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.