Putting Ethics into PR Practice

This post first appeared in The Saltlick blog by Linda Jacobson, APR

After listening to Doug Newsom, grande dame of public relations, speak about the ethical situations in which a public relations professional can become mired, I was surprised to hear her tell of how she resigned a position because she was asked to do something unethical. And in her words, she had four children to support at the time. The show-and-tell of that kind of moxie is really needed so that those of us in the public relations profession understand that, where the stakes are high, resigning just might be the appropriate action.

Newsom delivered several powerful lessons from her 40 years’ experience at the Nov. 13 Greater Fort Worth/Dallas PRSA meeting. Chief among them:

1. Stand your ground. When dealing with senior execs, more than likely you’re dealing with strong opinions and strong personalities. You have expertise in your field – expertise that the CEO counts on hearing.

2. Understand the culture of the corporation. As Newsom pointed out, when it comes to communication, companies range from closed to open. Know where the company/client falls on that continuum, and decide if your personal values fit that culture. If not, you’ll likely encounter some conflicts when sensitive issues arise.

3. Adhere to an ethics model. She specifically discussed a utilitarian model, which supports decision-making of doing the greatest good for the greatest number, or a communitarian ethics model, which stresses morality in the community and being a good “corporate citizen.” She mentioned Mitch Land’s book, Contemporary Media Ethics, which I highly recommend. Land and co-editor Hornaday present multiple case studies of PR ethics problems, considering them from both perspectives, so the reader can see the difference in the two models.

Newsom also discussed two likely ethics dilemmas with the audience and then stuck around to answer questions.

Her message, so needed in today’s transparent world, was timeless and a good reminder to anyone in the communications business.

A Cancelled Experiment

The natural gas online education program channel, Shale.TV has been canceled before their first show. Chesapeake Energy, citing “economic challenges” faced by the country and the industry, announced the move to abandon its online media venture.

GFW PRSA recently had Chesapeake’s VP, corporate development, Barnett Shale Division, come speak to the chapter about some of the company’s communications/PR tactics. She provided some excellent insights based on a wealth of experience and knowledge to listeners.

I was very interested in the Shale.TV information she touched on during th Q&A:

Q – When Shale.tv was announced, your quote may have been heard as demeaning to PR?
A – It was not meant to be demeaning to PR. I think news teams took it personally. I do think it is important to understand difference between corporate advocacy and mainstream journalism. Media is changing. We are doing an experiment and we’ll see how it goes.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see how that experiment goes. I was very interested in how this corporate advocacy channel would do for their audience. I was looking forward to hearing about the successes and/or failures of the venture that brought in some recognizable media talent. This looked like an interesting PR challenge for the company.

I will give credit to Chesapeake for the Shale.TV idea. So what if it ruffled some feathers of some media friends. (It was probably more problematic to Chesapeake to have the local community up in arms.)  It would have been interesting to see what kind of measurable impact this experimental venture could have produced for the company.

We all know media is in a state of flux as is the PR industry. With so many tools and tricks to figure out and try, I think more experimentation with creative and unique ideas will only help us be that much more effective for our companies, organizations, and clients.
(photo credit: confusedvision)

Live Blogging PRSA Chapter Experiment

We have another excellent program planned today for the Greater Fort Worth PRSA chapter luncheon:

“There’s not only Natural Gas, but PR, in the Barnett Shale”
Presented by: Julie Wilson, APR, past president of the Greater Fort Worth Chapter PRSA, and vice president, corporate development, Barnett Shale Division, Chesapeake Energy Corporation

To say that Chesapeake’s public relations activities and some of Julie’s remarks have generated publicity, conversation and even some controversy, is like saying that Ike was a pretty good Texas thunderstorm. When the objectivity of Chesapeake’s new venture, Shale.TV, was questioned, Julie responded, “If we need to be a leader in brand-new media sources, we think that’s great. We’re willing to take the skepticism or criticism because we think time will prove this out. And we’re patient.”

Julie has graciously agreed to share her tactics and views with us and she’ll respond to questions during the luncheon.

And Now for Something a Little Different

As a service to our members and the interested community, I will attempt to conduct a live blogging stream in the next post for those that wish to follow along or those that cannot make the luncheon. My hope is that we can share with you some of the tacticts, strategies, and questions and answers that will no doubt be of interest to a large number of people. We’ll try this experiment and see if this is something we’d like to continue to provide for future programs.

Diversity Without Opportunity is Just Talk

(This post fist appeared Thursday, August 14, on the Next Communications Blog

I attended the Greater Fort Worth Chapter PRSA’s August luncheon and meeting where the group heard from a panel on diversity.

The topic, Working Diversity into the Workplace promised to be at best, an interesting approach to something that seems fundamental OR at worst, a nice way to get out of the office and have some pretty good fajitas.

Personal aside: It was kind of funny that we had our diversity session at a famous Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth.
(Thanks, Terry.)

Photo credit: chrisjfry

The People
We were introduced to a panel that included:

  • Mitch Hill, Baylor Hospital (social worker)
  • Leah King, Chesapeake Energy (community relations)
  • Tom Burke, IBM (communications/public relations)
  • Dora Tovar, Tovar PR (public relations)
  • Ken Reeves, Bell Helicopter (human resources)

I was immediately struck by the make-up of the group. Aside from the obvious male/female/ethnic differences, our chapter diversity chair had an interesting mix of PR and non-PR professionals. I had an idea of how PR can help address diversity to build and maintain relationships. What I was looking forward to was seeing how this group would approach the topic.

Thoughts on diversity vs. culture
Here are a few of the thoughts that resonated with me:

Mitch Hill thinks we wear many masks and take on multiple cultures.

“There is diversity within myself,” he said. “Once we understand this about ourselves, we can move forward.”

Leah King said she lived oversees and takes a much broader approach to diversity.

Tom Burke pointed out how IBM approaches diversity.

“[IBM is] welcoming everyone to the workplace regardless of differences un-related to their job functions.”

Letter from IBM’s Vice President of Global Workforce Diversity, Ron Glover

Tom also made what I thought to be an excellent point about our topic.

“Diversity is not created, it already exists.”

Dora Tovar spoke more on culture, telling the group that culture in the U.S. is very individual and is in constant change.

“Those that can adapt and change will be the most marketable.”

She also pointed out that diversity is about representation and culture is about identity.

Ken Reeves followed Tovar and gave his perspective on diversity stating that it is not just about representation, it’s about opportunity. He explained how as an ex-NFL player he had to develop a strategy to diversify himself and about the corporate strategy at Bell Helicopter related to diversity.

“Until [diversity] translates into opportunity for everyone, it’s just talk.”

Moving forward
Each of the panelists brought an enlightened perspective on diversity that went beyond the typical race, ethnicity, sex, religions, etc.

Also, going back to Mitch Hill’s reference, the mask metaphor, in my opinion, is fundamental to human communication. It is a great explainer for the different roles we play on a daily basis. We are different (diversity within ourselves) depending on our audience. When I am at home, I play the husband and father roles. At work, my mask is that of a communications/PR professional. With friends…With other family members…With new people…etc. These are all roles that are within me. We all have the different masks to wear. It’s not hiding. It’s playing the role of a human.

Lastly, the notion that diversity without opportunity is a significant next step. It is not about checking off boxes to make sure your company has this many women or that many Latinos. It is about recognizing the business strategy, objectives, and benefits behind a diversity opportunities.

What do you think? Do you consider yourself to be personally diverse? Do you think you wear masks? Can diversity translate into opportunity?

Don’t be mad, be good

(This post first appeared July 16, 2008 on the Next Communications Blog.)

On Sunday, June 1, 2008 legal analyst Andrew Cohen of CBS spoke out on former White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellen’s new tell-all book. In his report, “The Flak on Flacks,” Cohen accuses PR professionals of making a living on untruths. He even calls out PRSA’s ethics. National PRSA responded. Cohen responds. And the arguing raged on, and on, and on.

43 days later, on Sunday July 13, 2008 a columnist for the Dallas Morning News wrote his opinion on a regional natural gas drilling company, Chesapeake Energy’s corporate online video channel. The online news channel may have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that a local television news anchor, Tracey Rowlett, left his anchor position on the Dallas/Fort Worth CBS affiliate for Chesapeake’s Shale.tv (coming in September 2008 from Branded News.) The DMN column even quoted a Texas state representative to further make his point:

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, isn’t buying that Chesapeake will fund the newscasts and not exercise any influence over them. “Lies, lies and more lies,” he said.


“Only the extremely, extraordinarily naive would think any corporation would hire a PR operation to get the truth out,” he said. “Let’s not be naive about the Chesapeake Broadcasting Network.”

The Dallas Observer’s Blog, Unfair Park had Tracey Rowlett’s side of the story including:

Nobody is covering these issues, and the Shale is the most important thing to hit here since cattle. It’s that kind of an economic issue. It’ll be a full discussion program. Folks keep thinking we’ll be shills for Chesapeake, and that’s not what this is.

Truth & PR
I disagree with Andrew Cohen’s sweeping generalization of PR people as liars. I was pleased to see a quick response by PRSA national through the letter plus e-mails to membership keeping us updated. Further I don’t appreciate Rep. Burnam’s equating PR with lies. Actually, I thought it was kind of funny for a politician to call PR people liars. And as for the local news anchor, Tracey Rowlett leaving one news desk for a perceived corporate communications news desk, maybe the guy just wants to get into a more stable industry! (Thanks, T-Mo.)

But it is hard to argue with the perception of public relations as a profession in society.

I’ve read where maybe the public relations profession should have a PR campaign. I don’t think this is possible. I don’t see how anyone could change societal views of public relations any more than I think people will start thinking highly of politicians, lawyers, used-car salesmen or journalists. We are viewed in a negative light. There is no denying this. People see us using “spin” to cover up problems.

I fall under the broker paradigm of public relations: An intermediary between an organization and its stakeholders to find mutually beneficial solutions. (Tip of the hat to Kami Huyse on her insightful post.)

What I do know is this: I can only control what I do as a communications/PR professional to influence how my sphere of influence sees my profession. I hope when people look at me and the work I do, they see a credible and honest professional who keeps in mind the best interests of my organization or client.

I should not and I will not apologize for trying to make my organization or client look good for stakeholders. It is up to me to accomplish this task with integrity and truthfulness. We serve our profession by striving to be better at our craft including an adherence to its ethical standards. Professionals practicing this type of PR will not have to worry about this and any other backlash against our profession.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: nouQraz