After 15 years in the PR business, you'd think I'd be able to say I've seen it all. I've sure seen a lot. Corporate wars. Crooked bosses. And a pile of meaningless press releases that would reach the moon if stacked on top of each other.
Frankly, I never thought I'd see anything dirtier than what I've already been exposed to. But then last week came revelations that former HealthSouth (Pink Sheets: HLSH.PK) boss Richard Scrushy may have used a PR firm called Lewis Group to pay an editorial writer $11,000 for positive ink during his trial.
According to the Associated Press, the affair began innocently enough when a church employee named Audrey Lewis started submitting editorials in defense of Scrushy to The Birmingham Times. But then, Lewis says, Scrushy noticed her stories, which apparently motivated him to get more PR. That's where Lewis Group comes in; it cut a $5,000 check to Audrey Lewis the day Scrushy hired the firm, according to documents obtained by the AP.
It gets worse. The AP reports that Lewis Group also paid $5,000 to the Reverend Herman Henderson of the Believers Temple Church -- the same church that employs Audrey Lewis. Henderson was among many black preachers to publicly support Scrushy at trial. Now both Lewis and Henderson say that Scrushy owes them $150,000 in compensation for PR services. Scrushy, for his part, told the AP he didn't know Lewis Group had paid Henderson. He didn't, however, deny knowing about the payments to Audrey Lewis.
Lewis Group owner Jessie Lewis denies buying positive press for Scrushy, even in the face of damming circumstantial evidence. For example, the AP reports that Audrey Lewis' columns were moved from the editorial section to the front page of The Birmingham Times shortly after she began receiving payments. Lewis Group may have had a direct influence on that change because, according to the AP, Jessie Lewis' son, James E. Lewis Sr., is the editor of the Times.
This whole affair angers me on multiple levels. First, as a PR pro, because I know dozens of very capable folks toiling honestly in the field. They don't deserve to be painted with the same brush as those who perpetrated this scam. And second, as an investor, because I rely on credible news sources to help inform my investment theses. I'm not some quant whose only friends are a spreadsheet and a pencil sharpener. I expect reliable public reporting on management, strategy, products, etc. to help me make buy and sell decisions.
So, thanks, Lewis Group. You have destroyed the trust I'd lent to the PR profession. You've proven to me that news reports and press releases probably warrant more than a grain of salt. And you've reminded me that it's every investor's responsibility to trust, but verify. In short: You've made me more Foolish. Perhaps one day I'll be grateful for that. But not today.
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Fool contributorTim Beyersdonned the armor of a PR combatant for nearly 15 years before joining the Fool's freelance ranks. And never once did he a pay a journalist to pen positive stories. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.