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February 14, 2011
PR Isn't a Shell Game
 
From Tennessee and China come a couple of examples of public relations abused and misused. We point out instances like these when we come across them, not because we like to, but because PR needs to be worthy of professional standing.

In Nashville, TN, NashvilleScene.com reports that an organization called the Center for Consumer Freedom is housed in the Washington, D.C., offices of Berman & Co., a so-called public relations practice headed by Richard Berman. Other Berman front groups, NashvilleScene advises, are the Center for Union Facts, an anti-labor group, and the American Beverage Institute, which opposes stricter measures against drunk driving.

The Nashville rejoinder to Berman's tactics notes that The New York Times advised that Berman's front groups provide "anonymity for companies that would rather their customers not know they are behind certain attacks." Such tactics are the opposite of what ethical PR is about.

This is currently germane in Nashville because over the past year, NashvilleScene reports,  The Tennessean's  opinion page "has published at least five op-eds written by various employees of Richard Berman...,"  including, last month, one from the Center for Consumer Freedom "defending a grave public concern: the much-maligned plastic bag." That piece was bylined by Berman's J. Justin Wilson, wrote Matt Pulle, in the NashvilleScene's rejoinder. The Tennessean, though, Pulle adds, identified Wilson only as part of the Center for Consumer Freedom "trade association" (itals. ours).

This is public relations being practiced as a shell game. So was the case in another dismaying example, this one from China, in which the China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec) has admitted asking its "workers to pose as oil industry outsiders and publish online posts supporting retail fuel price hikes." This example of relational tawdriness is provided by Global Times, a Chinese website. Here, members of Sinopec's online promotions team were to publish articles "on popular forums to depict fuel price rises as reasonable given the rise of international crude oil prices," says a report posted by Sun Haifeng, deputy dean of the College of Mass Communication at Shenzhen University.

Both of these situations are deplorable examples of the kind of tactical hijinks that, when exposed, as they should be, give public relations a sleazy name. We note them to add to help disclose such degrading impersonations. 

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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