Posted by: Ian Ross | May 29, 2008

Former Bush Spokesperson Crosses The Ethics Line

Scott McClennan has decided to forgo PR ethics to sell a book. From 2003-06, he held one of the top communication posts in America as press secretary to President George W. Bush. He was a big part of the team that launched the Iraq War and responded to Hurricane Katrina.

Now he is selling his story for millions like every other former political insider. He claims the president shaded the truth and used propaganda and innuendo to sell the war in Iraq. In addition, the president lived in a state of denial during the week after the hurricane hit New Orleans.

Am I interested in how the Bush campaign developed their communication strategies? Absolutely.

Does McClennan have the right to tell me? I don’t think so. In my mind, it is unethical of him to disclose confidential information about the White House’s approach to communications.

If former military and policy advisers want to tell their tales out of school, I don’t care. But PR professionals need to hold themselves to a higher standard if we are ever going to get proper respect and trust. That’s why most PR societies have a code of conduct against such behaviour.

The Canadian Public Relations Society code says, “Members shall not use or disclose confidential information obtained from past or present employers / clients without the expressed permission of the employers / clients or an order of a court of law.” The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) has similar ethnical guidelines.

And if the lying was so prevalent during McClennan’s tenure, why did he remain in the job? How could he remain at the White House when he was helping his employer deceive the public? That’s another ethical question that he needs to be addressed.

It appears McClennan is more interested in fame and fortune than advancing our profession.



  1. Greetings Mr. Ross;

    This is a topic that is open on the PR Forum, “Is Scott McClellan Done?” I invite your comments at the PR Forum (I host it):

    You make solid points about our pretend profession – pretend much as we did when we were children to pretend things since we are not accountable to a professional licensing body. Apart from the common sense aspect of it, the ethics code doesn’t really help us attract and keep clients. And it is not all that good helping us sleep at night without the support needed to back professional ethical decisions either.

    I suspect this was the conversation over the breakfast table at the McClellan household many a month before the book deal. McClellan is a man who is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Talk about cognitive dissonance! I suspect this is exactly what will come out of the Wolf Blitzer interview later tonight.

    Wouldn’t you hate to be blackballed (or worse) for your principles without any proper recourse to a professional board with the strength to uphold those same principles?

    McClellan did what he could do and what the great majority of us would do: he shut his mouth, held his nose and looked for an indemnity clause. “Yes sir, Massa Robert.”

    In short, he did his ballyhoo job his client paid him to do. In the end, it did not set well with him.

    Not the sterling example of a stalwart man shoulder-to-shoulder with his stalwart profession – IMHO. But when a profession has no self-respect, what behaviors are our clients willing to pay for from us anyway? What can we sell: God’s lonely man outside of a PRSA/CPRS convention hall?

    And clients support us. We pay our “union” dues, become better technicians, and pretend it makes all the difference to our profession.

    – R. A.

  2. As I catch up on the news this Sunday a further thought hits me about another PR, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, comparing McClellan’s situation with Bush to Lee’s entanglement and indirect involvement with another Bush (Gramps Prescott) via Standard Oil, I.G. Farben, and the Hamburg-Amerika line in the 30’s.

    So much for choirboy idealism.

    – R. A.

  3. Well, the story has done the expected – gone on to talking points about the PR industry. Imagine lauching the strategy on CBS’ Sunday Morning.

    The PRSA response, IMHO, has been to soft sell more PRSA memberships through government endorsement. “Jeffrey Julin, APR, chair and CEO of PRSA, is speaking out, offering the PRSA Member Code of Ethics as a model.”

    The problem is not that the industry lacks a model but that there is no teeth to enforce the model it has. So, by all means, have the Press Secretary become a corporate PRSA member. (You mean the the press office has never heard of the PRSA?!)

    Am I sounding a little like Edward Bernays yet?

    PRSA reply is here:

    The PRSA has the expected industry wide crisis to respond to – almost 7 days late (and it is Exxon not Tylenol which comes to my mind). I guess the first strategy to let sleeping dogs lie failed.

    If the PRSA were your client, how would you advise them? Leadership – how? Response – what? Has this ostrich finally come home to rue the day?

    CPRS is not immune to the industry’s need for a professional licensing body simply because Scott McClellan is a Yank. I always found the surest way to get Canadian press coverage was to run the story on American TV. Well, the story is run and there now arrives an opportunity for CPRS to get ink/on air with a forceful message advertising the need to ensure professionalism that is neither an industry denial nor selling memberships.

    I wondered what the LinkedIn community would answer so I asked the question here:*4PRR%2Ehom%2Emid_600398567

    Everyone is invited of course.

    All the best,

    – R. A.

  4. Thanks for your comments Richard.
    You certainly raise some interesting points. But I have to disagree that we participate in a pretend profession or that most clients expect us to lie for them.

    There are always going to be a few bad apples in PR and a few execs who buy into spinning. As a profession, I think we need to do a better job of showing the C-Suite the positive strategic impact we can make as ethnical practisioners. And at the same time, spotlight how unethnical behaviour can backfire.

    In other words, PR needs better PR. And I’d like to see associations like CPRS, IABC and PRSA do a better job rallying the troops. I’ve started to push within CPRS and will continue to do so.

    I agree PRSA waited a little long to respond, but I think they did a good job drawing the ethnical line that McClennan crossed.

    As for a licencing body, I just don’t see that happening. Our credibility must be built by us – not a third party overseer.

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