A Nasty Feud Over Public Relations  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE PRESS & THE LAW    
From AJR,   July/August 1994

A Nasty Feud Over Public Relations   

A newsletter's coverage of a speech at a convention ends up in court.

By Lyle Denniston
     


Maybe it doesn't happen in these more virtuous days of American journalism, but there was a time when a reporter could be found griping to a colleague that the ad department was pushing some "puff" story about this advertiser or that. It was a tribal rule, though, not to let such tales go beyond the newsroom; it wasn't good PR.

Now, it seems, such a tale may be the stuff of libel.

For months, the world of public relations has been excited about a nasty fight within its midst over just this issue; it's a fight between two chroniclers of the PR industry itself. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that their spat has turned into a lawsuit.

Dean Rotbart, a newsletter, seminar and workshop entrepreneur based in New York City, is pursuing a multimillion-dollar claim against Jack O'Dwyer, who also makes his living as a newsletter publisher, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

They are, in at least some sense, competitors. O'Dwyer, the lawsuit complains, went too far in his competitive zeal and has badly hurt Rotbart's business. O'Dwyer's defenders insist he was doing what a journalist is supposed to do: reporting news about an industry he covers.

The fight began with O'Dwyer's coverage of a speech Rotbart gave November 16 to the annual convention of the Public Relations Society of America held in Orlando. In the audience was O'Dwyer, with a tape recorder. Later, with his transcribed version of the speech, O'Dwyer did stories in Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter and O'Dwyer's PR Services Report.

Under the headline "Rotbart Tells How to Manipulate Media," O'Dwyer's newsletter account a week later included these quotations drawn from the transcript O'Dwyer had made:

"If you are an advertiser and have lots of money, you have a lot of power in dealing with news organizations."

"If you have enough ad dollars, I think you could go to any of the major national news organizations and dictate what kind of coverage you want to see in that publication. You can't dictate how they'll cover but can dictate what they'll cover."

O'Dwyer added a few assessments of his own, saying that the Public Relation Society's code "forbids PR people from doing anything that might corrupt the integrity of the media and a further explanation says an ad commitment must not be used to obtain 'preferential or guaranteed coverage....' "

Three weeks later, O'Dwyer offered his newsletter readers more: "One remark of Rotbart was: 'If you were to sit in on the editorial panels of Business Week, or Fortune, or Forbes, you would find they pay a lot of attention to..ad page sales. And when not enough ad page sales are being generated, they sit down and say, how do we mix up the editorial formula to generate more ad page sales.' "

The newsletter included sharp retorts from executives of major business publications, and reported that some of Rotbart's customers were dropping him.

The feud made its way into the New York Times in late December, with reporter William Glaberson picking up the business editors' criticism of Rotbart's remarks. That story, Rotbart's suit claims, was planted by O'Dwyer – part of a campaign to discredit Rotbart.

As O'Dwyer's publications kept the story alive, in February Rotbart had his Orlando speech copyrighted. And before long, he had a lawyer working up a lawsuit.

Filed in March, the suit says O'Dwyer infringed upon the copyright of the Orlando speech, libeled and slandered Rotbart with an erroneous transcript, forced him to cancel his "Newsroom Confidential" workshops, and subjected him to "unfair competition."

O'Dwyer's transcript, Rotbart says, contained statements that Rotbart never made, and his newsletter stories and comments untruthfully portrayed Rotbart's practices.

The seven-count civil suit seeks unspecified damages for copyright infringement and unfair competition, and more than $6.5 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages for libel, slander and "injurious falsehoods."

O'Dwyer will not comment while the case goes on, letting his lawyer, Victor Kovner, defend him. Kovner has been quoted in O'Dwyer's newsletter as saying the legal claims are "baseless," and arguing that O'Dwyer listened to the speech as a journalist at "a widely attended public occasion." O'Dwyer's lawyer will try to get the judge to dismiss the suit this summer.

The suit, of course, is serious business, and may well make new law. If Rotbart was acting as an adviser on dealing with the media, or even as a chronicler of the media's dirty little secrets, the suit may create a shield against media counterattacks. And if O'Dwyer was trying to nail a media critic for excesses, the suit may make new rules on the right of journalists to report critically on each other's work.

It is not clear that the winner and loser will be so easily identified when the battle is over. l



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