The definition of transparency I like most views it as access to information stakeholders need in order to make informed decisions. I don't know that the public-at-large is one of the public relations profession's stakeholders, but the decision many make about PR is that it helps clients spin bad news, deceiving the public and leading people to adopt positions contrary to their own interests.
If the PR profession were to undertake efforts to reverse that perception, it might consider disclosing the plans they develop to support clients' goals. Revealing exactly what objectives the plan is designed to meet, and the tactics that will be employed to meet them, would certainly lift the veil from the practice of PR and give the public an unfiltered view of just what it is we do.
Of course, exposing detailed plans probably isn't on any agency's to-do list. However, one reason the concept of transparency has assumed such prominence is that, in the era of digital and social media, it is being forced upon companies. While Schmidt Public Affairs undoubtedly had no intention of releaasing its plan to address an investigative piece that cast its client in a bad light, that plan was leaked and is now part of the public record.
The article, from ProPublica, is the result of a year-long investigation into the state of kidney dialysis in the U.S. In Dialysis, Life-Saving Care at Great Risk and Cost, is a detailed report that concludes:
The findings were bleak: At clinics from coast to coast, patients commonly receive treatment in settings that are unsanitary and prone to perilous lapses in care. Regulators have few tools and little will to enforce quality standards. Industry consolidation has left patients with fewer choices of provider. The government has withheld critical data about clinics' performance from patients, the very people who need it most. Meanwhile, the two corporate chains that dominate the dialysis-care system are consistently profitable, together making about $2 billion in operating profits a year.
Schmidt Public Affairs, which represents the advocacy/lobbying group Kidney Care Partners, knew the article was coming, noting "we do not anticipate a balanced presentation." The agency drew up a plan "to create the 'machinery' necessary to orchestrate an aggressive and prompt community-wide response."
Which is exactly what a PR or public affairs agency is supposed to do. They don't, however, anticipate that someone with access to the plan will leak it to the very outlet that is releasing the investigative report. ProPublica published the plan under the headline, "Read the Leaked P.R. Plan to Spin Our Dialysis Investigation." Beyond the reference to "spin" in the headline, the lead-in to the document is non-judgmental, simply identifying who Kidney Care Partners is and noting that ProPublica had obtained a leaked copy of the plan.
If your agency's plan to address a controversial article on behalf of a client were leaked, you might feel the sweat bead up on your forehead, your pulse quicken, your skin crawl. But here's the thing: Reading through Schmidt's plan doesn't reveal anything deceptive or inappropriate at all. It's just a plan to ensure Kidney Care Partners' side of the story gets aired. The plan doesn't seek to address the allegations in the article, but keep in mind that it was drafted before the article appeared. Given the quality of the plan, I'll give Schmidt the benefit of the doubt and assume they have since crafted an update to talk about the legitimate and serious issues the article raises.
Even some of those commenting on the leaked plan recognize there's nothing dubious here, as these two excerpts note:
it's naive to think that an organization under fire-corporation, not-for-profit, government agency, whatever-would not prepare for what it knows will be a negative story. Why shouldn't they prepare for the fallout? It's all too easy to make that appear sinister and manipulative, when it's just sound communications strategy.
I don't get all the excitement. This is not a press release, it's a communications action plan. And it doesn't look like "spin," it looks like an organization doing the best they can to make sure their side of the story is told. In fact, I see no instance of their communications team suggesting anyone decieve or hide the truths - just ensure that their side of the story is available for balance. It looks to me like this communications team did an outstanding job and should be given a pat on the back for a professional job well done.
Mulling over the situation, I'm reminded of how Paul Levy, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, ensures there are no leaks of information sent to employees: He posts all of those missives to his blog.
It doesn't take much imagination to see who might leak a communications plan. In this case, it might, for instance, have been an admin at Schmidt or one of its client organizations with a relative undergoing dialysis who felt the plan needed to be exposed. The point is, leaks like this are becoming more common, and it's not unreasonable for a PR agency to worry that plans it develops for a client are equally subject to exposure.
But if the plan is professional and ethical, what's the problem? Like Levy, couldn't PR agencies prevent leaks by simply posting their plans? In the ProPublica case, it's the simple labeling of the plan as "leaked" that makes it look suspect. After all, things that are leaked were meant to stay secret.
I can envision a section of PR agencies' websites dedicated to hosting planning documents. Of course, such disclosure would require client approval, but there's an argument to be made that such disclosure will prevent the client from going on the defensive should someone send it to an outlet like ProPublica whose publication of the plan is tantamount to outing the agency and its client. It could also provide the kind of inside-baseball view of PR that turns around widespread negative public perceptions.
What do you think? Is it time for PR to embrace transparency and make its plans public?
Note: The leak of the Schmidt document was a subject of discussion on this week's For Immediate Release podcast.