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Public-Relations Ethics Questioned as Some Agents Pose as Journalists : Information: Deception violates PR code, but critics say it's common nonetheless.

December 04, 1994|JIM DRINKARD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Late last year, two lobbyists from a top Washington firm teamed with a camera crew to get interviews in India's volatile Kashmir region. The Indian government says they were posing as journalists with Cable News Network.

The two, Paul Manafort and Riva Levinson, arrived in India on tourist visas that gave no hint they were working for the Kashmiri American Foundation, a group New Delhi views as a front for rival Pakistan.

Critics of the public relations field and some veterans of the field say such deception happens too often and is symptomatic of a system in which public relations goals justify questionable means to sell an idea.

Those who can afford professional PR services, and the increasingly sophisticated technology they offer, gain tremendous advantage in the public debate.

They are able to win television exposure, impact news coverage and use the mail to circulate pictures, statistics and data favorable to their positions. The current debate over health care, for example, has brought a business boom to Washington's public relations firms.

But the data circulated may carry few clues about the financial interests behind it--knowledge that could help an information-soaked audience sort out just what to believe about an issue.

"Practically the entire foundation of public relations is, to a degree, to deceive," said Susan B. Trento, author of a book on public relations giant Hill & Knowlton.

"They try to secretly manipulate people's opinions and views, and the government's reaction or response to it," Trento said.

Manafort and Levinson, of the firm Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, deny they posed as CNN reporters, and a colleague said their footage was never used.

But the Indian government publicly protested and formally notified CNN's Atlanta headquarters. Network officials say they have no reason to doubt the episode occurred, and a regional journalists' association passed a resolution deploring it.

One prize public relations target is hearings on Capitol Hill. They not only attract extensive news coverage, but also offer the imprimatur of an official source--Congress. For lawmakers, the forums are a chance to air questions about policy issues and get a little publicity.

But what if the information isn't true?

In 1990, an anonymous Kuwaiti teen-ager tearfully testified to the House of Representatives about invading Iraqi soldiers removing babies from hospital incubators. She was later revealed to be the daughter of Kuwait's U.S. ambassador, and her story could not be substantiated.

The teen-ager's testimony was arranged by Hill & Knowlton for the group Citizens for a Free Kuwait, which was seeking to build public support for using U.S. military force against Iraq. The "citizens" turned out to be the Kuwaiti government.

Such discoveries of outright deception are rare, in part because the industry has a strict unwritten code of silence.

Mary Gotschall felt its sting. After she left her job with the Washington firm Robinson Lake Lerer & Montgomery, she wrote a magazine article telling trade secrets, including how she had ghost-written letters to the editor on clients' stationery. Her boss told her to "make sure you leave no fingerprints," she wrote.

The firm "threatened to sue me unless I quit talking about" the article, Gotschall recalled recently. But in general, she said, public relations firms' products are insidious because "the public can't discern where it came from."

Gotschall's experience illustrates why stories like hers are rare. But interviews with several longtime public relations practitioners, who all demanded anonymity, brought out numerous stories illustrating how they keep their own activities out of the spotlight.

It's not uncommon, those in the business say, to send junior-level employees out to gather intelligence on a client's opponents. The work can range from posing as a student writing a paper to get information in the mail, to the more daring, and rare, step of infiltrating opposition groups.

Being able to carry out such an assignment is almost a rite of passage at some firms, said one public relations executive.

John Stauber, an industry critic, saw the tactics firsthand. In 1991, as an activist fighting drug companies over use of a hormone that stimulates greater milk production in cows, he organized a meeting in Washington. Among those who showed up was a woman who said she was with a Maryland consumer group.

Stauber said he later discovered she worked for Burson-Marsteller, an international public relations firm that represented Monsanto and Eli Lilly--makers of the dairy hormone. The woman, Diane Moser, said she went to the meeting out of "my own personal interest" and said it was unrelated to her work at the firm. She since has left Burson-Marsteller and now works for another public relations company.

Longtime public relations practitioners also say one common practice is to attend opponents' news conferences, sometimes signing in as a free-lancer or a reporter for an obscure trade publication, to eavesdrop or ask hostile questions.

It also can work the other way, they say: posing as a reporter at your own news conference to ask friendly questions that will guide the press to the client's message.

The nation's largest PR trade group, the Public Relations Society of America, has a code of ethics that bars deception. "You can't say you're one thing while actually serving another," said Joseph Vecchione, the society's president. But the rules are hard to police, and many in public relations don't belong to the association.

"It's kind of like sin," said Suzette Heiman, who teaches public relations at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "You know it's wrong, but people continue to sin every day."

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