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Ethics: Template Op-Eds Under Fire

The common public relations practice of providing template materials to grassroots advocates is under intense scrutiny and may fall victim to the scandals that have rocked the New York Times and USA Today.

In an op-ed that has been published in the Washington Post and Houston Chronicle, and an attack piece published in the Austin Chronicle, William M. Adler argues that it is plagiarism for someone to submit a written piece  under his or her byline if that piece (or a piece that is largely similar) had previously been published under someone else''s byline.

You can see Adler''s arguments for yourself at the following links:

http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-04-16/pols_feature.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A38708-2004Apr24?language=printer

This is an issue that should concern every organization that depends on grassroots advocacy to achieve its objectives. If your organization provides template language for op-eds or letters to the editor, you could be vulnerable to attack and may be endangering the reputation of those who agree to submit the pieces under their byline. And you may threaten the reputation of your organization as well.

Providing template language for op-eds and letters to the editor is a practice used to give voice to those who agree with a particular point of view but lack the time or the skills necessary to articulate their opinions. It serves the positive purpose of extending the reach of important societal issues into hometowns across America.

However, given the plagiarism scandals and the increased scrutiny to ensure all published work is original, the practice may very well be unethical.

I am interested in your opinions and will share them on this Web site. Please e-mail me at dan@keeneypr.com to weigh in on this important issue.

After I read Mr. Adler''s piece, I sent him an e-mail that read in part:

"In the past several months, I have counseled my clients to discontinue -- or change the way they use -- this common practice because of hightened sensitivity about unoriginal work. In cases where clients have moved forward with this approach, I have been emphatic in instructing signatories NOT to suggest they wrote the pieces...just that they fully endorse them."

In an e-mail back to me, Mr. Adler dismissed me as a "flack" who (I''m paraphrasing) doesn''t have the high standards of a journalist(!!!!). He has asked me not to post his response on this Web site. 

I''m afraid Mr. Adler, in his miopic attack on the nuclear industry hasn''t grasped the broad impact of his assault.

Okay, Mr. Adler, here''s the research a mere "flack" has done. Too bad it is original, because you should have done it in the development of your own op-ed! I found that Public Citizen disseminated and encouraged placement of a template op-ed opposing the national nuclear waste repository at Yucca http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nukenet/message/2952 as did the Nuclear Information and Research Service and Pennsylvania Environmental Network. In fact, the NIRS has made available sample op-eds on an array of subjects and encourages their wide dissemination and submissions to local editors with alerts through its Web site. Currently, they are peddling "NUCLEAR POWER IS NOT A SOLUTION TO CLIMATE CHANGE," http://www.nirs.org/nukesandglobalwarming/NIRSOPED.htm.

I am very concerned that the development and dissemination of "template" op-eds and letters to the editor is a common tactic employed by a range of advocacy organizations. These organizations and others considering such a tactic deserve clear guidance regarding the ethics of such actions. Type "Sample Op-Ed" into Google (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=%22sample+op-ed%22&btnG=Search) and more than 1,700 pages are returned from organizations ranging from our federal government to the ACLU to the NEA.
 
I am also concerned with how far scrutiny of standardized or template language can go. Through DPK Public Relations''
Media Interview Skills Training, I instruct clients to be disciplined in message delivery and encourage spokespersons to adopt particular ways of telling their stories and articulating their points-of-view. This is standard practice throughout the public relations field based on the accepted truth that communicating the same or similar messages repeatedly will help build awareness. But does it pass the plagiarism litmus test?

Adler''s "expose" that supposedly revealed the dastardly tactics of one organization to manipulate the American public missed the point...and missed a tremendous opportunity. The real story isn''t about the NEI or Potomac. It''s about how public engagement and grassroots mobilization initiatives have institutionalized the practice of adopting a standard set of thoughts, words, sentences and paragraphs in the pursuit of spreading a message.

In so doing, this mass communication approach completely overlooked the fact that its foundation is built upon the practice of plagiarism.

You may be interested to read my follow-up piece on this issue in which I provide specific guidance for organizations seeking to extend their messages to grassroots advocates in an ethical manner. It was published in Public Relations Tactics in June 2004.

You may also be interested to know what other public relations practitioners who have stopped by have to say by clicking here and here.

If your organization needs help developing and negotiating placement of an op-ed, contact DPK Public Relations at 832-467-2904 or e-mail dan@keeneypr.com.

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
(832) 467-2909
Author: Dan Keeney
Phone: (832) 467-2904
Fax: (832) 467-2909
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