Public Relations Society of America’s Terrible PR


I’m embarrassed by the totally unprofessional, unethical and childish behavior this week of the so-called leaders of my profession, the board and staff of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

I’ve been a PRSA member for many years and have paid dues and event fees for employees who’ve wanted to participate (something that most large agencies don’t do any more – score another point for PR boutiques). This week

Jack O'Dwyer

PRSA is holding its annual convention, and the organization has been all over the industry news – not due to the program, but because of its discrimination against one industry journalist, Jack O’Dwyer, publisher and editor-in-chief of the eponymous Jack O’Dwyers Newsletter.

O’Dwyer has been in a nearly 20-year-long vendetta with PRSA’s national staff and board. He scrutinizes PRSA’s finances every year and has been a thorn in the organization’s side by making extremely negative editorial comments about its expenses, staff and board. As a result, PRSA has singled O’Dwyer out for special treatment: last year he was charged full attendance fees at the convention while other journalists were invited free of charge. This year he was barred from attending altogether.

Here’s the thing: O’Dwyer is entirely right about PRSA’s expenses (and the behavior of the staff and board have proven him right about them, too). PRSA national has lost over $850K in the first nine months of this year. The association’s operating income vs. expenses barely broke even for 2010, and showed a loss of close to half a million in 2009. Meanwhile, I’m paying a total of $500 in annual dues. Of that, PRSA national gets $225 for general membership, and Counselors Academy, a PRSA special section, gets $195. The chapter gets only $80. Yet the chapter’s  frequent and widely varied programming is every bit as good as what the national organization provides. Most of the PRSA services provided in the NYC metro area come from the chapter, not PRSA national. Yet PRSA forces people to be national members in order to be chapter members.

I served on the board and as an officer of PRSA’s New York chapter for many years. I’ve visited PRSA’s national headquarters in downtown Manhattan on several occasions. There’s a ton of office space and a large staff down there. However, it’s volunteers who do all the program development. It’s not as if the money we members pay in dues is being well-spent on developing a positive image of the profession. It’s apparent to everyone that this industry association has  done a miserably poor job of PR for PR for as long as anyone can remember. So where’s the value for our money?

I feel an obligation to support the local chapter with my membership dues because of the important service it provides to the entire NYC PR community. I’ve also received value from PRSA’s Counselors Academy. Yet it galls me to pay those national dues every year. 

No matter what PRSA’s national board and staff think of Jack O’Dwyer’s  editorial coverage, their discrimination against one journalist is an embarrassment – not just to me, but to the entire public relations profession.

Lucy Siegel

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24 Responses to “Public Relations Society of America’s Terrible PR”

  1. Arthur Yann, VP/PR, PRSA Says:

    I’m surprised to find that Lucy Siegel would go out of her way to support a journalist who, in his “reporting” on the association she has belonged to and supported for 22 years, has interfered with the employment and educational relationships of PRSA volunteers; investigated personal details in the private lives of PRSA leaders, including seeking information on their personal finances and minor children; harassed college students who are part of PRSSA; and surreptitiously accessed PRSA’s proprietary information systems and conference calls without its prior knowledge or consent.

    Is it acceptable for him to have alleged that the partner of PRSA’s Chair died of AIDS, despite having been told specifically that AIDS was not the cause of death? Is it OK that he makes COO Bill Murray’s spasmodic dysphonia the subject of his personal attacks?

    You can find all the particulars of these actions and others here: http://www.odwyerpr.com/site_images/091011prsa-letter-odwyers.pdf (that is, until he changes the link again). They are among the many reasons why the SPJ has invited him to resign his membership in that organization which, like PRSA, emphasizes ehical conduct on the part of its members.

    He will write what he writes. But until he changes his professional conduct and comports himself as a journalist, he will be unwelcome at our events. It’s unfortunate that anyone would find this stance “embarrassing.”

  2. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Arthur: I’m embarrassed that my industry association, which should be leading and setting an example for the profession, did something that is both unethical and counterproductive. Whether Jack O’Dwyer is right or wrong, however difficult it is for PRSA to deal with his constant criticism, is IRRELEVANT.

    Unethical: as you stated in response to a PR News article, PRSA’s code of ethics calls for allowing the free flow of information – and yet PRSA’s actions do the opposite by discriminating against one journalist while letting others cover the conference. Yes, O’Dwyer will write what he writes. Don’t you think professionals in the industry have the ability to judge it (and him) for themselves?

    Counterproductive: you gave Jack O’Dwyer a great platform to spread his criticism of the organization far and wide. I’d expect PRSA’s leadership to have the wisdom and common sense to see that by banning him, PRSA brings negative attention not only from O’Dwyer but from other journalists and their media outlets as well! Good move. — Lucy Siegel

  3. Arthur Yann, VP/PR, PRSA Says:

    Ms. Siegel, you seem to have missed my point. What Mr. O’Dwyer writes is biased, misleading and often, flat out lies. There’s nothing we can do to change that (despite repeated efforts to try), and it doesn’t make us as uncomfortable as you would like to believe. As you note, readers will judge for themselves the veracity of his claims and the balance of his reporting. Frankly, if he worked for a reputable news organization, he’d be fired for his professional conduct.

    However, when he disrupts our events, or violates our media policies, or reduces a conference exhibitor to tears in his campaign against PRSA, or calls a PRSA volunteer’s boss to complain about PRSA and question the volunteer’s fitness for employment, you cannot reasonably excuse nor defend that behavior in the interest of protecting our First Amendment rights. Again, it’s not about what he writes, but how he goes about writing it.

    Check the SPJ Code of Ethics. Among the many tenets his conduct violates is this: Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. He attacks human beings, Ms. Siegel, not an organization. Human beings who have parents and spouses and children, and whose only transgression is volunteering for PRSA. And for what? Because he doesn’t like the way we book our dues revenue? Is that really serving the public’s right to know? Does that protect any PRSA member’s interests?

    The media environment today is not the same as it was five or even two years ago. And one unfortunate result of these changes is that not everyone who claims the mantle of journalist also is prepared to carry out the responsibilities associated with that title. While this has brought negative attention in a small number of cases, you’d be surprised at the positive attention it’s brought from others, including from the SPJ and, most importantly, from PRSA’s members. Principled stances such as PRSA’s are often polarizing. I, for one, commend our Chair and our Board of Directors for taking this difficult stance in the interest of protecting our volunteers and leaders.

  4. Mary Barber Says:

    Lucy,

    I have to jump in here and defend Arthur a bit. As a PRSA Board member I can attest to the fact that PRSA has spent hours and hours trying to establish a working relationship with Jack. It just doesn’t’ work. Instead he continues his so-called reporting with a complete lack of regard for the truth but seeming love of slander. After more than 20 years of trying to get along, I along with other leaders wholeheartedly support PRSA’s stand this year and know we had a more peaceful Assembly and conference without the disturbances caused in the past.

  5. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    I’d like to hear what people who are not PRSA staff members or board members think about this. — Lucy Siegel

  6. O'Dwyer's Blog: Covering PR, public affairs, marketing and the world of communications. Says:

    Siegel Is Key PRSA Critic…

    The most powerful comment on the PR Society’s blockage of O’Dwyer coverage of the 2011 conference in Orlando has come from an individual—Lucy Siegel of Bridge Global Strategies, New York. Siegel is exercising what blogger Jane Genova calls “The Power…

  7. Internet internetski Says:

    One assumes people who are not PRSA staff or board members would have similar opinions to those of gawker.com, http://gawker.com/5482838/conflict-of-interest-at-the-philly-inquirer
    Who describe O’Dwyer as an extortionist and a pay for play scam artist. So, I guess, they would either not care or immediately recognize this campaign as the shakedown artistry it is?

  8. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    To “Internet Internetski” (whoever you are): First, why are you dredging up an 18-month-old Gawker posting, which has nothing to do with the issue at hand? I am not defending O’Dwyer’s behavior, or his stands on any other issues except for the financial performance of PRSA. All of the comments from PRSA and its board members and officers focus on how awful O’Dwyer is. But my comments have nothing to do with O’Dwyer as a person, a reporter, a businessman or a publisher. This is not about O’Dwyer. It’s about the decision by PRSA to exclude just one media representative from its annual meeting because the staff and board feel frustrated dealing with him and don’t like his coverage.

  9. Bob Says:

    While I don’t agree with Mr. O’Dwyer’s approaches, I also like you am bemused by the behavior of PRSA national. They both behave more alike than not from my perspective. The difference is that O’Dwyer responds to my emails.

    Irrespective of O’Dwyer, PRSA has gone out of its way to define and act upon its own version of the Code of Ethics as it suits the Society’s national personnel.

    Like you, I am a very active volunteer member of PRSA, even after witnessing attempts by the Society to stifle what I believe to be the free flow of information. In regards to its recent member survey, PRSA refuses to release the actual response rate to the survey, a key ingredient to determine whether the Society’s claims that its members are “incredibly satisfied” with PRSA is in fact valid, despite survey results that suggest otherwise. (My blog detailed the survey and its release by PRSA.)

    In addition, PRSA disparages those who criticize its extravagant claims, who vote “no” to the dues increase and who approve comments by O’Dwyer on our blogs.

    In short, your post is on the mark with regards to whether members find value at the local versus the national level. The disparity in where dollars go versus actual benefits – not the “benefits” PRSA spun to immense degrees prior to the recent Assembly vote on the dues increase – is striking.

    I am also debating whether to renew next year. Yet again.

  10. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Bob, thanks for your comment. Re renewing membership, I do it to support the New York Chapter, which is a very positive force in the industry in the NYC metro area. — Lucy Siegel

  11. Derek DeVries Says:

    Lucy,

    I’m neither a board member nor a staffer and I think barring Jack O’Dwyer was a good move. He’s not a journalist – he’s a hack with an axe to grind who only attends the events to manufacture mud to sling at PRSA.

    The Society of Professional Journalists (of which Jack is a member) Code of Ethics clearly states that reporters should avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest. O’Dwyer clearly has a grievance against PRSA (which he regurgitates in virtually every story he writes about the organization). That financial grievance renders him unable to cover PRSA because it taints his perspective.

    To make matters worse, O’Dwyer has engaged in illegal behavior – surreptitiously calling in to PRSA teleconferences and hacking in to the members-only section of the PRSA website.

    I had a run-in with O’Dwyer last year when I organized a flashmob that involved him. He unfortunately misinterpreted the joke as support for his reporting and began hounding me for an interview. When I explained via email and a blog post that he had misinterpreted the ribbing, he concocted a conspiracy theory that I had been silenced by the PRSA board.

    When that didn’t satisfy him, he began contacting my local board and my employer in an attempt to bully me into giving up the goods. After that failed, he started claiming he was “attacked” by the flashmob (which consisted of 20 or so delegates handing him pens, or placing them on the table near him).

    Speaking of last year’s conference – you might want to look into the case of unwanted physical contact O’Dwyer had with a female delegate (which is yet another reason it was right to bar him from the conference).

    Certainly there are legitimate grievances to be aired against PRSA National – but Jack O’Dwyer is not the person to air them. He has no interest in the truth – only in more grist for the mill (all of his wild gesticulating makes for more traffic to his website).

    – Derek DeVries

  12. PRSA’s Reputation Crumbles – Faces Crisis of Integrity – - Newsroom InkNewsroom Ink Says:

    […] Lucy Siegel’s blog article. […]

  13. Jack O'Dwyer Says:

    Hi Lucy:

    Thanks for this spirited debate. All the arguments of PRSA supporters are undercut by one thing: none of the national officers or board members and none of the staff will meet with me. Mike Paul and others have tried to set up such meetings to no avail.

    They won’t even get on the phone with me. They won’t talk to their own members. Starting on July 28, they wouldn’t let delegates question chair Rosanna Fiske on so-called “teleconferences.” I have never seen PRSA leadership and staff so isolated from the membership. Rosanna has addressed only two of the 110 chapters and COO Bill Murray has compiled the same record in five years and nine months.

    Below are 20 documented abuses of PRSA.

    1. Failure to warn prospective members they won’t be eligible for national Society office until they become Accredited. Non-APRs can’t serve on the Ethics Board nor hold office in some chapters.

    2. Providing late and substandard financial reports. IRS Form 990 withheld from the 2009-10 Assemblies. The 2010 return is not yet available (as of Oct. 24, 2011). Booking dues as cash violates FASB Section 958-605-21-1 which says dues must be booked month-by-month over the dues year.

    The Society claims it’s “acceptable.” It should show the balance sheet both ways at a minimum. The major professional groups (ABA, AMA, AICPA, etc.) all defer large amounts of dues. Also, the Society frequently refers to “best practices” for PR pros and never to “acceptable practices.”

    Not-for-Proft Budgeting & Financial Management, by CPA Edward McMillan, says a “common, major accounting error” of associations is “failing to use the deferral method for dues income” since dues represent “an entire year’s worth of membership.” Booking dues as cash results in financial statements that are “overstated and misleading,” he writes.

    3. Blocking press coverage of the Assembly by forbidding, since 2010, any photographs or recording of the Assembly by reporters.

    Irrationally, the Society allowed reporter Jack O’Dwyer to cover the 2010 Assembly but refused to give him “credentials” to the conference itself. The Society wouldn’t give him or any O’Dwyer reporter or any O’Dwyer “assign” the “credentials” to either for 2011, sending him 23 pages of complaints about his coverage but refusing to face him in person. Refusal to face him in person obliterates any charges against him.

    Freedom of the press is a right granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution and in America an accused person has the right to face his or her accusers.

    4. Withholding transcripts of the Assembly since 2005 and refusal to provide transcripts of teleconferences. These are like the “slow-motion” replays that are common in sports journalism that give fans needed details.

    5. Blocking PR reporters from accessing the audit or quarterly reports. They are in the members’ area and reporters are not allowed to join the Society. No reason is given for this. Reporters are members of PR groups including IABC and IPRA.

    6. Professing “commitment” to Sarbanes-Oxley but failing to have outsiders on the national board and failure to have an audit chair on the board who is a financial expert.
    Leaders Don’t Face Members in-Person

    7. Refusal of leaders including chair Rosanna Fiske and COO Bill Murray to regularly face members in person. Fiske, while spearheading a drive to increase dues by $30 to $255, has only appeared before two chapters, her home chapter of Miami, and the Georgia chapter in Atlanta. VP-PR Arthur Yann does not dispute that statement. Murray has only addressed two chapter memberships in four years and nearly ten months—Washington, D.C., and Minnesota. Yann does not dispute that statement. No in-person, face-to-face discussions of the dues increase took place. Since July 28, “teleconferences” conducted by Fiske have been in “listen-only mode.” Callers cannot talk online but must submit questions by e-mail or a special website.

    8. Refusal to have a year-round list of the 270 or so Assembly delegates. They have until Aug. 15 each year to post their names. Also lacking is a transcript of what they say and a delegate-by-delegate record of how they vote. Insiders have this since the delegates vote by numbered electronic devices.

    9. Blockage of news of key member initiatives such as the 2006 move by Central Michigan to give the Assembly power over the board, copying ABA and AMA. No other chapter supported CM whose bid lost by a 261-19 vote. CM called the Assembly “a rubber stamp.” PR Society news media carried no mention of the proposal made in April 2006.

    10. Leaders defend the $140,000 “Leadership Rally” that brings chapter presidents-elect to New York each June, compromising their independence, even though budget cuts are needed and national seeks a $30 dues hike. The Assembly is mostly chapter presidents and presidents-elect. Attendees at the “Rally” get a $550 stipend plus five free meals.

    11. Removal of the single list of the 110 chapter presidents from the Society website forces anyone who wants such as list, including the presidents themselves, to download all the sites. This website has done that and makes the list available to anyone who wants it.

    12. Removal of the names and contact points of about 47 h.q. staffers, leaving only seven names. This loss of information makes it impossible to track staff turnover.

    13. Society made huge decisions without any input from the Assembly including the move downtown in 2004 for 13 years, eliminating use by the New York chapter, and cancellation of the printed members’ directory. Leaders refuse to discuss having a PDF which involve no printing or mailing costs by national.
    Threats to Reporter Ignored

    14. Refusal to investigate or disavow threats of physical violence made in person and in a letter to Jack O’Dwyer by an Assembly delegate following the 2010 Assembly. Yann e-mailed O’Dwyer that a national director witnessed this incident.

    15. Refusing to compensate numerous authors after selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their articles from 1980-94. An expose by O’Dwyer’s ended the practice which was netting PRSA about $60,000 a year.

    16. The costly re-write of the bylaws at the 2009 Assembly violated major tenets of Robert’s Rules that forbid use of proxies and that demand that all articles in a revision be presented to the Assembly. Other advice ignored included not trying to do a revision at a regular meeting and having a large committee with all elements represented. Ten of the 11 committee members were APR when APRs are only 18% of the membership. Legal costs and bills from law firm Venable totaled $299,793 from 2007-09, an average far above previous years.

    17. Further tightening insiders’ grip on governance by restricting officer nominations to those who have served on the board. The 2009 revision, turning its back on the wisdom of the founders who barred directors from returning to the board, provides that directors can serve two, two-year terms in a row and can come back indefinitely after skipping one year.

    18. Not allowing members to work at their own h.q. since about 1980, although the major professional groups such as ABA, AMA, AICPA and ASAE have large numbers of their own professionals on staff. Only three of the 50+ Society staffers are members and they are under tight control of management.

    19. Failure to discuss the unusually high percentage of Society income devoted to staff pay/fringes–$5,529,699 in 2010 or 52.5% of revenues of $10,513,366. Average percentage of similar-sized groups is close to the 40% or lower range. Many groups have kept a New York h.q. but put “back office” operations in much cheaper locales.

    20. Avoidance of New York as the site of the national conference (only once in the current 23-year period) has cost the Society millions because New York has by far the biggest audience. The 4,000 record for attendance was achieved at the 2004 conference in New York. Oddly, Philadelphia was the conference site in 2007 and will be again in 2013 while no New York conference is currently scheduled.
    Posted by Jack O’Dwyer

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