PR Group Accuses Writer of Phone Hacking

In Wake of Murdoch Hearings, PRSA Points Finger at O'Dwyer

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The Public Relations Society of America has been a target of Jack O' Dwyer's criticism for years, but generally has opted to stay mum. Now, in a rare move, the trade group is speaking up -- and what it has to say is bold.

In a passionate response to a claim by Mr. O' Dwyer, the publisher of the long-running PR newsletter and website, that the PRSA has auditing issues, the group is accusing the writer of engaging in phone hacking.

The PRSA in a statement posted on its website on Friday said: "Mr. O' Dwyer, while a free press is essential to our country, principles and profession, not everything -- or everyone -- wrapped in the mantle of 'journalism' is right or ethical, as the News of the World scandal demonstrates. But then again, it would appear that your organization condones such practices, given that records from our teleconferencing vendor show that telephone numbers registered to the J.R. O' Dwyer Company connected to PRSA teleconference calls without PRSA's permission five times between May 22 , 2007, and May 12, 2009."

Mr. O' Dwyer did not return multiple calls by Ad Age requesting comment on the matter. But the phone-hacking accusation comes at a time when, thanks to the crisis at News Corp., sensitivity to ethical journalism practices are at an all-time high.

Arthur Yann, who is the PRSA's VP-public relations, introduced these allegations in a missive prompted by a blog post by Mr. O' Dwyer last week. In it, Mr. O' Dwyer suggests that PRSA has auditing issues and that its audit chair, Cheryl Ball, is unqualified in the role.

Mr. Yann in the post refuted Mr. O' Dwyer's allegations about the association's accounting practices and requested that the outlet "stop publishing false and defamatory information about PRSA." He then added: "You expect PRSA to engage with you as if you were a professional journalist, to which we say, comport yourself as one, and then we'll talk."

Though PRSA has in the past ignored a number of critical posts by Mr. O' Dwyer, the organization decided to dispute the most recent claims at a time when it's preparing to raise annual membership dues by $30.

"We're in a deep discussion with our members about a dues increase," William Murray, president and chief operating oficer at the PRSA, told Ad Age . "We want to make sure they have all the accurate information about what we do with their money. Against that backdrop, we just couldn't stand by and let someone repeat these horrible things because they're so untrue."

It was also a strategic opportunity for the organization to publicize the alleged teleconference hackings at a time when everyone is following the News of the World scandal, at the crux of which are allegations of journalists hacking into the phones of celebrities, politicians and ordinary citizens.

"Given overall public debate now about News Corp., people are interested and more so appreciate the gravity of these types of things," Mr. Murray said. "We didn't want to be in a tit for tat debate with someone misguided about our organization."

PRSA claims it learned about the hacks years ago but decided to stay quiet in order to avoid what may have been a costly and complex lawsuit.

"We would have a conference call and there would be an article that would appear in [the O' Dwyer] newsletter immediately after with verbatim quotes," Mr. Murray said. "Then we looked at our records and saw phone numbers owned by the O' Dwyer Company."

The tension between the organizations goes back to a dispute starting in 1994, when Mr. O' Dwyer unsuccessfully attempted a copyright-related lawsuit against PRSA.

After this latest chapter, we're guessing an easing of those tensions isn't going to happen anytime soon.

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