Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Morley Safer versus Public Relations

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Morley Safer versus Public Relations

Article excerpt

Morley Safer doesn't think much of the public relations industry. And, judging by the sharp words being lobbed during a recent panel discussion, practitioners don't think much of him, either.

Responding to one panelist's condemnation of "gotcha" journalism, Safer bellowed, "If you think we like hanging around outside somebody's house to get him to talk, you're wrong." He said that such tactics are often necessary, however, because sources clam up even when they are offered opportunities to respond.

The venerable co-editor of "60 Minutes" squared on against four top practitioners at the first Harland W. Warner Seminar on Ethics in Public Relations, presented by the Center for Communications in New York City on May 4. The seminar was sponsored by PRSA and Manning Selvage & Lee.

During the free-for-all, several practitioners insisted that "no comment" is an appropriate response in many situations. William O'Neill, director of public affairs for General Motors North American Operations, said that employees should be informed about changes affecting them before the information is released to the media. In addition, organizations need not legitimize speculative or unbalanced stories by responding to reporters' queries, said Patrick Jackson, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior counsel at Jackson Jackson & Wagner.

"We in public relations have to be a lot more strategic about where information falls before we get into the trap of laying it on the line," said Jackson.

Safer, for his part, wasn't having any of it. "The reason organizations don't talk is not because we're going to manipulate what they say or use only the best part of it. It's because they know we're onto a damn good story," he said.

One "damn good story" that received much discussion during the seminar was the rigged crash tests of General Motors pickup trucks on "Dateline NBC" in 1992. The network later admitted it had attached ignition devices to the vehicle to ensure it would catch fire if the gas tank was punctured. The network issued an on-air apology.

GM's O'Neill said that the report, although proven false, did irreparable damage to the company's reputation. "It bothers me that the American public's perceptions of those pickup trucks is not colored by 11.5 million vehicles that have been in the hands of people for 20 years...but by people who lied," he said.

Safer joined the other panelists in censuring NBC's action, calling the network's apology "a coup for public relations. …

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