakeholder groups’. It sounds reassuring, but it begs the question that if the 50-year old PRIA has always placed such great weight on ethical standards, why is the reputation of the industry so low? Is PRIA’s code of ethics really as strict as claimed? Or are the PR industry’s blues inherent in its secretive self-regulatory system itself?

Former PRIA National President Jim McNamara believes this is the single biggest factor limiting the effective enforcement of the code. An attempt in 2000 by PRIA to have the federal government designate PR as a regulated profession was rebuffed. In the absence of effective sanctions, a member subject to an ethics complaint can simply resign and remove themselves from the jurisdiction of PRIA. Without the legal insulation that goes with being a regulated profession, McNamara describes the code as a ‘toothless tiger and it frustrates the hell out of everyone who has been involved in the process’.

A close reading of PRIA’s manual for handling ethics complaints, issued in August 2003, reveals PRIA is fearful of possible legal consequences for itself and wants to keep all but the most serious ethics breaches secret. Aside from the prospect that a member could be expelled, the next most serious punishment is a maximum fine of $10 000, which in the world of PR is small potatoes. PRIA have embraced the idea of naming and shaming those fined, but only via a notice in the public notices section of a major newspaper. The more common but less serious reprimands are tucked away in text of PRIA’s annual report to members.

In the absence of disclosure, there is limited public pressure for better performance, no deterrent effect and little educational value for PR professionals, especially for the three-quarters of the profession who aren’t PRIA members.

If the prospect for better disclosure and standards originating from within the PR and lobbying professions appears forlorn, should we pin our hopes on corporations voluntarily divulging what they are up to? Corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports may seem like an appealing vehicle for ensuring greater transparency and accountability, but they are pretty unimpressive. Strip away all the gloss and it is clear that the potential for ‘corporate social responsibility’ has been crippled by the combination of voluntary standards and the lack of any sanctions for deceptive reporting.

At best, CSR has become another management tool used by companies to standardise assessment of their business’s performance and tweak aspects at a pace that suits them. At worst, CSR has become a vehicle by which companies pretend to be virtuous while secretly stalling the very change their stakeholders demand of them.

Is it conceivable that citizen journalism and non-profit media groups can become powerful spinbusters? The emergence of blogs, text-searchable online databases and wikis have provided new tools that facilitate citizens, especially those with broadband and high-speed cable connections, to research and publish original material on topics of interest to them. Citizen journalism is surging ahead, often in conjunction with the emergence of nonprofit media and other groups. As much more primary source data becomes available online, citizen journalists have a number of advantages over mainstream journalists.

First, they usually aren’t working to a pressing deadline, so can spend time to dig out data tucked away in various nooks and crannies. Second, they research a topic because they are interested in it, not because they have been directed by an editor to become an instant expert on a topic they know relatively little about. Third, they don’t have to conform to an editorial line or avoid offending the business or political sensibilities of proprietors,
advertisers or editors.

It is not that citizen journalism will replace mainstream journalism, but it has the potential to play an important supplementary role. Numerous PR campaigns escape investigation to the detriment of democracy. In part, this is because so many whose roles are to act independently are courted and co-opted. Once co-opted, voices that could otherwise have been independent participants in public debate fall silent or, worse still, become spinboosters. This is why the most effective spinbusters are likely to emerge from the ranks of citizens determined to end the era of invisible spin.

This is an edited extract from Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry, by Bob Burton, published by Allen & Unwin, August 2007. RRP  $24.95.

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