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When a PR Company Misuses Science

Qorvis Communications is a new breed of smarter PR company, says the Washington Post – which means journalists should be careful they’re not outsmarted.

“When someone calls from Qorvis, they know what they're talking about,” writes Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein in “A PR Firm That Actually Knows How to Relate.”

Qorvis Communications is Washington beltway example of a new breed of smaller, savvier public relations/communications agencies busting the chops of the “bureaucratic behemoths that overcharge and under-perform.”

As Pearlstein complains (and not without justification),

“Hardly a day goes by when I don't get a phone call from some 20-something in public relations asking if I got the e-mail she just sent or inviting me to a news conference.

In seconds, it's obvious these folks don't have a clue what I write about -- or even know much about their subject. I can't remember the last time such a pitch worked. But every time, I wonder why any business would spend good money to accomplish so little.”

Qorvis is different for a number of reasons, including the way it bills for work, buys up local talent, and integrates its staff into a creative, collegial, and anti-bureaucratic work environment.

But the most noticeable difference to Pearlstein

“is that Qorvis is a company with more chiefs and fewer Indians. That means more work is done by people with real knowledge, experience and contacts.”

This all gets Pearlstein’s attention. And why wouldn’t it? Just as most academics can’t speak clearly or concisely, or write elegantly, it’s also a truism among journalists that most PR hacks are clueless; clueless about how the media actually works, clueless about what their clients actually do, and just generally clueless about everything.

But in the case of Qorvis, clever can mean too clever by half.

As the National Journal noted on January 22, 2005, Qorvis was behind a fake consumer website called “The Truth about Splenda,” which implied that the artificial sweetener was unsafe (for example, the statement “Splenda is safe to eat, even for children” was labeled a “fiction,” while the homepage has a picture of a scared child looking at a plate of cookies as if they contained rat poison).

Naturally, there was not a whole lot of scientific fact behind Qorvis’s claims. Nor did Qorvis advertise the fact that the website was paid for by the Sugar Association, which has an economic problem with artificial sweeteners.

As STATS noted at the time,

"If 'The Truth About Splenda' seems like a desperate and transparently shoddy attempt to cast doubt on the research and regulatory mechanisms which found Splenda safe, it is. But it’s also a clever tactic. Throwing virtual mud on the Internet means that such nonsense will stick around forever; in fact, a quick Google search shows that The Truth About Splenda has already spread like kudzu. And once the public is alerted to a “controversy” over the safety of a product, no matter how spurious or unscientific the charge, there’s no going back. Most people tend to think about health risks as they do about celebrity gossip —“there ‘s no smoke without fire!”

The irony here, is that everyone loses from a PR campaign that plays fast and loose with science"

So the moral for journalists is that when Qorvis comes calling, don’t assume that because these guys sound like they know what they’re talking about that they actually do.