Elizabeth Holmes’ story is a warning sign for the PR industry


The story of disgraced former Silicon Valley success story Elizabeth Holmes is a modern day parable, warning us of exactly what can happen when greed, deception, and idealism hinder true progress.

As the CEO and founder of American start-up Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes has deceived not only investors, but journalists and, by extension, the public. His large-scale billion-dollar deception was propelled by glowing articles in the mainstream media that helped gain the trust of huge investors.

She lied to serious reporters, including former Fortune reporter Roger Parloff, who wrote a major cover story on the company in June 2014. Elizabeth has since admitted that the report claims Theranos “has more to offer. 200 – and is stepping up to offer more than 1,000 – of the most commonly ordered diagnostic blood tests, all without the need for a syringe “was wrong.

Elizabeth clearly understood the power of public relations and was willing to lie to reporters for great coverage. She was good at it, too. As Roger Parloff told ABC News at the time, “I got caught up in this woman’s story… I started drinking Kool-Aid. … I think I asked the right questions. I just got the wrong answers.


During my studies, I was taught that public relations is like being a lawyer: everyone deserves to be represented. Reports such as comms declaration and creative cleanup The F-List 2021: 90 Advertising and PR firms working for the fossil fuel industry show that there are many agencies ready to work for less than positive forces in our world.

PR has the power to put lipstick on a pig and pass the culprit off as innocent. Greenwashing, overestimation of claims, omission of key facts, remediation of an image without remediation of the infringement, promotion of harmful products, yoga chat: choose your poison.

These techniques are the style of public relations chosen by Elizabeth Homes. It’s easy to get caught up in the addicting cycle of positive coverage, without stopping to consider the long-term ramifications of a constant distortion of truth. If its history has taught us anything, it’s that this strategy can only work for a very long time.

For those of us in public relations who work in problem management and crisis communications, the burden of responsibility is great. Hiding shady behavior, hiding shameful practices, minimizing bad behavior – that’s almost what is expected of our profession. But as an industry, we have to do better.

We have to scrutinize, we have to question and we have to research. We need to take a long and careful look at new and existing customers: are they used to scamming people? Where is the evidence to back up what they say?

Of course, public relations, marketing and advertising agencies are not professional forensic accountants or investigators. TBWA Chiat Day was persuaded to sign a $ 6 million deal with Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos and only too late realized the falsity of the claims they were selling.

I was also stung once. We advertised a new business, not realizing that the founder had ripped off people at a previous business. He ended up ripping us off too. Worst of all is the hindsight that we have helped to draw attention to a dishonest and unethical trader.

We did our research in the initial stages – including speaking to other companies he had dealt with – and found only strong, legitimate evidence and track record. While he’s not Bernie Madoff, I still hate getting positive attention in his own way.

Like Theranos, it sometimes takes a while to find dark revelations, red flags, or even small, insignificant concerns. But if more of us were to swallow our pride and act as soon as we started having concerns, then there would be fewer Nuix meltdowns, Wirecard frauds, WeWork IPO failures, and accounting scandals. from Freedom Foods. We must also be prepared to adjust the balance sheet to do the right thing.

It’s always best to prevent customers from showing concern for their behaviors and culture, but even if you don’t understand it immediately, customers can still get dumped. In the case of not quite Bernie Madoff, we risked our reputation with the media by having the cover removed.

You would think it would be okay to refuse to represent companies and individuals who don’t appreciate transparency or who want their reputations changed without changing their behavior – but it doesn’t. Because I know another agency will pick them up, and history shows there are many who will be happy to look away.

The media can help us stay honest. We should all be grateful to those in the Fourth Estate who dedicate their lives to discovering the Elizabeth Holmes of the world. Take Adele Ferguson’s book Banking Bad (one of my vacation readings), or one of our other great investigative reporters like Kate McClymont, Mario Christodoulou, Wendy Bacon, Dan McCrum’s investigative journal Wirecard, or the journalists who denounced the Panama Papers and Pandora Papers. Without these kinds of journalists, Theranos and Dr Daniel Lanzer would still be in business.

As an industry, we are the gatekeepers and megaphones behind the media. We must accept responsibility for our roles in promoting honesty and good practice. It is not enough to hide behind the clause that we all have in our contracts that the client is responsible for the veracity and accuracy of the information he gives us. We must demand transparency, challenge and use our influence to ensure that we never promote harmful practices. Otherwise, Elizabeth Holmes will be no exception, her story will become the rule.

Phoebe Netto is the Managing Director of Pure Public Relations.


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