Responding to Attack Journalism

The following was submitted by Dr. Steve Iseman, APR, Fellow PRSA, who currently serves as the faculty advisor for the National Committee.

Jack O’Dwyer has been a long time critic of PRSA and I congratulate him for it.  I think that critics are important.  They cause organizations to think about what they do and examine policies and procedures carefully.  But in recent years Jack O’Dwyer has become what some might call a rogue journalist – one that goes beyond the gathering of facts and slips into the territory of intimidator or maybe even predator.

When PRSA got fed up with what they determined were his lack of accurate, truthful and respectful reporting about the society and shut the door on communication with him he turned to students who are members of PRSSA’s national committee.  Initially his contact was only asking them to confirm address information for free subscriptions to some of his publications.  When most of them didn’t respond – anybody’s right to any marketing pitch – he bombarded them, their faculty advisors and even their college and university presidents with e-mails and phone calls charging them with obstructing his right to information, preventing him from clearing the “stain on his name,” denying students in their “pursuit of truth” and labeling PRSA as “un-American.”

Do you think this approach to reporting is acceptable in today’s changing media landscape, or do we have the right, without fear of personal intimidation and unfair attack, to refuse to talk to reporters we consider to be not accurate, truthful or respectful?

8 Responses to Responding to Attack Journalism

  1. Cindy Badger January 12, 2009 at 11:17 am #

    I had never heard of Jack O’Dwyer until he left me a voicemail message more than three months ago. Since then, I have observed that his materials are occasionally available and promoted to students in the Communications Department at BYU; for example, our internship office has copies of his monthly publication available for students to read. However, because of his manner of approaching me after I referred him to PRSSA headquarters, I had no desire to learn anything more about his products. He had been abrasive and accusing and I felt I had done little to deserve such treatment.

    I had no preformed ideas about him. All my opinions about the man come from the assault of e-mails I have received over the past several months, which have contained a continuous stream of accusations and belittling comments directed toward me, PRSA, PRSSA and Brigham Young University.

    I think organizations and individuals always have the right to refuse comment when approached in this manner.

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  2. Tyler Page January 12, 2009 at 2:22 pm #

    I really like this move by PRSSA. I hope it will form a broader trend in responding to attack journalists. For years, some journalists have hidden behind-the-scenes assaulting religions, businesses, and political parties with accusations that are obviously false when taken in context. However, traditional public relations practitioners have either tried to engage these people or simply ignore them. In both cases, the whole story rarely gets out.

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  3. Prof. Kyle F. Reinson January 13, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    Isn’t the real question here about access to many opinions, the so-called “marketplace of ideas” in our public square? Reporters have the right to behave how they choose and potential sources have the right to decline comment. We always need to be careful of the “tyranny of the majority,” and by stifling comments of any kind, PRSA shuts down a crucial opportunity to be part of the conversation. Banning people or ideas is the first step down an anti-democratic path. I think many people these days take what any public figures, even journalists, say with a grain of salt. What this question seems to debate is the gatekeeper role, and the Internet has eroded that role. Public relations practitioners should begin to understand that people have the right to make statements we do not like. Our job is to plead our case in the “Court of Public Opinion” which seems to be manifesting itself on the Internet through blogs and all sorts of commentary. Comments can be ignored without being banned. I would urge everyone to listen to dissenting voices. They can can louder.

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  4. Michael Cherenson, APR January 13, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Steve, thanks for your leadership. You bring up some excellent points and kickoff a valuable conversation.

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  5. Prof. Kyle F. Reinson January 13, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    Isn’t the real question here about access to many opinions, the so-called “marketplace of ideas” in our public square? Reporters have the right to behave how they choose and potential sources have the right to decline comment. We always need to be careful of the “tyranny of the majority,” and by stifling comments of any kind, PRSA shuts down a crucial opportunity to be part of the conversation. Banning people or ideas is the first step down an anti-democratic path. I think many people these days take what any public figures, even journalists, say with a grain of salt. What this question seems to debate is the gatekeeper role, and the Internet has eroded that role. Public relations practitioners should begin to understand that people have the right to make statements we do not like. Our job is to plead our case in the “Court of Public Opinion” which seems to be manifesting itself today on the Internet through blogs and all sorts of commentary. Comments can be ignored without being banned. I would urge everyone to listen to dissenting voices. They can get louder.

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  6. Arthur Yann January 15, 2009 at 9:38 am #

    A point of clarification: PRSA has not stifled comment, nor banned people or ideas. On the contrary, our view is that students should have access to news and information from a variety of sources to aid in their professional development. Milton’s principle of an open marketplace is indeed an appropriate doctrine to follow.

    Accordingly, we do not object to nor block students from having access to Mr. O’Dwyer’s publications; in fact, we understand that his materials are already available and promoted to students in a number of university communications departments. We do, however, object to his making false accusations and otherwise disparaging PRSA in order to facilitate access.

    To be sure, some PRSSA student leaders, through their association with PRSA, are familiar with Mr. O’Dwyer and his publications. We do not attempt to influence their opinions, but Mr. O’Dwyer’s history of reporting on PRSA and his repeated and ongoing editorial biases could reasonably be expected to shape their regard for the value and validity of his products. And, yes, PRSA does have a policy in place that, appropriately, asks PRSSA members to refer media inquiries and business solicitations to our Director of Education; this applies to any member of the media or potential vendor.

    Mr. O’Dwyer recently contacted each one of the 14 members of PRSSA’s National Committee as a telemarketer (why would this be the job of an “objective” reporter?). Those students who did not to respond to his telephone solicitations were called back repeatedly, some up to four times a day. If they asked Mr. O’Dwyer to contact PRSA directly, they were hung up on.

    In the case of several students, Mr. O’Dwyer turned to officials of their universities—department chairs, presidents, provosts, media officers and others—claiming in emails that PRSA was “blocking students from experiencing the O’Dwyer informational products.” The students, who by now were receiving telephone and email inquiries from concerned (and, frankly, confused) administrators, were terrified.

    I have explained to Mr. O’Dwyer on repeated occasions that PRSA is not obliged to facilitate his access to the PRSSA National Committee. If he has a business proposal that he would like to extend to PRSSA, it should be communicated through the proper channels; no such proposal has ever been forthcoming.

    If Mr. O’Dwyer is indeed desirous of exposing college students to his products, he should have a marketing program in place to target them, independent of PRSSA and PRSA; after all, I’m certain there are many more public relations students (read: “potential subscribers”) beyond the 10,000 student members of PRSSA.

    Arthur Yann is vice president of public relations for PRSA.

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  7. Mark Taylor II January 15, 2009 at 10:01 am #

    To be quite frank, Mr. O’Dwyer needs a better pitch and a refined attitude. Public relations is all about building relationships and your ability to use a PR strategy to reach people who you’ve established some type of relationship with. That being said, if Mr. Jack O’Dwyer considers “bombarding” as a tactic to reach the PR Practitioners and student leaders he wants to pitch to, he has to clean up his act. No one, in journalism or public relations industries alike, will deal with someone who’s been pegged for lying, giving inaccurate information or simply just being annoying. Your reputation follows you and if your actions and demeanor are indicative of that reputation, as Cindy is a perfect example, people will notice and avoid you.

    While dissension should be welcomed, it should only be accepted when it is productive. Dissension without productivity is merely ranting and raving. Tact, is important, too.

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  8. James Hendrick January 27, 2009 at 2:13 pm #

    Jack O’Dweyer is asking for trouble His attack journalism tactics by going after the students. It seems to me that by going after student members of PRSSA he is hitting a new low.

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