Jack O’Dwyer, a onetime police reporter whose newsletters about the public relations business made him an industry watchdog and, in the view of many, raised the standards of the PR profession, died Dec. 19 at a health care facility in Southampton, N.Y. He was 85.

The cause was complications from pulmonary fibrosis, said his son, John O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer worked at newspapers for more than a decade before he founded Jack O’Dwyer’s Newsletter in 1968.

It was considered the first publication to cover the PR industry in a comprehensive, critical manner.

He was relentless in his reporting, and his opinionated views sometimes infuriated the people he wrote about. But his newsletter, monthly magazine, directories and annual rankings of the country’s leading public relations firms became essential reading among PR professionals and were credited with making the field more ethical and transparent.

“Jack is the soul and conscience of the PR industry,” Jim Cameron, president of Cameron Communications in Darien, Connecticut, told the Connecticut Post in 2007.

Crusty and gruff, O’Dwyer never worked a day in the polished, image-conscious field that he covered. Instead, he saw PR as his beat – as if he were covering the Pentagon or organized crime – and sought to keep the industry honest.

Although he was the publisher and editor of his newsletter and related publications, O’Dwyer was never without his reporter’s notebook.

“Jack took great pride in being an old-school, shoe-leather reporter who chases down stories,” said Kevin McCauley, who worked alongside O’Dwyer for almost 30 years and is the current editor of the newsletter.

“Public relations just happened to be what Jack was covering. It if hadn’t been PR, it would have been something else.”

No public relations professional, O’Dwyer believed, should be the mere mouthpiece of a corporation, government or unscrupulous client. Instead, he viewed the field as an adjunct of journalism, with PR professionals and reporters working hand in hand to inform the public.

He outlined three principles that should guide anyone in PR. The first, “Always seek the truth,” asked public relations workers to insist on integrity and honesty in themselves and the companies they represented.

The second, “Always speak your mind,” reminded PR professionals that they had a responsibility to provide conscientious advice to their clients – and to steer them away from any improper behavior.

The final principle, “Always respond to the media,” would seem self-evident, except that it is increasingly ignored by businesses and government officials who try to shield their actions and policies from scrutiny.

“We’re in Iraq because of PR,” O’Dwyer said in 2007, referring to the false intelligence reports that said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Deceptive PR “gets people to jump through hoops you don’t know you’re jumping through.”

Even as public relations firms aim to cast their clients in the rosiest light, O’Dwyer believed they should never compromise their credibility.

“If people recognize something as PR, then they dismiss it as just PR,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “It’s the mathematics of lying. If you lie one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of the time, you’re still a liar.”

In 1970, O’Dwyer began ranking public relations firms by size and income, requiring them to disclose their financial records. He exposed unethical practices by PR firms and by journalists, including the use of corporate-supplied videos in news reports. He grilled executives whose companies represented dubious clients.

“Some people don’t like him,” Bob Dilenschneider, the founder of a New York PR firm, told the Connecticut Post. “But that’s because he does his job.”

O’Dwyer deplored the trend of small firms’ being swallowed up by conglomerates. He relished his role as a troublemaker and had long-running feuds with the industry’s largest trade group, the Public Relations Society of America, and with the publisher of a rival newsletter.

“We’re Bolsheviks over here!” he told one job-seeker, Jon Gingerich, who is now editor of the company’s monthly magazine.

The monthly magazine, also called O’Dwyer’s, has been published since 1986.


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