Tough Issues, Tough World

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This article was first published as "Tough Issues, Tough World", PR Watch, volume 8, number 1, First Quarter 2001. The original article was authored by Laura Miller and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

The PR World Congress 2000 drew more than 3,500 public relations professionals, students, vendors, and trade journalists to the Chicago Hyatt Regency Hotel in late October. The Public Relations Society of America and the International Public Relations Association sponsored the PR conference. This year's theme was "Building Our Talent in a World of Tough Issues." Keynote speakers, panelists, and PR dignitaries attempted to instruct and inspire those in attendance to think about how, as communications professionals, they will be resolving the global issues that "we care about."

Corporate philanthropy has regained legitimacy as a way of demonstrating "caring." Reynold Levy delivered a keynote talk titled, "This Business of Giving--and Taking." Levy, who wears multiple hats--president and CEO of International Rescue Committee, professor of at Harvard Business School and Columbia School of Business, trustee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and author of Give and Take: A Candid Account of Corporate Philanthropy --spoke to an audience of well over a thousand on the virtues of corporate giving. He told the audience that corporate philanthropy, in addition to being "the right thing to do," builds brand loyalty, constituent support, and employee morale.

"In short, corporate philanthropy can help win friends and influence people," Levy said. "Contributing to nonprofits strengthens the donor as much as the donee. Philanthropy can be no less than a source of sustainable, competitive advantage, difficult to obtain by other means, and it can energize, enrich and sustain nonprofit causes in ways simply unavailable to private foundations and individuals."

Levy showed advertisements for high-profile AT&T, Time Warner, General Electric, Microsoft, and Phillip Morris philanthropic campaigns. "I'm not suggesting that the good, charitable work of Phillip Morris in any way absolves it of responsibility for the tobacco products it peddles or for how they're merchandised to kids, or for the decades of corporate duplicity about the diseases cause by smoking," Levy said as a caveat, "but I am contending that as tobacco companies fight for their corporate lives, even under these circumstances, major philanthropic commitments, creatively communicated to key audiences, can neutralize critics and curry favor. Corporate giving matters, and it matters to shareowners and customers too, and that is why philanthropy is front page, magazine-cover worthy news."

PR professionals may care about the benefits of philanthropy, but when it comes to nurturing an independent media, they come up short. In the workshop, "When the Media Creates News Instead of Reporting it -- How Should Public Relations React?" panelist Nancy Brennan, deputy managing director of Manning Selvage & Lee in Chicago, best characterized the PR practitioner attitude towards media: "I agree there is nothing new about the media setting the agenda and creating news. . . . Media have always tried to set the agenda and in many ways the public has come to expect it. Some even perceived the media as a watchdog for our national institutions, our government, even our nation's moral direction. In reality, the media often serves as a lightening rod that coaxes and even shocks the public into supporting or dissenting positions and actions."

While claiming to affirm freedom of the press, Brennan bemoaned the negative effects of sensationalized news, activist fearmongering, the lack of media gatekeepers in cyberspace, and the use of misinformation. All of those things, she said, hurt her clients and ultimately America.

"Those on the far left and the far right and those in the past who've been disenfranchised, have become more sophisticated and more creative in their efforts to capture media attention and place their issues and causes on the nation's agenda," Brennan said. "Their modus operandi is anything goes and the more outrageous the better."

Some of the workshops failed to live up to the promise of their title, such as the provocatively-named session titled "Counteracting Anti-Corporate Activism on the Web, in the Streets, Against Individuals." Led by PR Newswire senior vice president David Armon, the session focused entirely on the internet. Crisis management guru Jim Lukaszewski was also on hand to provide running commentary.

One-fourth of the nearly 100 people attending the workshop said their company was currently using internet monitoring services. Only two or three had actually dealt with a "bad" internet situation. Mostly the panelists and audience talked about "complaint" pages such as "" and "" Lukaszewski and Armon agreed that perhaps the best way to handle untruthful or unpleasant information on the web was to contact the person who had posted the information and ask them to remove it or correct it. Lukaszewski, however, recommended immediate legal action in instances of copyright and trademark infringement. Libel and slander, he said, are much more difficult to assess. He recommended legal action only as a last resort.

All the examples of "anti-corporate" activism discussed during the workshop were either specific consumer complaints, the work of disgruntled employees, or disguised attacks by corporate competitors. Very little was said about the kind of anti-corporate activism that has taken place in the last year in the streets of Seattle or Prague.

Armon's 64-frame slide presentation (copyrighted to eWatch, an internet monitoring service owned by PR Newswire), came with a handout explaining how to remove a post from a Yahoo message board. Unfortunately, Armon had brought only 40 copies, causing a panicked dash of elbow-brandishing PR professionals at the end of the session.

In the end, counteracting anti-corporate activism boiled down to, "You can't control this stuff, but you should monitor it." Funny that a crisis management guru and an executive of a company that owns a web monitoring service should say that.

A tip for the PR job hunter: "men wanted." The old boys of PR--Harold Burson, Dan Edelman, and Al Golin --all expressed concern during the conference that the vast majority of people entering the PR field are women. Jack O'Dywer's Newsletter noted that women comprise 70 percent of Burson-Marsteller's staff. Edelman stumbled over a question about the predominance of women entering PR before saying, "We need balance." Got that, girls.