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PR Executives Criticize Speakes for Phony Reagan Quotes

April 13, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Larry Speakes’ disclosure that he concocted quotes for President Reagan while White House spokesman drew criticism from public relations executives Wednesday, with most calling it deceptive and damaging.

However, none was willing to say Speakes should quit his position as head of communications at the Wall Street investment giant Merrill Lynch & Co. A few said they expected the entire episode to fade quickly from public interest.

Some sources, speaking on condition they not be identified, suggested it was possible Speakes could face sanctions by the Public Relations Society of America for violation of its code of ethics.

Article 7 of the code states: ″A member shall not intentionally communicate false or misleading information and is obligated to use care to avoid communication of false or misleading information.″

But Speakes did not become a society member until November, well after his departure from the White House, and the society’s national secretary, Isobel Parke, said the group’s attorneys believed ″the code covers the actions of members while they are members.″

″It is written in the present tense. It does not refer to actions that members may or may not have done before they joined,″ she said.

Ethics-code violators face penalties from warnings to expulsion from the 13,000-member society.

Ms. Parke would not comment specifically on Speakes’ disclosures, made in a book about his White House tenure. She also wouldn’t speculate on whether his credibility had been damaged, but said ″if any individual deliberately fabricates quotations it will indeed damage his trustworthiness, particularly with the press.″

Merrill Lynch spokesman William Clark said there was no change in Speakes’ status at the company, and Clark rejected a suggestion that Merrill Lynch’s own credibility may have been hurt.

″The events portrayed in the book had nothing to do with Merrill Lynch,″ Clark said.

Speakes said Tuesday that he had told Reagan about the quotes and the president never objected. But Reagan said Wednesday he was not aware until recent days that Speakes had attributed statements to him he didn’t make.

″In the 34 years I’ve represented controversial and prominent people, I’ve never taken it upon myself to make up a quote,″ said Howard J. Rubenstein, who heads a large PR firm in New York. ″I think that goes well beyond reason and creates a false impression that public relations people are manipulative and can’t be trusted.″

Rubenstein, whose clients have ranged from corporate takeover strategists to media magnate Rupert Murdoch, seemed to reflect the majority view in the industry in saying that credibility is crucial and that Speakes’ behavior ″was quite damaging to all public relations people.″

Nevertheless, Rubenstein said he did not believe Merrill Lynch’s credibility was threatened by the disclosures.

″I just think it’s unfortunate. I’m glad he disclosed it, though; I think it’s an important catharsis,″ Rubenstein said. ″If he said nothing, no one would ever know about it. That would be unfortunate because he would be living with a lie.″

Speakes was criticized by many other public relations executives, from the biggest international firms to the small one-office operations.

″The bottom line is credibility,″ said Anthony R. Katz, senior vice president of D-A-Y Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest public relations concerns. ″The role of the PR person is to communicate, to advance a person’s point of view responsibly. ... The president’s cause was not advanced.″

Vivian Manuel, president of VM Communications Inc., a small New York-based public relations agency, said: ″I think when you say somebody said something, they should have said it.″

Nevertheless, a few said they could understand how Speakes may have likened the concocted quotes to the job of a speechwriter who is sensitive to a client’s time pressure and intimately familiar with how a client thinks.

″If he was making up quotes that in effect made up public policy, I’d be a lot more concerned,″ said Ernest J. DiRico, chief operating officer of Fleishman and DiRico Public Relations in Atlanta.

″But I think in a lot of cases, whether it’s a business executive or public official, they employ a PR person to act as official spokesperson,″ he said. ″They assume the PR person would have the good sense to know where the boundaries are. If you step over the boundaries, you get fired.″

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