Paid liars clueless of journalistic integrity

By Damon Krane
October 24, 2001
The Post (Athens, Ohio)

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Apparently, Steve Kehnel’s October 19 column that dealt with a presentation by Laurie Guzzinati, public relations representative of the Philip Morris Corporation, offended at least one of the event’s attendees. The writer of “Opportunity lost to eager students” (published 10/24/01) calls the Post columnist “a misguided and selfish journalist who stole the chance of many students who wanted to learn” by using the presentation as an “opportunity to ambush the [Philip Morris] representative about the practices of Philip Morris… just so he could have material for his column.”

I’m astounded by the letter writer’s completely ludicrous suggestion that the event was intended to be either a private meeting of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) or an informative lecture on the public relations profession. First of all, the event was held in Anderson Auditorium, open to the public, and advertised in The Post. Secondly, as someone who attended (and videotaped) the event, I can personally attest (and easily demonstrate) that the event was essentially a 45-minute commercial for the Philip Morris Corporation.

Kehnel simply attended the event and raised his hand during the question and answer period like anyone else. After being called on by the moderator, he asked how Philip Morris’s documented practice of targeting children in their overseas marketing of cigarettes was consistent with the corporation’s US advertising and public relations campaign that professes “kids shouldn’t smoke.”

Gasp! A critical question!? How “selfish and misguided” indeed! What a lack of “journalistic integrity”!

True, a faculty advisor did “have to” step in and cut off discussion. This was after an older gentleman stated that several of his family members had died of cigarette-related cancer and questioned Guzzinati’s morality.

After the Q and A session was drawn to an abrupt halt, a small crowd, including myself, gathered in the lobby of Scripps Hall to “ambush” the speaker with the kind of critical debate that the event’s moderators prevented during her presentation. But as OU professor of Public Relations Diana Knott kept us occupied, Philip Morris’s PR representative was quietly ushered out the building’s back door. Ironically, as this was taking place, Professor Knott informed me that the job of a PR professional is “to create a two-way relationship” between the PR professional’s employer and the public at large. I asked her if, through establishing such a relationship, PR professionals help to empower ordinary citizens by creating a dialogue between them and large, powerful corporations.

“Oh yes, I think public relations can certainly have that effect,” she replied with a smile.

Personally, I’m not convinced. And in my opinion, OU students aspiring to be the paid liars and intellectual prostitutes of corporate America have little room to criticize the Post columnist for his lack of “journalistic integrity.”

But this is surely not the only opinion on the subject. Therefore, I challenge any student representative of PRSSA, or any OU professor of Public Relations, to a public debate on whether the public relations profession has a positive or negative impact on American democracy. In the interest of establishing “a two-way relationship” between the public relations program here at OU and the students who fund it, I expect PR students and professors will support the idea of such a debate.

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(Editor’s note, 2/1/13 – No one accepted my challenge to debate the public relation industry’s impact on US democracy. Furthermore, while professor Knott responded to me privately, neither she nor anyone else published a public respond to my commentary.)

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