The Public Relations Society of America is under attack—a small band of rebel members has broken loose from the usually tight-knit org and launched an aggressive ethics-reform initiative, and the industry’s leading trade association suddenly finds itself the target of an increasingly bitter public campaign. The effort took an ugly turn in recent weeks as the reformers sounded off about org leaders’ alleged stiff-arming, and it didn’t take long for conspiratorial accusations to start flying.
PRSA initially dismissed the small-scale effort as unfounded, but with the reform leaders’ initiative getting nastier and more incriminating—and with the ethical reputations of former PRSA chairs and others now being brought into the fight—association leaders are now speaking out. National chair Anthony D’Angelo looks to line up the facts in the following op-ed:
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As PRSA’s 2018 National Chair, I’d like to thank Bulldog Reporter for the opportunity to set the record straight on a number of misperceptions, distortions and personal attacks promoted by PRSA members Mary Beth West and Susan Hart, and I encourage Bulldog Reporter to report the news—not simply repurpose their content.
The following comments are made with the unanimous support of PRSA’s Board of Directors and its CEO, Joseph Truncale.
PRSA supports the right of Mary Beth West and Susan Hart to propose bylaw amendments for the betterment of PRSA and its members.
PRSA’s board of directors, Governance Committee and Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) have recognized there is merit in aspects of their proposals. These groups, composed of PRSA volunteers from across the country, have diligently listened to West and Hart, and have in good faith tried to address their concerns. Each of the three groups has individually found that attempts at engagement with Hart and West have led to them responding with demands for answers to long lists of questions, along with expected deadlines for those answers, rather than a respectful attempt at dialogue.
This dynamic has challenged the three PRSA groups in their ongoing dealings with West and Hart, but each still maintains a willingness to review the proposals and ultimately have them forwarded to PRSA’s Assembly delegates for consideration on their merits.
PRSA leaders welcome challenging questions, dissent, debate and even protests, but will not abide disparagement of PRSA members.
West and Hart have repeatedly accused PRSA’s board of directors, its Governance Committee and BEPS of obstructionism and incompetence, and have even accused the 2017 and 2018 Boards and other PRSA volunteers of unethical behavior. Despite the way they have been treated by West and Hart, those groups have assiduously tried to respond in professional and respectful fashion and remain committed to evaluating their proposals professionally and transparently.
As PRSA’s chair, let me underscore that the Society has and will continue to have zero tolerance for the ad hominem attacks perpetrated by West and Hart as they have sought to promote their bylaw amendments. Their accusations against past PRSA Chairs Del Galloway and Rosanna Fiske, and their employer Wells Fargo, are repugnant and wrong. I and the board of directors have made clear that such publicly insulting content will have no place in PRSA media, and that any additional content of that type they may publish—in PRSA media or in any other medium, including Bulldog Reporter—will trigger legal action.
As PRSA’s chair, I have heard from many members their concerns and requests to strongly address and correct West’s and Hart’s attacks. I take their concerns, and the concerns of any PRSA member who has been hurt by another member, with the gravity obviously required. I have also had numerous conversations with Mary Beth West about concerns over her conflict with 2017 PRSA Chair Jane Dvorak, and take those with equal seriousness.
I believe the organizational remedy to all of those concerns will depend on PRSA leaders and members working in good faith to ensure fair and respectful treatment, and that the climate of accusations and distrust created by West and Hart is a barrier to that remedy—even as our board, Governance Committee and BEPS continue to work hard to address their concerns, despite that climate.
In short, PRSA’s leadership has demonstrated through literally hundreds of hours of phone calls, email strings and even a personal visit with West and Hart in Nashville that we care about their views and are listening to them. It saddens us that we’ve seen no evidence of reciprocity, but we remain committed to providing full and fair consideration of their bylaw amendments.
PRSA does, however, draw the line at personal attacks, and that is non-negotiable.
Mary Beth West and Susan Hart have deliberately distorted facts, trafficked in half-truths and have engaged in other questionable practices.
As noted previously in Bulldog Reporter, “…we have significant concerns that ongoing communications from Mary Beth West and Susan Hart include public attacks on the character, motives and ethics of individuals who disagree with them. Their treatment of volunteer members through various channels, including news releases to the trade media, is appalling and not in keeping with our professional standards. In fact, their distribution of ‘news’ releases using the PRSA logo in which they simply quote each other’s opinions is obviously misleading; PRSA’s leadership has repeatedly been called upon by members and media outlets to clarify the resulting misperceptions.”
Here are some of the false claims made by West and Hart:
- Past PRSA Chairs Del Galloway and Rosanna Fiske are “under fire for PRSA Code of Ethics infractions.” Galloway and Fiske have committed no Code of Ethics infractions. They are “guilty,” as two of a group of past PRSA chairs who have criticized West’s and Hart’s methods, of voicing their disagreement with them. West’s and Hart’s claims are the result. Only Hart, West and now Bulldog Reporter are taking aim.
- West and Hart claimed in their news release that Galloway and Fiske, because they are employed by Wells Fargo, which from 2008 until 2018 has been an investment advisor to PRSA, are guilty of a “conflict of interest” for not “disclosing” their employment status, and they subsequently demanded to know if Galloway or Fiske “received any referral fees, commission income or other personal financial gain directly or indirectly from PRSA’s business with Wells Fargo at any time.” This claim is simply ridiculous. Galloway and Fiske at no time exerted any influence on the pre-existing relationship PRSA had with Wells Fargo. They had no financial incentives or gains. In addition, the relationship with Wells Fargo is governed by the PRSA Investment Committee, the PRSA Finance Committee, the PRSA Board of Directors, and PRSA’s CEO and CFO. Wells Fargo was notified recently that PRSA is issuing an RFP for its investment advisory services, which was not good news for WF. That decision had nothing to do with West’s or Hart’s activities or claims.
- “PRSA investment income down in 2018 at shocking decline,” wrote West and Hart, and that was published as a sub-head in a Bulldog Reporter article that led with their claims. That is false, as has been pointed out by other members on PRSA’s online forum. The S&P 500 was up strongly in Q1 2017 versus a rocky Q1 this year, making for a tough year-over-year first quarter comparison. For those who are familiar with finance and investment strategies, this is not shocking; it’s typical for institutional investments that largely track the S&P 500, the Dow or similar benchmarks.
Here are other facts relative to PRSA and its relationship with members West and Hart:
- West and Hart have claimed that “PRSA leadership” has barred them from the Assembly delegate online community, which is false. As they have been informed repeatedly, once their proposed amendments have been submitted to the Governance Committee and reviewed by the committee and PRSA’s parliamentarian to make sure there is no aspect of them that would disqualify the proposals from consideration, they will be posted to the delegate online community. If the Governance Committee completely endorses each of their proposals, then the Governance Committee becomes their advocate to the delegates, and West and Hart (who are not delegates) would not be allowed on delegate forums, conference calls, etc., because their proposals would, in effect, become the Governance Committee’s proposals. If the Governance Committee does not 100% endorse all of their proposals, then West and Hart would be allowed in the online community and on conference calls so that they could, as individuals, represent their proposed amendments. Despite this, West and Hart have claimed—were the Governance Committee to champion all of their proposals—that would be a blatant attempt to “usurp their voices.”
- West has claimed on PRSA’s online forum that PRSA leaders assert they cannot be challenged. That is false. Challenges are fine; publicly insulting other members is not, nor is representing personal perspective as fact to news outlets.