If this were the 18th century, they'd be meeting in a field at dawn with their single-shot pistols drawn and accompanied by their seconds. But we live in the Internet age, so the duel being played out by the Public Relations Society of America and CBS Sunday morning is happening on the Web, and it's a doozy.
For those of you who've been napping in a cave somewhere, here's the background:
In a commentary Sunday about Scott McClellan's tell-all book about the Bush White House, CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen condemned the PR industry as being made up of liars, cheats and frauds.
The code, said Cohen, "strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed "Thou Shalt Not Steal. Show me a PR person who is "accurate" and "truthful," and I'll show you a PR person who is unemployed."
Cohen's artful jeremiad came complete with every explosive and insulting word one would use to prick on an opponent, including the sweeping statement that PR people are trained to be "slickly untruthful.
"During the time it took me to write this essay I'll bet dozens of PR people blatantly lied to their audiences, despite the presence of proclamations declaring that they should not, " Cohen continued.
The PRSA struck back with its own letter, sent to CBS and e-mailed to all of its members.
“Truth and accuracy are the bread and butter of the public relations profession,” PRSA’s CEO Jeffrey Julin wrote in a statement issued after Cohen’s commentary. And not having a PR job “is reserved for the professional who has lost his or her credibility.”
The battle raged on Monday as PRSA members flooded the Sunday Morning Web site with letters condemning Cohen, who issued a bizarre statement that began with a burst of new insults before winding down to a nonapology apology for condemning an entire industry.
Though Cohen was clearly using strong language to draw a crowd, his commentary raises two fundamental questions:
Is the very nature of the profession one of deceit, or is it possible to represent a bad client without becoming bad yourself?
Even if it is possible to maintain individual honesty as a PR professional, is a "code of ethics" just a silly attempt to provide cover to those who can't?
Here is a link to the Cohen commentary that ignited this war of words: