Friday, 3 August 2007

In 1998, PR flak Ken Hooper helped shopping centre giant Westfield prevent a rival development by setting up an “astro-turf” front group, North Strathfield Resident Action Group, or NSRAG. The Daily Telegraph aired the scandal in 2000, when Hooper said he “ensured Westfield it could rely on Mr [Adam] Pooley to keep Westfield's name out of ‘these dealings’”.

Pooley was used to run the Sydney Independent Retailers Group, which provided condemnation of further large development in Sydney which would disrupt “the existing retail hierarchy”, according to a statement quoted in the press in August 1998.

A transcript of the Nine Network’s Sunday program’s coverage of the debacle is available online.

In July 2004, Westfield paid the frustrated developer, Kirela, $3.5 million to settle out of court, reports The Sydney Morning Herald. Online database Factiva contains only two pieces on the events of 1998.

The Orange Grove scandal brings up over 1600 articles in Factiva.

But another article links Hooper Communications and Westfield. It reveals that an employee of the PR company, James Photios, infiltrated an action group opposed to Westfield’s Bondi Junction redevelopment, Battlers for Bondi.

These and other (many, many other) stories in Bob Burton’s enthralling Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry (2007) chronicle deals, crimes and misdemeanours perpetrated by an unregulated Australian PR industry.

By the end, Burton is calling for closer regulation. Currently, the peak body, the Public Relations Institute of Australia, he says, has a code of ethics but it only “obliquely hints at the benefits of transparency”.

Further, it “certainly doesn’t require companies to reveal their client list. In the absence of this information, it is rare that a member of the public will ever know who was behind what campaign.”

Partly, he blames journalists who, he says, have less time for investigative reporting and, as a result, rely on feeds (sometimes literally) from PR firms employed by wealthy companies and other organisations. Electronic ‘stories’ are frequently aired with a cursory ‘head shot’ of a reporter in the field. The bulk of the story, he shows, is provided as a video news release (VNR).

Burton also takes aim at corporate-sponsored prizes for journalists who, he says, “having volunteered to participate in them … are unlikely to write critically about them (the companies, who include drug manufacturers, among others).”

The book should be read by every media student. It contains a litany of unethical actions that, cumulatively, show an industry policing itself (badly) and afraid of litigation. The money is copious.


Anonymous said...

Is Ken Hooper a flack or a hack? With a little bit of digging I can work out that his qualifications to communicate are that he was a tabliod journo. Did anyone think to take his unethical behaviour to the PR professional body to prosecute his unethical behaviour - is he even a member?

Journos who talk in 30 second grabs and who take cash for comment with impunity should never be employed to run complex communication campaigns.

I will be interested to read this book to see how many examples of this Jouralist written "expose" of PR are actually journalists who are not qualified PR professionals and who are bring the PR industry into disrepute.

In the effort of transperancy - I am a member of the PRIA.

Tracy Jones said...

Bob Burton’s obsession with the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s Code of Ethics reminds us how difficult it can be to hold individuals to account in our modern litigious society.

Unlike Burton though, the PRIA is confident that public relations in Australia is growing in professionalism, stature and commitment to ethical behaviour.

PR in Australia is not regulated by law. This means that unlike doctors, lawyers or accountants, practitioners cannot be thrown out of the industry for unprofessional, unlawful or unethical behaviour.

Unless, of course, they are members of the Public Relations Institute of Australia – the only body that can hold practitioners to account.

The key, therefore, to increasing professionalism and ethical behaviour among public relations practitioners in Australia is to ensure more of them become members of the PRIA – a task we have undertaken with great success in recent times.

The PRIA has grown by 30 per cent over the past three years and all indications are that this trend will continue. We now represent more than a quarter of public relations professionals in Australia compared to less than 20 per cent four years ago.

Moreover, we are seeing organisations looking to the PRIA for guidance in lifting professional standards. Since becoming national President of the PRIA in October, I have been approached by two large employers of PR professionals investigating the potential to insist on PRIA membership as a condition of employment.

Under these circumstances, loss of PRIA membership for a breach of the Code of Ethics starts to become less of a “slap on the wrist” and more of an obstruction to working or doing business.

While ever public relations remains a self-regulated profession, our best hope for bringing practitioners to account is to ensure the initials MPRIA or FPRIA after someone’s name is a mark of commitment to the highest standards of practice and professionalism.

Go ahead and read Burton's book - it will remind you why you should choose a member of the PRIA when you are looking for a PR consultant rather than someone without industry-led professional standing.

When you choose a member of the Public Relations Institute as an employee or a consultant, you are choosing a professional who commits annually to a Code of Ethics and to continuing their professional education and development.

Tracy Jones
National President
Public Relations Institute of Australia