PR By Association

Let’s say you’re a PR professional. Like I was, you’re interested in public affairs and crisis work. Most of your clients were controversial — to somebody. You looked at your job — or serving your client, if you worked in an agency like I did — as a craft, a profession. You do your job with integrity, you play the role of honest broker between your client (boss) and the media, you implement various tactics to help make sure your target audience hears an accurate version of your client/boss’ position and, hopefully, the audience is persuaded by it. You do your job well, you move on to bigger and better things.

Not so fast.

There is a trend afoot of judging PR people by all their past clients/bosses and what they did for them. Here’s an example, from the hugely popular blog Boing Boing:

DNC appoints RIAA shill to run Public Affairs for convention

Today, Jenni Engebretsen was named “Deputy CEO for Public Affairs,” for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver — but she is better known as the Director of Communications for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA is the most hated “company” in America, according to a recent poll on the Consumerist. The RIAA’s campaign of suing thousands of American music lovers has been the single biggest PR disaster in recent industrial history — which is why Engebretsen’s employer beat out Halliburton, Blackwater and Wal-Mart for the coveted “Worst Company” slot.

Engebretsen’s PR approach is centered around stonewalling and avoiding difficult press calls. She contacted me in 2005 to deny that the RIAA had sent a takedown notice to a website called RPGFilms.net, and promised to answer my followup questions in a day or two. After four months of emailing and calling her, I finally got through to her (by calling her from a different phone, so she couldn’t see who was phoning).

She said that the RIAA had no comment.

The liberal blogosophere is united on many fronts — not just disliking US foreign policy. We also hate the RIAA — for suing our friends, for lobbying for laws that suspend due process rights of the accused (the RIAA’s favorite law, the DMCA, was used by Diebold to suppress information about failures in its voting machines), and for demanding the right to “pretext” (commit wire fraud) in order to catch “pirates.”

Worse still, the RIAA are part of the initiative to corrupt net neutrality, imposing centralized controls on the transmission of information across the network.

It has been Engebretsen’s job to sell these initiatives to the American public. She’s failed to sell this to the American public. Not only does she take a paycheck for selling gangsters to the public — she’s not very good at it!

The DNC can do better. This represents a potential shear with the left-wing blogosphere. I hate what the GOP has done to this country, but the RIAA isn’t much better.

Funding for the Democratic National Convention comes from a different pool than general DNC operations. Here’s a list of the largest donors to the DNC for the past two election cycles. If you know these people, you can contact them and urge them not to contribute to the DNCC.

You can also contact the DNC directly, using the information on its website.

And it goes on from there. Obviously, the intent here is for the blogger and his supporters to put pressure on a friendly entity, the Democratic National Committee, to fire the former flack for an unfriendly entity, the RIAA.

I don’t know Engebretsen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if helping the recording industry justify its policies was not her passion or her calling. It was her job. I don’t know whether she was “good at it,” which the blogger Cory Doctorow questions. What was her objective? Maybe Engebretsen told the RIAA “no matter what I do, they’ll hate you,” thus lowering expectations. The RIAA is still in business, and no one has stopped them from suing music fans.  Maybe that’s all she was supposed to accomplish — to prevent adverse regulation. 

I think PR people who stonewall the media are misguided, but there are a lot of prominent PR people who do it and get away with it.  So that’s just a matter of taste, style, or strategic thinking.

The question is, should Jenni Engebretsen be tarred for the rest of her career for the work she did at the RIAA?  Is it fair to demand she be fired?  Is it fair to call for a boycott from contributing to the DNC if they don’t?

The answer is: People will do whatever they want to do.  Cory Doctorow and his blog are a major force now.   They can hang a scarlet letter on Engebretsen and any other PR person who works for an entity they don’t like.  If it sticks, it sticks.  But I bet Engebretsen and the thousands of PR people like her weren’t expecting anything like this to happen.  Maybe Engebretsen wouldn’t have taken the RIAA job if she’d known their perceived misdeeds would follow her around like this.

Or maybe this is another sign of the end of the PR industry as we know it.  PR people can’t be “hidden persuaders” anymore. Transparency kills them like sunlight kills vampires. In a polarized political world, PR people are in the free-fire zone, getting strafed by all sides, for what they do, what they did, and what they might do in the future.

For companies, it could become a huge disincentive to engage hired guns who made their names elsewhere.  After Doctorow’s post, all the RIAA baggage has landed on the DNC’s doorstep, and will go away only if Engebretsen goes with it.  How long will she be radioactive like this?  Is she now faced with only one PR career path — back to the RIAA?

This story has a medieval quality to it.  It’s worth watching. If Engebretsen in fact loses her new job, I predict the consequences for the PR industry, and for especially the fieldworkers like Engebretsen, will be immense.

14 thoughts on “PR By Association

  1. Engebretsen didn’t just work for the RIAA — she was (and remains, as far as I can tell) their Director of Communications. She’s not someone who answered the phone on the front line — she set the entire PR strategy.

    The actions of institutions aren’t ethereal epiphenomena, emergent properties of blameless individuals trying to get by in the world.

    The RIAA’s *Directors* surely bear responsibility for the RIAA’s actions.

  2. Pingback: RIAA Absurdity » Blog Archive » PR By Association

  3. Well, yes and no. Most industry associations are pretty thinly staffed, and the staff does not act autonomously. The members don’t want to pay a penny more in dues than they have to. So while Engebretsen was the lead communications person, I doubt she was a strategic decision-maker. That role would’ve gone to the biggest dogs among the membership, the association and select corporate counsel, and probably the lobbyists. Assuming Engebretsen was respected, she was probably at the table when a lot of decisions were being made, but my guess is she was being told what to push rather than deciding it for herself. And my guess is, every press release and every public statement was vetted near to death by the big dogs, which might explain why she had such a hard time calling you back. She was probably waiting for the last person to sign off — someone who might be eight time zones away, on vacation, but demanded to be in the loop anyway.

  4. “I bet Engebretsen and the thousands of PR people like her weren’t expecting anything like this to happen. Maybe Engebretsen wouldn’t have taken the RIAA job if she’d known their perceived misdeeds would follow her around like this.”

    Maybe she didn’t anticipate the consequences of visible activities (being Communications Director for the RIAA) for subsequent reputation. That doesn’t make me value her PR skills.

  5. Exactly. The consequences of a past life PR job affecting a PR person’s current employment are bigger than they used to be. That’s my whole point. Now that every other PR person in a similar situation sees this happening, how does this affect their choices? It will be interesting to watch.

  6. An optimist would say that it might mean less of the truly dumb P.R., where the flack knows perfectly well that he’s being made to look like a horse’s ass, and nobody is going to get anything out of it. Losing the account might not be the worst possible outcome, in the future.

    A pessimist might note that lawyers have been dealing with this for some time (Mark Geragos probably gets booed when he goes out to restaurants), with no discernible decrease in the amount of nonsense they get up to.

  7. This story has a medieval quality to it.

    Yes it does. Yet another example of the law of unintended consequences, perhaps. Easy access to incredible amounts of detailed information that will always be out there somewhere on the internet means people are going to be followed for the rest of their lives by things the said or did for perhaps only a short time, because it was a job, or because they were angry or upset.

    You and I have had something similar to this discussion before, I think, over at Althouse. Not many people realize just how much of their privacy has already disappeared, and how much more will soon also be lost. Thus, the medieval quality – once singled out for someone reason, there is a good chance one is always & forever “branded.” And, ultimately, the “sins” of the father (or mother) will in turn be visited on the son (or daughter) because it is easy.

    Using this little story as an example, although I have never been associated with PR, I do know more than my fair share about industry associations and how they are usually organized and your reply to Doctorow was “bang on.” The frightening thing is that Doctorow is an intelligent and usually well-informed commenter with a great deal of credibility. Judging by his comment here, I’m not convinced he did his due diligence before popping off as he did and starting the small firestorm. (He might luck out and end up being proven right in this case, you and I both know it would be the exception and not the rule, though.)

    In the future, we shall witness far more of these types of “exposures.” Some will prove accurate but I fear that far too many will end in Ray Donovan-like “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” moments. And, right or wrong, it may follow people for the rest of their lives.

  8. Just to be clear, though, I’m not criticizing Cory Doctorow. He has every right to publish this information, and also to draw whatever inference he wants to from it. I’m generally sympathetic to his position, too. The RIAA’s response to digital music has been crude, destructive and counterproductive.

    To me this story is more about how PR people are regarded. Do we know who the RIAA’s lawyers are? Do we know who lobbies for them? It’s understood and accepted that lawyers do what they do and lobbyists do what they do — strictly for hire. They’re as credible as today’s client. But PR people are now — perhaps — in a different category. What I’m investigating is, why? And how will it play out?

  9. I think there is a difference between in-house and outside counsel. While outside counsel is still often seen as the hired gun, in-house staff are more closely associated with the organization — in particular senior staff who are literally the public faces and voices of the organization. That being said, outside advisors can also be defined in such a way. For example, if you are a crisis advisor for corporate environmental issues, chances are that environmentalists will have some strong notions about you. Whether in-house or out, there will also be a con to your pro if you are a crisis or public affairs advisor. Therefore, you should be aware that you will be judged publicly by the company you keep. Heck, wouldn’t you already know this?

  10. One more thing — I think lobbyists, etc. are judged in this way. Look at the criticisms of the various Bush appointments within the different departments — this person lobbied for Halliburton, that person lobbied for oil companies, etc. I may be wrong, but I think this is the nature of the beast for public affairs practioners.

  11. Heck, wouldn’t you already know this?

    I think PR people have operated under the assumption that each gig stands alone. To be sure, if you’ve done PR for the tobacco industry, you’re not likely to turn up at your next job doing PR for a stop-smoking program (unless your move was part of a public expiation of your sins). There are “sides” to certain conflicts, and not much switching between them, primarily so the spokesperson would remain credible with the media. It would be difficult to imagine the RIAA’s flack going to work for the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

    But is there an inherent conflict between working for the RIAA and working for the Democratic Party? No. The issue Doctorow is raising is this: Engebretsen’s work for the RIAA makes her a bad person, allegedly. The Democrats should not want to hire this bad person; even though Engebretsen’s career prior to the RIAA was mostly for the Democratic Party. The RIAA has permanently stained her record, and the Dems should not want her to return, per Doctorow.

    I think that’s new. I don’t think Engebretsen “already knew” that, to some, her work for RIAA disqualified her from working for the Democrats anymore. I’ll bet she’s surprised, confused and dismayed, and believes this is unfair.

  12. Regarding the bigger issue: Lawyers who want to be judges get skewered for briefs written years ago for clients. Lobbyists who want appointments to government agencies are scrutinized for their client roster. Why should PR be any different? I’m actually suprised this doesn’t happen more often.

    Regarding Engebretsen specifically, I think it’s all relative. Engebretsen definitely falls under the broad Democratic umbrella — the RNC or the Heritage Foundation isn’t likely to ring her up. However, that isn’t the whole story. Within the Democrat umbrella, as you know, there are factions. Engebretsen clearly doesn’t fit into the netroots vision of what the Democrats should be. So by their definition, her work for RIAA disqualifies her for the post. They are trying to shape the party.

    Similarly, there’s no conflict between working for the NRA and the Democrats or working for the AFL-CIO and the Republicans. But, I bet if an NRA spokesman were up for a position within the Democratic Party, certain gun control activists would be up in arms. I just don’t think you ultimatelty can separate politics from public affairs work because someone’s agenda always comes into play.

    If this wasn’t a political position, I would agree with you regarding the bad precedent. For example, if she was up for the communications job at a university or foundation and Doctorow trotted out the same argument against her (don’t hire her because she worked for the RIAA), I would think we were headed down a perilous path.

  13. Lets face it – PR people don’t necessarily need to believe in the message the client want to convey, just as a lawyer doesn’t necessarily need to believe that their client is innocent or guilty. PR is just what it says it is “Public Relations” and that is trying to change “the perception of the public via relations (i.e. media or contact in any form)”. Whether a PR person effected a plan that delivered that message effectively for the client should be the only thing that matters for the next client.

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