The rift between PRSA & Jack O’Dwyer

Jack O'Dwyer

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has run into a PR problem. PRSA appears to have singled out industry journalist Jack O’Dwyer for special treatment, raising the ire of some in the industry, including the National Press Club. Last year O’Dwyer was charged full attendance fees at PRSA’s national convention, while other journalists were invited free of charge. This year he was barred from attending altogether.

Those in the public relations industry are likely aware of the long standing feud between O’Dwyer and PRSA. O’Dwyer has covered PRSA, and the industry as a whole, with a critical eye in O’Dwyer Public Relations, the influential trade newsletter he’s been publishing for 40 years. PRSA and O’Dwyer have traded barbs for many years. The tensions escalated in 1994, when O’Dwyer unsuccessfully attempted a copyright-related lawsuit against PRSA.

PRSA has in turn accused O’Dwyer of phone hacking and O’Dywer’s made some very negative editorial comments about PRSA’s expenses, staff and board, even making accusations of racism.

PRSA’s VP of PR Arthur Yann said in a statement on the Society’s website that the organization will continue to bar O’Dwyer and staffers because it “cannot tolerate and accept unethical behavior on the part of a representative of the media.” It added that Jack O’Dwyer, who did stay at the hotel during the recent conference, “initiated a number of unwanted, unwarranted and uncomfortable interactions with conference attendees, presenters and exhibitors.”

Aaron Perlut’s post on Forbes Marketshare does a good job of chronicling the back and forth of the feud up until just before this most recent incident. Perlut ends with a call to bury the hatchet that, in light of recent events, clearly went unheeded by both sides.

In terms of public relations in the era of social media, did PRSA make the wrong call in barring O’Dwyer from the conference in Florida?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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  1. Jack O'Dwyer says:

    Hello Austin IABC:

    Thanks for taking up this topic of boycotting a reporter. The National Press Club is worried that PRSA’s 21,000 members will think that boycotting a reporter (actually our entire company and any freelancer we might hire are blocked) is the thing to do. It’s very interested in this subject and will pursue it, Executive Director Bill McCarren has assured me.

    So far PRSA shows no signs whatever of withdrawing from a policy of several years’ standing. Recently it got even more draconian.

    My take is that this is a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the real issue–PRSA’s sale of hundreds of thousands of copies of authors’ articles without their permission. I have a boxfull of the “info packs” that PRSA was selling at from $21 to $55. The longer PRSA runs from the issue, the worse it will be for the Society. It can’t claim to be the ethical leader of the industry worldwide with this skeleton in its closet.

    Below is my list of 20 abusive practices and policies of the Society. They are all well-documented. This is what the attention should also be on. It was not for nothing that last year 450 members signed the petition of “The Committee for a Democratic PRSA.” Among the three leaders was Richard Edelman, head of the world’s largest PR firm with $520 million in fees in 2010. Democratic practices are sorely lacking at the Society.
    –Jack O’Dwyer

    Below are abuses of PRSA in approximate order of importance. (Oct. 25, 2011); by Jack O’Dwyer

    1. Failure to warn prospective members they won’t be eligible for national Society office until they become Accredited. Non-APRs can’t serve on the Ethics Board nor hold office in some chapters.

    2. Providing late and substandard financial reports. IRS Form 990 withheld from the 2009-10 Assemblies. The 2010 return is not yet available (as of Oct. 24, 2011). Booking dues as cash violates FASB Section 958-605-21-1 which says dues must be booked month-by-month over the dues year.

    The Society claims it’s “acceptable.” It should show the balance sheet both ways at a minimum. The major professional groups (ABA, AMA, AICPA, etc.) all defer large amounts of dues. Also, the Society frequently refers to “best practices” for PR pros and never to “acceptable practices.”

    Not-for-Proft Budgeting & Financial Management, by CPA Edward McMillan, says a “common, major accounting error” of associations is “failing to use the deferral method for dues income” since dues represent “an entire year’s worth of membership.” Booking dues as cash results in financial statements that are “overstated and misleading,” he writes.

    3. Blocking press coverage of the Assembly by forbidding, since 2010, any photographs or recording of the Assembly by reporters.

    Irrationally, the Society allowed reporter Jack O’Dwyer to cover the 2010 Assembly but refused to give him “credentials” to the conference itself. The Society wouldn’t give him or any O’Dwyer reporter or any O’Dwyer “assign” the “credentials” to either for 2011, sending him 23 pages of complaints about his coverage but refusing to face him in person. Refusal to face him in person obliterates any charges against him.

    Freedom of the press is a right granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution and in America an accused person has the right to face his or her accusers.

    4. Withholding transcripts of the Assembly since 2005 and refusal to provide transcripts of teleconferences. These are like the “slow-motion” replays that are common in sports journalism that give fans needed details.

    5. Blocking PR reporters from accessing the audit or quarterly reports. They are in the members’ area and reporters are not allowed to join the Society. No reason is given for this. Reporters are members of PR groups including IABC and IPRA.

    6. Professing “commitment” to Sarbanes-Oxley but failing to have outsiders on the national board and failure to have an audit chair on the board who is a financial expert.
    Leaders Don’t Face Members in-Person

    7. Refusal of leaders including chair Rosanna Fiske and COO Bill Murray to regularly face members in person. Fiske, while spearheading a drive to increase dues by $30 to $255, has only appeared before two chapters, her home chapter of Miami, and the Georgia chapter in Atlanta. VP-PR Arthur Yann does not dispute that statement. Murray has only addressed two chapter memberships in four years and nearly ten months—Washington, D.C., and Minnesota. Yann does not dispute that statement. No in-person, face-to-face discussions of the dues increase took place. Since July 28, “teleconferences” conducted by Fiske have been in “listen-only mode.” Callers cannot talk online but must submit questions by e-mail or a special website.

    8. Refusal to have a year-round list of the 270 or so Assembly delegates. They have until Aug. 15 each year to post their names. Also lacking is a transcript of what they say and a delegate-by-delegate record of how they vote. Insiders have this since the delegates vote by numbered electronic devices.

    9. Blockage of news of key member initiatives such as the 2006 move by Central Michigan to give the Assembly power over the board, copying ABA and AMA. No other chapter supported CM whose bid lost by a 261-19 vote. CM called the Assembly “a rubber stamp.” PR Society news media carried no mention of the proposal made in April 2006.

    10. Leaders defend the $140,000 “Leadership Rally” that brings chapter presidents-elect to New York each June, compromising their independence, even though budget cuts are needed and national seeks a $30 dues hike. The Assembly is mostly chapter presidents and presidents-elect. Attendees at the “Rally” get a $550 stipend plus five free meals.

    11. Removal of the single list of the 110 chapter presidents from the Society website forces anyone who wants such as list, including the presidents themselves, to download all the sites. This website has done that and makes the list available to anyone who wants it.

    12. Removal of the names and contact points of about 47 h.q. staffers, leaving only seven names. This loss of information makes it impossible to track staff turnover.

    13. Society made huge decisions without any input from the Assembly including the move downtown in 2004 for 13 years, eliminating use by the New York chapter, and cancellation of the printed members’ directory. Leaders refuse to discuss having a PDF which involve no printing or mailing costs by national.
    Threats to Reporter Ignored

    14. Refusal to investigate or disavow threats of physical violence made in person and in a letter to Jack O’Dwyer by an Assembly delegate following the 2010 Assembly. Yann e-mailed O’Dwyer that a national director witnessed this incident.

    15. Refusing to compensate numerous authors after selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their articles from 1980-94. An expose by O’Dwyer’s ended the practice which was netting PRSA about $60,000 a year.

    16. The costly re-write of the bylaws at the 2009 Assembly violated major tenets of Robert’s Rules that forbid use of proxies and that demand that all articles in a revision be presented to the Assembly. Other advice ignored included not trying to do a revision at a regular meeting and having a large committee with all elements represented. Ten of the 11 committee members were APR when APRs are only 18% of the membership. Legal costs and bills from law firm Venable totaled $299,793 from 2007-09, an average far above previous years.

    17. Further tightening insiders’ grip on governance by restricting officer nominations to those who have served on the board. The 2009 revision, turning its back on the wisdom of the founders who barred directors from returning to the board, provides that directors can serve two, two-year terms in a row and can come back indefinitely after skipping one year.

    18. Not allowing members to work at their own h.q. since about 1980, although the major professional groups such as ABA, AMA, AICPA and ASAE have large numbers of their own professionals on staff. Only three of the 50+ Society staffers are members and they are under tight control of management.

    19. Failure to discuss the unusually high percentage of Society income devoted to staff pay/fringes–$5,529,699 in 2010 or 52.5% of revenues of $10,513,366. Average percentage of similar-sized groups is close to the 40% or lower range. Many groups have kept a New York h.q. but put “back office” operations in much cheaper locales.

    20. Avoidance of New York as the site of the national conference (only once in the current 23-year period) has cost the Society millions because New York has by far the biggest audience. The 4,000 record for attendance was achieved at the 2004 conference in New York. Oddly, Philadelphia was the conference site in 2007 and will be again in 2013 while no New York conference is currently scheduled.
    Posted by Jack O’Dwyer

  2. Arthur Yann says:

    There is, of course, more to the story than Mr. O’Dwyer would have you believe.

    Over a period of years, the PRSA Library did loan packets of news articles and educational information to its members and other industry professionals, on the condition that the information be returned following its use. PRSA charged a modest shipping and clerical fee ($17 for members; $55 for nonmembers) to cover the cost of administering the program. Articles from O’Dwyer Company publications were included as part of these packages.This was a common association practice of the day and, one might argue, it exposed Mr. O’Dwyer’s publications to a much broader audience than the publications had at the time.

    Nevertheless, the O’Dwyer Company claimed in 1994 that the loan packets infringed on its copyrights. PRSA disagreed with the O’Dwyer Company’s claims of copyright infringement — citing provisions of the “Fair Use Doctrine” — and was agreeable to having the matter adjudicated through the courts. Mr. O’Dwyer urged other publishers whose materials also were included in the loan packets (including Crains, Probus, Addison Wesley & Longman, John Wiley & Sons and others) to join his suit. None did, ostensibly due to the fact that the case lacked merit, much to Mr. O’Dwyer’s chagrin.

    The statute of limitations on the matter has since expired. But 17 years later, the O’Dwyer Company’s belief that it is entitled to compensation from PRSA remains a recurring theme in the company’s publications. This, despite the fact that Mr. O’Dwyer has been known to boast that his attacks on PRSA have helped him purchase four homes, all in cash, with no mortgages.

    Anyone who is interested in learning more about PRSA’s relationship with the J.R. O’Dwyer company is encouraged to read our blog post at

    Arthur Yann is PRSA’s vice president of public relations.

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