Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TIME Review of 'Deadly Spin' is ... Spin

As a PR professor and practitioner, books about PR always jump out at me. But after reading a recent TIME Magazine "The Skimmer" review (subscription required) of Wendell Potter's "Deadly Spin," I nearly jumped out of my chair.

Wendell Potter used to work in public relations for insurance giant Cigna. His book is a whistleblower's account of how companies in that industry tout misleading studies, form front groups and engage in other misdeeds to deny coverage to premium-paying customers.

All of which sounds like the examples of improper practice in the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Which is why I find TIME's review so troubling for its pedestrian writing and lazy, gleeful perpetuation of bad stereotypes about the public relations professions. It leads with "Great P.R. flacks are as talented with misdirection as they are with the truth." At the end, after Potter points out that his conscience led him to testify to Congress about insurers favoring profits over patients, the review writes "there's not a p.r. person alive who can put a positive spin on that."

Again with the "spin." If the columnist, who is mercifully not given a byline for this formulaic drivel, favors truth over misdirection, he/she might have tried some actual reporting. The review then might have pointed out that the principles Potter obtained better late than never are in fact taught in most all public relations courses, based on my meeting with other educators and reviewing preferred curriculum for PR courses. More importantly, my own research shows that if an organization has a PR officer with a degree in the field and the respect of top management, ethical practice is more likely to prevail. The misdeeds of corporations are often labeled "PR" even if management ignored the counsel of a PR person, or if no one on staff had an actual degree in the field.

Rather than lean on the synecdoche of using "PR" as a blanket reference for all dishonest communication, the reviewer could have provided a great service to readers by pointing out that the PR community has praised Potter and his book more than anyone else. Potter was a keynote speaker at the PRSA annual conference last year in San Diego, which I attended with 10 students. He was also featured in an article in PRSA Tactics, the organization's monthly newspaper.

In short, rather than seeking occasion to misdirect readers that PR by definition is deceptive, the reviewer could have explained that the majority of the PR industry advocates ethical practice characterized by dialogic communication and mutual benefit. Instead, the reviewer chose to spin.

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