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It's What We Do AND How We Do It

By Glynn Young, APR, Fellow PRSA, Co-Chair, Communications, PRSA St. Louis 

On Feb. 2, Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist Virginia Heffernan published a column entitled “Who is Hope Hicks, anyway?” Most of the column was another chapter in the ongoing war of words between President Trump and the news media. 

Heffernan went a step beyond, however, and also lashed out at the practice of public relations. “Lying to the media is traditionally called PR,” she wrote. 

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Chair, Public Relations Society of America, quickly responded, calling Heffernan's’ article “a disservice to journalism, even as an opinion piece.” 

Yes, PR has known bad actors. So has journalism. The Washington Post and The New York Times are no strangers to reporters fabricating stories. We can recall when a Pulitzer Prize had to be returned because the reporter made the story up. Examples exist in PR, too; I can recall a case of a national officer having to step down and leave the society because of bad behavior in his hometown. Rolling Stone had to settle a lawsuit when a claim that a woman had been gang raped at a college fraternity turned out to be fictitious. 

Heffernan’s article was aimed at Hope Hicks, the White House director of communications. As D’Angelo said, she’s a public figure and public figures have to be prepared for criticism – it comes with the territory. But that doesn’t justify a smear of any and all people who work hard every day to communicate on behalf of their clients, companies, and organizations. But that’s what the columnist did. 

Our best defense against unwarranted attacks is not to point to the PRSA Code of Ethics. Our best defense is to live that code every day. And it’s not easy. I can attest to the fact that living the code daily is no slam dunk. There were many times in my professional career when I had to say to a client, “We can’t do that.” We have to be aware, and we have to be vigilant. We can never assume that we (and our clients) can do no wrong. If we need counsel or advice, we have fellow professionals and others we can consult. 

That’s how the vast majority of people in our profession act. We know that it’s not only what we do but also how we do it that matters. 



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