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PR Execs Say Speakes’ Phony Reagan Quotes Damage the Business

April 14, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Public relations professionals are concerned that former White House spokesman Larry Speakes may have damaged the credibility of their business by admitting he concocted quotes for President Reagan.

″You never make up a quote for anybody,″ said Howard J. Rubenstein, president of a large New York-based firm that bears his name. ″If one of my account executives did something like this, I’d really chew him or her out.″

Other public relations executives queried Wednesday agreed with Rubenstein’s assessment of Speakes’ quote concoctions, which were disclosed in a book Speakes wrote about his tenure at the White House.

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 of anonymity, suggested it was possible Speakes could face sanctions by the Public Relations Society of America for violation of its code of ethics.

Article 7 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. The society’s national secretary, Isobel Parke, said the group’s attorneys believed the code covers the actions of members only 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 ranging from warnings to expulsion from the 13,000-member society.

Ms. Parke would not comment specifically on Speakes’ disclosures or speculate on whether his credibility had been damaged. But she said that ″if any individual deliberately fabricates quotations it will indeed damage his trustworthiness, particularly with the press.″

Asked if his disclosures have damaged the public relations industry, she said: ″It doesn’t help. Of course it doesn’t help.″

Merrill Lynch spokesman William Clark said there was no change in Speakes’ status at the company. Clark also said he didn’t think Merrill Lynch’s credibility has been hurt.

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

Speakes said Tuesday he had told Reagan about the quotes and the president never objected. But Reagan said Wednesday he was not aware until recently 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,″ Rubenstein said. ″I think that goes well beyond reason and creates a false impression that public relations people are manipulative and can’t be trusted.″

Speakes was criticized by many other public relations executives, from the biggest international firms to the 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.″

Some public relations executives 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.

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