Big Ideas

Is Ethical PR an Oxymoron? Does 'Deadly Spin' Distort the PR Field?

Richard Edelman, president/CEO of global PR firm Edelman, recently reviewed former CIGNA PR head Wendell Potter's book, Deadly Spin, on his own blog and on PR news site O'Dwyer's, saying it "distorts [the] PR field."

I disagree. It exposes the PR field, or at least the dark side of it — some of which Edelman has practiced in the past (for Big Tobacco and Wal-Mart, for example, and perhaps others).

Wendell responded to Richard in a blog post simultaneously posted on Huffington Post, Center for Media and Democracy, and his own site.

As Wendell says, "The reason I wrote my new book, Deadly Spin, was to explain not only how the insurance industry used the dark arts of PR to shape health care reform legislation, but also how many other special interests use them to influence how we think and act every day."

Wendell, of course, doesn't think PR is inherently evil or manipulative. He writes in the book:

PR has been — and is being — used to good ends. Even the noblest of causes can benefit from the services of a communications expert to clarify facts, disseminate information, and counter unfair arguments. And there are plenty of ethical PR people out there to do this....

But with PR so intricately woven into every major industry and movement in today’s mass media reality, the stakes of spin have become incredibly high. And ethics do slip. PR often crosses the line into misleading, withholding, or simply lying. And when it does, society suffers — sometimes tragically so.

This is a conversation worth having, and I encourage all of you to engage in the comments of Wendell's blog.

Disclosure: I am proud to be a friend and colleague of Wendell's, and we're exploring ways that we together can use PR to the "good ends" that he notes in the book — one of which is to spread the messages in Deadly Spin. I left corporate PR years ago with that in mind.

to forgive is divine

More from the The Mystery of Love, a two-hour PBS documentary special, airing prime time Dec. 13 across most of the country. (Check local listings.)

Meet Azim Khamisa, a Sufi Muslim father whose 20-year-old son was murdered by 14-year-old gang member Tony Hicks. As he dealt with his sorrow, Azim came to realize that there were “victims at both ends of the gun.” In his heart, he forgave his son’s murderer and began working with the murderer’s grandfather, Ples Felix. Together they formed a foundation and speak with kids about the terrible effects of violence. In the process, they have become as close as brothers. Out of tragedy has developed a loving friendship. 

It's a powerful story, a perfect example of an antidote to the revenge, anger and despair that would typically dominate such a tragedy. The video below was posted on, a new online inspirational community from the ex-CNN anchor. (If you don't see the embedded video, click here.)

the mystery of the love of war

I'm doing publicity for The Mystery of Love, a two-hour PBS documentary special, airing prime time Dec. 13 across most of the country. The program puts love on the public agenda and is an interesting take on a subject often dominated by one-dimensional and misleading caricatures in popular culture. One of the most compelling segments explores "love's darker sides" with Dr. James Hillman, world-famous Jungian psychologist and author of A Terrible Love of War. Hillman discusses the feelings of community and brotherhood soldiers find on the battlefield.

"The ecstasy can be the highest moment ever experienced, as many battle veterans say. That would make it in common with other kinds of passionate love: sexual love; divine love; mystical love. You become crazy, in a way, just as you do in a passionate affair. You break the rules; you break the bounds; you're outside of yourself; you find a whole new personality in yourself. Maybe that's a shadow of love."

Here are a couple snippets I posted to YouTube.

"There's a beauty in war people don't like to talk about."

"When the men in the [two World Wars] were asked what they were fighting for, why they were there, the interviews all came out the same way: they were there not because of democracy, not because of protecting the country; but for the other guys. They were there for love of their unit."

the real world (at a glance)

How do you encapsulate a single moment on earth? How do you quantify the human experience that exists during that moment, creating a record of global human history? Telephone conversations, emails, love letters, business trends? How do you present it?

Artist Jonathan Harris pondered these big notions and drew some interesting, very contemporary insights. “Ultimately I decided that news photographs do the best job of summarizing the stuff that matters on earth, on a very broad scale, at any given moment,” he says. That led to 10x10, a curious piece of new media art that aggregates and analyzes the top 100 words and images in the world every hour and displays them in an interactive ten-by-ten grid. (You may have already heard about it; within days of its November 4 launch, it was the 10th most popular link on the web, according to one site. CNN and USA Today and others soon took it beyond the blogosphere.)

This information visualization project is a bit of Google News with a dash of Google Zeitgeist. It does what thousands of blogging news junkies do, but in a more structured and visual way. And more than just feeding the addiction, it puts this snapshot of our world into context, a larger – and with no human intervention, raw and objective – perspective. As the website points out, it’s “often moving, sometimes shocking, occasionally frivolous.” It’s reality – at least as reported by the global news media.

Harris' inbox has been flooded by emails from people around the world moved by 10x10's unique - and often upsetting - view of the world. One day in particular that moved the masses: the day Yasser Arafat died. "Most days, the grid is filled with a variety of images on all sorts of topics," he reflects, "but every now and then something so important happens that the whole world pauses and looks. Arafat's death was one such event, and for one day, 10x10 was covered almost entirely with pictures of him. Moments like that you know you're watching history being made, and I find that quite powerful."

[excerpted from my upcoming article in Photo District News (PDN), February print issue]