In Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies About the Public Relations Industry, there are many dark caves of the public relations industry that are brought into the light (Stauber & Rampton, 1995). They reveal deceptive tactics including phony “astroturf” front groups, research manipulation, outrageous spinning, and outright lies from huge firms such as Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, and even Ketchum. The authors criticize nearly every tactic PR practitioners use, but I don’t think PR should wear a bad name because of a few rotten apples. While there are many valid points that don’t leave room for opposition, there are four ideas from Toxic Sludge that I would challenge.
First, I disagree with the use of a video news release (VNR) as unethical. A VNR is simply a news release converted into digital format. In Reputation Management: The Key to Successful Public Relations and Corporate Communication, Doorley and Garcia (2015) explain that members of the Radio-Television News Directors Association are directed to subject VNRs to the same news standards as when they do their own work. They consider conflicts of interest and decide if the interviews provided follow the same standards they would use in the newsroom. As long as the source of material is true and identified by the communicator, a VNR is an ethical means of communication. Concerns may arise on the issue when networks refuse to release the source.
Second, I believe Dean Rotbart’s NewsBios industry, which compiles bios about reporters for PR professionals to use, is a helpful, strategic tactic. In the article “Just the Facts? This Dossier Goes Farther” (Singer, 2014), we see that Rotbart compiles the information from public sources such as voter records and social media accounts. This may not be the most transparent way to “make a new friend,” but it isn’t uncommon for people in this digital age to check out someone’s Instagram and find common factors for conversation. If I were a reporter, I would appreciate people going the extra mile to tailor a pitch to my beat.
I also disagree with Stauber and Rampton (1995) claiming crisis training is deceptive. I think every organization would benefit from crisis training, which is not intended to hide anything from the public. In fact, a main part of crisis communication is to help determine a viable pathway to reach stakeholders during a crisis. It is designed to increase knowledge, and it encourages team members to brainstorm potential crises that might even thwart a situation before it gets out of control. Stauber and Rampton (1995) criticize the “staged” practices and rehearsals. When a spokesperson is placed in front of the camera, there are many things they can do to appear nervous or guilty. Their camera shyness might appear as if they are hiding something, when in reality they have never been in front of a camera. Mid-crisis is not the time to learn how to speak to a crowd. Crisis training can help prepare a spokesperson for the real thing; it assures they are able to convey the messages they need to, knowing that they have a few practice runs under their belt.
Lastly, I disagree with the idea that journalists are all like Joseph Pulitzer and PR pros are all P.T. Barnum. Stauber and Rampton (1995) call journalists the “watchdogs” – something I hope to be true. Journalism is an honorable profession, but it has its downfalls. Journalists, objective as they may be, carry agendas and pick how they frame their stories, because it is human nature. When PR pros pitch a story, it is subject to peer review, edits, deep investigation, and new interviews. A press release shouldn’t be a free story, but rather a free tip. Journalists should exert the same amount of work into publishing releases as they do in creating their own content. They are watchdogs, and PR pros are storytellers and advocates. When each job is done truthfully, it is beneficial to a democratic society.
Doorley, J., & Garcia, H. F. (2011). Reputation management: The key to successful public relations and corporate communication. New York: Routledge.
Singer, N. (2014). Just the Facts? This Dossier Goes Further. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/technology/just-the-facts-this-dossier-goes-further.html?_r=0.
Stauber, J. C., & Rampton, S. (1995). Toxic sludge is good for you: Lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.