Plagiarism: This Crisis Pro’s Words Look Exactly Like Mine
Brian West—co-lead of the global crisis communications practice and managing director of reputation management in Asia Pacific for PR giant FleishmanHillard—was quoted as saying the following today in an article on Marketing Interactive:
“When a crisis strikes, many attorneys have the same instinct: to clamp down on corporate communications and make the fewest number of public statements possible (if any at all). That’s because an attorney’s primary job is to minimise future financial payouts and, in cases of criminal wrongdoing, to reduce a company’s culpability in any future legal action,” adds West.”
The problem? West didn’t say that. I did. That quote appears verbatim in my book, The Media Training Bible, and was also quoted verbatim in a recent blog post.
A second passage in his comments, although not lifted word-for-word, also seemed heavily inspired by that same post. I sent Mr. West (@westoweather on Twitter) an email asking why he had plagiarized my work. He responded by claiming his innocence and offering one of those lame “if/then” apologies:
“Did I? I did not intend to and if I did I apologise and I will have the record amended. Which bit are you referring to?”
He then wrote back again, claiming the plagiarism wasn’t his fault:
“While I produced most of the material for the story, it was not all in one go and when I was travelling a member of my staff handled other some follow up questions.”
Here are a few facts:
- Mr. West receives my email newsletter.
- This excerpt was sent out in my newsletter on October 17, 2013.
- Mr. West clicked on that link.
- No one else from FleishmanHillard is on my email list.
It’s possible that Mr. West is telling the truth, that he is an innocent victim of someone else’s plagiarism. In order for that to be true, of course, it means that he allows other people on his staff to submit on-the-record comments to the press without checking them first. I’ll give Mr. West the benefit of the doubt that that’s possible.
Either way, the regional head of reputation management for a major global PR firm is responsible for the plagiarized content that appeared in his name. At the very least, it would have been nice to have received a genuine apology.
UPDATE: MARCH 10, 2014, 11:20am
I just received this email from Brian West:
I take full responsibility for the use of copy from your book, without attribution, that then appeared as a quote from me. For that I sincerely apologise. I want to share the reasons with you but it is not for publishing as there is no excuse – it was my mistake and I will have to live with that; the material was supplied subsequent to my original contact with the journalist. It was researched and supplied by a member of my staff and the staff member did not realise the journalist would take everything supplied as a quote from me. The second mistake was that it wasn’t correctly attributed.
I am distressed this has happened and on both fronts I acknowledge my error and will ensure it does not happen again. I am happy to discuss this in person if you would like me to call you.
UPDATE: MARCH 10, 2014, 10:40pm
Thank you to Marketing Interactive, which just corrected the attribution of that quote from Mr. West to me. I appreciate their commitment to looking into the facts and correcting the record.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I just finished my coursework for my master’s degree in journalism/mass comm. from Kent State with an emphasis in PR. In writing evaluations of the program now that I’ve completed it, I identified two courses that in my mind were the most valuable—ethics and PR law. I’ve also been discussing with one of my professors the notion that there should be at a minimum some voluntary licensure of PR practitioners if we are to achieve the respect we seek among executives—what is commonly referred to as “the dominant coalition” within an organization. Your post above highlights the need for every PR practitioner to continually be mindful of ethics in their work, and provides an example of the value of having voluntary licensure so we can sanction our own when they behave unethically or illegally. As one who aspires to roles of greater responsibility in the PR field, I’m embarrassed to see that somehow someone rose to the role of managing director within so large a PR firm—and found himself responsible for reputation management—apparently without having a basic grasp of ethics in the field. It pains me to think that those of us in the trenches not only have to demonstrate our value to C-suite in order to advance our careers, but that we also have to compete with senior-level practitioners who might not be as qualified as they should be in their jobs and serve only to stand in our way. Thanks for calling this guy out. I wish there was a way for more of us to shame him. I’ll have to be content with doing so in this comment.
Thank you very much for your comment, and congratulations on completing your master’s coursework!
I agree with everything you wrote. The reason I call plagiarizers out is two-fold: to shame their behavior and to (hopefully) dissuade other would-be plagiarizers. In Mr. West’s case, it’s impossible for me to know with 100 percent certainty whether he did so knowingly or whether he passed the interview off to a subordinate who plagiarized. My suspicion, based in the facts, leans heavily toward the former, but I can’t state so definitively.
Either way, his lack of a genuine apology is quite troubling. I can’t think of too many professional allegations worse than being tagged as a plagiarizer (see Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, 1988). I have never knowingly plagiarized someone else — but if someone accused me of an accidental lapse, I would respond to the allegation with great seriousness. I suspect most PR professionals would.
Thanks for your comment,
Although I wasn’t the one being ripped off, I had my own brush (http://bit.ly/1irJKj5) with a plagiarist about 15 years ago. As I wrote a couple years ago, “The lack of unanimous condemnation for Barnicle’s plagiarism confused me. Hell, even George Carlin came to Barnicle’s defense, essentially saying the columnist’s theft of material was no big deal.”
Great post, Mark. I remember Barnicle’s plagiarism and always wondered why he was welcomed back into the media fold like nothing happened. I suppose if Jonah Lehrer and Jayson Blair (among others) had more high-powered friends in the press, they too could have survived.
Appreciate the link.
It always astounds me when a fellow professional chooses to steal proprietary work. I always attribute. That does not diminish my ability, it simply demonstrates that I’m smart enough to draw on many experts’ wisdom.
Agreed, Judy. Sharing other people’s material with full attribution builds relationships and creates new partnerships – it doesn’t diminish our credibility.
Thanks for reading,
Brad: I am not in the PR business. I am in fact a librarian and have been following your postings as I often have to speak publicly about my institution and our operations.
I read Brian West’s responses and I first had a snarky reaction that he was in the “spin-control” profession not public relations. Therefor any statement can be uttered even if fallacious if you think it will “control” the situation. But what in showing a lack of ethics, Mr West has damaged his value to any customer because the listener will always question the truth of West’s statements
I work with scientists and plagiarism is becoming a serious problem. Journal articles are lifted almost intact and submitted with new titles to another journal. Luckily, the rise in software to detect plagiarism is helping curb this theft in the better journals.
Unfortunately, the pressure for journals to survive in a competitive atmosphere seems to have had a negative effect on some second and third tier journals. Editors are now accepting/condoning some plagiarism. An interesting account of this recently appeared in the Scholarly Open Access blog http://scholarlyoa.com/2014/03/06/is-the-editor-of-the-springer-journal-scientometrics-indifferent-to-plagiarism/.
Thank you very much for your comment. I’m delighted that you’ve been following the blog and that you’ve been finding it useful in your career as a librarian. Welcome!
It’s true that people in our profession who offer an apology will always have the sincerity of their apologies questioned. After all, we’re experts in writing good apologies, so as you point out, people will question whether they represent a genuine mea culpa or a mere attempt at damage control.
In this case, there are two telling facts that I excluded from my original post. When given an early opportunity to apologize without reservation, he didn’t. The apology came only after this article was posted and I emailed his boss. Would the apology have been forthcoming without the public spectacle? Possibly. But it’s worth including those facts in your calculation while considering the answer.
Thanks for the link. I didn’t realize the same issue was alive in academic publishing. What a pity.
All the best,
Brad – astounded, and from someone I know too. Inexcusable actually. On behalf of Australian professionals, I am sorry that this happened to such an ethical and most professional, professional.
Thanks for your comment, and sorry this happened with an acquaintance of yours.
One additional curiosity in all of this: the reporter told me that “I’m not sure what happened on with Brian’s staff but that was the final quote I received.” Therefore, there seems to be some conflict between Brian’s version of the story and the reporter’s. An easy way to shed daylight on the facts would be for Fleishman to release the unadulterated emails between the staffer and the reporter. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.
Thanks for posting about how your work was stolen. The word plagiarism is far too generous in this situation. Such behavior from a seasoned veteran such as Mr. West is an embarrassment to not only him and his firm but to all professional public relations practitioners. Although we do not have state or national license requirements I am a strong believer in both the accreditation programs offered by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) for both are ways for people in this business to stand out as meeting a knowledge and practice of ethics along with core PR core competencies. This is a sad day for a profession I love!
I think people believe they can get away with this because nobody will raise a fuss. It’s not often I see the perseverance you displayed, Brad. Hopefully that’s a warning shot to people who just rip off other people’s stuff randomly. My pet peeve is the absolute disregard for this on the web in general–if it’s out there I should be able to use it. Back in the day when all we had was print media, people knew what plagiarism was. Now in the Google culture, anything goes.
Brad I’m frustrated but not surprised that plagiarism is going on by someone who is in a leadership position at Fleischman. I’ve always believed that the big shots running giant firms are no better or smarter than the entrepreneurs in the trenches doing quality work and being unheralded for it. I am so glad you called him on this and I only wish the companies paying high retainers to these global firms would just wake up!!
However, I’ve got to wonder about his underlings who wrote this guy’s comments by lifting your’s — WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? In an era when every digital step can be retraced, why would anyone copy someone’s work and try to pass it off as your own!!! That is funny, stupid, sad and ignoring today’s reality. Go get ’em bulldog Brad! Your avid follower, Michelle
Thank you so much, Michelle!
I’m a bulldog on these types of ethical violations because I try so hard to do things right. Lifting other people’s work would be much easier than writing original content — but you know what else is easy? Quoting other people’s work with full attribution.
I’m not sure what to make of Mr. West’s story. Accepting it at face value, at the very least, he allows his subordinates to submit material to the media without his review, which is somewhat shocking for someone in a top PR role.
Thanks for your support, Michelle.
He did the right thing by taking responsibility but the mea culpa sounded hollow. I haven’t experienced verbatim plagiarism but regular lifting of ideas at my blog. What’s infuriating is the person with the larger platform than mine runs with it to great acclaim and I’m left in the dust. You can’t copyright an idea and ultimately truth is twisted by the power of numbers.
On a happier note: thank-you for your words of wisdom. I’m getting back into speaking again after a very long absence and welcome pointers. It’s scary and not quite like riding a bicycle.
While I’m sure this whole incident wasn’t a laughing matter to you, Brad, I confess to gaining a fair share of glee from your successful efforts to call a spade a spade. Yep. I’m chuckling fiendishly at the thought of this man being forced, when push came to shove, to owning up to what he undoubtedly knew was unethical.
Trouble is, he didn’t *really* own up, did he? His carefully-crafted apology came after-the-fact and lacked authenticity. It is in part a product of a culture wherein a straightforward admission of wrongdoing is avoided at all costs. Even the words, “I’m sorry” have gone by the wayside, in lieu of such chummy alternatives as “My bad”. The latter of which is acceptable in a pick-up soccer game ~ but not between professionals.
Thanks for your perseverance and honesty. Keep up the good work!
I’ve waited to post this comment because it does not relate specifically to the plagiarism, but to the use and retention of information by the author. The post reads, “This excerpt was sent out in my newsletter on October 17, 2013. Mr. West clicked on that link.” This tells me that there are some very specific analytics going on here, and that personally-identifiable information is retained. While one may not care that the public knows which Phillips Media blog one found of interest, the fact that the information is retained in a personally-identifiable form potentially provides information for damaging revelations. There are plenty of reasons for restricting access to public information, even from a respected website or blog. This should be a reminder to consumers constantly setting up logins and memberships to access information that they may be trading traceable information for that access, and the consumer has little to no idea how that information might be safeguarded or used in the future.
Dear J. Stevens,
Thank you for your comment. You raise a valid point, and it’s one I think is rather important to address directly.
First, almost all of the group email services I’m aware of include analytics as part of their packages. We use Constant Contact as our mailer, and they include analytics down to the individual.
In my case, I have never before checked whether a single person has clicked on a story or not. With thousands of people on our mailing list, it’s not relevant for me to do so; nor do I have the time to check person-by-person. When this potential plagiarizer denied having read my book, I was curious whether he had accessed the information through my newsletter. That was directly germane to my decision to run the post — once I knew, without a doubt, that he had opened that post, I knew I was within my rights to question whether he committed an act of plagiarism.
Outside of that extreme case, the only way I use analytics is to track how an overall story performed. Those insights are valuable to know what readers like and don’t like, and help inform my decisions about which stories to include in each newsletter. As an example, several months ago we ran a story about my local cupcake shop. It performed staggeringly well. That made me try to figure out what it was about that post that attracted so much attention – it was genuinely a surprise to me, and it’s a perfect example of the positive uses of analytics.
Here are a couple of guarantees I can make (but as you point out, they require you to trust us, which is a decision each reader will have to make for themselves): 1. We will never sell your information. 2. We will not track individual reading habits unless there is an extreme circumstance, such as plagiarism.
Thank you for your comment, and for reading.