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Sep 7
Issues In PR: Accreditation, Ethics & Why Journalists Hate PR Pros
There’s been a lot of conversation going on lately about public relations (PR).  Many PR people are lamenting the sorry state of the profession and focusing on what can be done to improve it.  See below for a rundown of the major elements of this ongoing conversation.  Accreditation

Kami Huyse, who writes the blog Communications Overtones, recently asked: Should everyone who practices PR seek accreditation?  For those of you not in the know, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) offers the accreditation in public relations (APR) certificate.  To become accredited one must study for and pass a test focusing on various areas of PR including ethics, strategy and tactics.  Huyse said that “studying for the APR was the single-most important element in my success as a public relations practitioner. It gave me a way of thinking about PR problems that I didn’t have.”

Huyse’s post caused quite an uproar in the PR blogging community.  Todd Defren, who created the social media press release, disagreed with Huyse about the value of the APR.  In his post, which featured an image of a woman with a ball and chain around her leg, he said: “Accreditation only legitimizes one organization's (the PRSA) view of what is entailed by ‘Public Relations.’  In this dawning era of new media, the PR person's role is (thankfully!) more fluid and unknown than ever.”

My Take:  I think that the APR is a good idea.  If it helps people learn more about how to practice public relations and provides them with good tools that's great.  However, (and I think Huyse would agree with me), if you can’t deliver the goods the letters after your name don’t mean much.  In addition, studying for the APR can expose you to information on what constitutes good behavior, but it won't make much difference to those people willing to engage in bad deeds. 

Ethics

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the lack of ethics in the PR profession.  In fact, the PRSA just announced that it is sponsoring a series of teleseminars where “senior members of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards will discuss, debate and work through recent high-profile ethical problems ripped from headlines, bylines and Web blogs.” 

BL Ochman and others have slammed PRSA because it is banning journalists from the teleseminars. PRSA says that doing so will help encourage “candid” discussion about the issues.  Ochman retorted: “Yeah right. [Banning reporters will] keep the participants from making even bigger fools of themselves than the media - including bloggers - already thinks they are.”

My Take:  I’ve discussed ethics in this post where I focused on whether people in healthcare PR should consider developing a voluntary code governing activities in this practice area.  This is important because I think people will be looking at healthcare PR very closely as the pharmaceutical industry shifts from producing mass media campaigns to engaging in targeted educational efforts.  There needs to be candid discussion about what is acceptable and what is not.  Hopefully, the PRSA will be focusing on healthcare PR during its teleconference series. 

Why Journalists Hate PR Pros

Journalists have always loved to hate PR professionals.  Reporters are bombarded by e-mails and phone calls from people attempting to get ink for their clients.  In some cases, PR people have even stalked reporters. 

(I admit that have done this a few times at medical meetings.  I’ve stood in front of the press room at conferences waiting for reporters to come out so that I could pitch them on clinical trials I wanted them to cover.  Surprisingly, I’ve  gotten some coverage this way.  However, journalists don’t like being stalked and I never liked using this tactic.)

David Maister wrote a post recently on this issue.  In his article, he published excerpts from a speech Tony Fernandez, who covered legal issues at Crains, gave on PR pros.  In his talk Fernandez said:

- PR Pros don’t give me proof.  I need facts to write a story.

- When I want to speak with someone they aren’t available.  That’s a big no no. 

- There are too many PR people.  I get 100 calls a day.

- Every pitch sounds the same.

- PR pros don’t deliver.  They don’t send e-mails when they say they will, return phone calls or send what I request.

Fernandez says a lot more.  His speech is well worth reading. 

My Take: These are legitimate gripes.  There is not much to say here.  However, I will offer this.  An old friend of mine who worked in PR and journalism for many, many years had this advice about interacting with reporters (and I’m paraphrasing): “We are here to serve.  If a reporter asks for something, deliver it.  Jump through hoops, light fires, stay late, but get it done.” 

PR’s clearly got a big reputation problem.  However, it will be difficult to repair the profession if PR pros aren’t competent and don’t deliver.  That’s a fact.  

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Press Release: A Well Designed Sales Pitch?

Those who release and create releases for the press, which is the print media, is designed to contain information of sufficient importance or interest to the public.

Instead, those who design and release written information to the press are often sponsors of the print media who will issue the press release. Such sponsors often instruct such media outlets with mandated authoritarian nuances, such as the press release that they created will not be altered in any way by the print media that agrees to release the press created by their sponsor.

Of course, the sponsor and creator of such a press release does this in order to promote the sponsor itself, as well as its products. By doing so, they are allowed the freedom to embellish if not fabricate what may be annotated on the release they issue to the press that has now been bought by them, the corporate sponsor.

These well- constructed statements are meticulously composed and customized before they are issued to targeted editors and contacts at mass media publication locations.

The sponsor also has been known to direct the location and time of the release of their press creation that, upon direction from the sponsor, is completely un-reviewed by such a media source.

As this is done, the mass media outlets are again instructed on how to present their completed statements, as well as are given instructions once again not to alter these press releases in any way, as part of the agreement between the print media source and their sponsor.

As a result of this collusion, press releases are presently a form of public relations often utilized for those companies who create what is supposed to be an attempt to express their products as being newsworthy.

Press releases, historically, have been created and released to inform the readers by adding insight and related information for them regarding a particular topic that was typically complete and balanced.

Today, they seem to be more or less an annotative commercial with press compositions generated by corporations in particular, so it seems.

Unfortunately, and presently, press releases are often embellished, biased, and incomplete with deliberate intent in order to benefit the creator of these documents, who again develop them solely to increase awareness and usage of their products that they promote with their business, which they want to be viewed as favorable and with a positive image to the public.

One could suggest that the mass media who receives these press statments from certain corporations are transformed into mass front groups who perhaps coercively offer third party legitimacy for the content of the press release as they release this information to their readers.

The often notable if not intentional flaws at times are numerous within such press releases that reflect reckless disregard with informing readers in such a way, who are the American public. Citizens typically believe that what they are reading from a respected media source is both honest and complete.

An example is an anonymous press release posted on the Medical News Today website (www.medicalnewstoday.com) that is dated in March of 2006. The title: "Cymbalta Safely and Effectively Treats core anxiety symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder."

Cymbalta, by the way, is a psychoactive drug often utilized for human affective disorders.

Clearly, this title itself includes words associated with relief or elation, which are subjective and not objective elements which would clearly be more appropriate- with a health care press release in particular.

The first paragraph of this press release repeats the results mentioned in the title of this article, but also states Cymbalta offers relief of painful symptoms associated with anxiety, as well as improved functional impairment- also claimed to be associated with anxiety in this press release.

These conclusions are speculative at best, as these inferences appear to be unexamined by others regarding the benefits claimed to exist with Cymbalta as illustrated in this press release.

Cymbalta was not approved by the FDA for anxiety or any of the symptoms associated with this condition at the time of this press release. In fact, Cymbalta was not filed with the FDA for this speculated new indication for anxiety that was desired by Eli Lilly until May of 2006.

By definition, this press release may possibly be off-label promotion as well as misbranding of Cymbalta that was performed overtly in this manner of the press release, one may speculate.

As one continues to read this press release, testimonials were intentionally created and inserted into this press release that illustrated results they hope are impactful to the reader regarding Cymbalta.

This testimonial was from the lead author, who expanded the claims made initially with utilizing various medical terms, which was followed by this person’s passionate optimism about the great potential of Cymbalta based on this remarkable study.

This study, by the way, was to be addressed in further detail at a National Anxiety meeting some weeks after this press release was announced to the public on this website.

The second testimonial was Eli Lilly's Medical Advisor expressing his elation about what the lead author just stated, followed by how much he was encouraged by these results that will benefit so many others that have these debilitating medical conditions.

Of course, profit forecasts and desired market growth and expansion regarding Cymbalta remarkably were not stated in this press release.

What is not included in this particular press release were any clear statements regarding the disadvantages and adverse if not toxic events associated those who take Cymbalta.

Reactions from Cymbalta users include discontinuation syndrome at times, when the user stops taking this medication, which I understand can be quite devastating for the one experiencing this syndrome.

Furthermore acts of suicide and suicidal ideation have been frequently associated with those who take Cymbalta as well. There have been apparent lack of efficacy suggestions by others who have taken Cymbalta.

Basically, anything that may be considered negative aspects about this drug were not annotated in this particular press release as it should have been for fair balance that is or should be a primary standard in the pharmaceutical industry and health care journalism.

The staff involved with the release and publication of such press releases as this one was annotated and described should perhaps be more informed on what not to accept and what to present regarding these issues addressed.

As with any reporting by the media, objectivity and thorough completeness of the topic discussed in a press release is a necessary requirement with any publishing that is potentially exposed to so many others- more so with such medical issues in particular.

“The public has a lot at stake, and the media has a responsibility always to be aware of the source of information and the conflicts those sources might have when they report the results of clinical research. People who have financial stake in the results of clinical research can well be biased in the way research is conducted, in the way they report it, and what they say about it when interviewed by the media.” – Arnold Relman, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine

Dan Abshear

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