The pit bull of public relations reveals all

Eric Dezenhall, the hired gun who told science publishers to chant "public access equals government censorship," has more advice to share.

By Andrew Leonard
Published January 29, 2007 7:31PM (EST)

Last Thursday's post on science publishers' hiring a public relations specialist to fight back against the open access movement hit a nerve: The discussion of the topic in the comments area, which includes scientists, journal editors and librarians, has been the most read letters topic in How the World Works' history.

So a follow-up is in order. First: David Biello's article on the subject, "Open Access in Science Under Attack," in this week's Scientific American, adds considerably more detail and nuance. If you don't have the time to wade through a bunch of letters to get up to speed on the issue, read him first.

Second, in a dazzling display of serendipity, what should I find on my desk this morning but a galley copy of "Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong," written by none other than Eric Dezenhall, the very public relations "pit bull" hired by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers, to, as Biello puts it, "potentially craft a media strategy."

The pub date for "Damage Control" isn't until April 23, 2007. Generally speaking, it isn't considered kosher to review a book months in advance of publication. But in this case it's hard to resist, in part because it seems like an odd twist of fate that Dezenhall should be in the news at exactly the same time that galleys of his book are being sent to potential readers. In any case, this is a book that would have gone straight to the discard pile if Dezenhall's "public access equals government censorship" advice hadn't already raised my ire, so I'm figuring, if Portfolio wants any publicity at all from this corner, this is what they're going to get.

In Eric Dezenhall's universe, we live in an era characterized by a "frenzy of anticorporate witch-hunts" where large companies are constantly living in fear of assault from well-funded critics eager to tar and feather them. Even worse, corporations have, by and large, bought into a mind-set where they think that apologizing is an effective public relations strategy. Nonsense, declares Dezenhall and his co-author, John Weber (the president of Dezenhall Resources). It's war out there, and corporations shouldn't be apologizing to the armed forces lined up against them on the battlefield, they should be fighting back! "One is more likely to be forgiven [if] instead of using kid gloves, one takes out the brass knuckles."

Big Pharma, in particular, needs to stop the self-flagellation: "If there was any group of companies that needed to go on the offensive against its detractors, it was the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies."

How peculiar. For the last 25 or so years, I have been under the apparently misguided impression that corporate power has been on the upswing, if one measures it in the context of influence on legislation, tax relief, and such minutiae as the language of trade deals. Certainly the perks to running a corporation, in the face of all this hostility from well-funded NGOs and animal rights activists, have only increased over time. I used to think CEOs were overpaid, but after skimming through Dezenhall's pitch to get hired by corporations to manage their crisis control campaigns, I have realized that no amount of money is enough to compensate for the fear that must settle in one's marrow when Kim Basinger or Doctors Without Borders goes on the warpath.

Ah well, it's a little bit too easy to pick and choose bits and pieces of "Damage Control" to make fun of. In truth, it does seem a relatively useful book for those who want some modest insight into state-of-the-art corporate public relations management.

Know thine enemy!

We endorse a political model of crisis management versus the more conventional public relations approach. The fundamental difference is that the political model, which is practiced in our hometown of Washington, D.C., assumes the threat of motivated adversaries, while the public relations model tends to view crises as organic and resolvable through good communications. In real crises there are often opponents -- a mirror image of your own crisis management team -- that want to torpedo you. That opposing team consists of competitors, plaintiffs' lawyers, the news media, politicians and regulators, short-sellers, multi-million-dollar nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), corporate stalkers, whistleblowers, and bloggers. [Italics, mine!] These opponents don't care whether or not you "do the right thing"; they care about defeating you.

Whistle-blowers and bloggers: We don't care about truth and justice, we just want to win. There's a T-shirt slogan in there, somewhere.

UPDATE: I initially wrote that the publisher of "Damage Control" was Viking, but Portfolio turns out to be the actual publisher.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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