Understanding organizational ethics: How PR professionals can steer a safe course

Through the Looking GlassImage by clspeace via Flickr

From PRSA’s Public Relations Tactics, Vol. 19, Issue 9/September 2009

By Linda Ld Jacobson, APR

Ponzi schemes, bank failures and million-dollar bonuses. The public barometer of trust in U.S. corporations measured a frail 38 percent for informed publics, aged 35 to 64, according to a StrategyOne survey in December 2008. Public backlash ballooned, erupting against those companies guided by a moral compass different from that of Main Street.
Under this public scrutiny, how can PR professionals assess whether an organization is steering an ethical course? And what strategies can PR pros implement if they find an enemy from within?

The Looking Glass

As a first step to understanding an organization’s ethics, PR professionals can perform a “looking glass” exercise that allows them to view an organization’s actions from two different moral perspectives, utilitarianism and communitarianism. In a utilitarian model, an organization stresses positive outcomes that produce the greatest good for the largest number of stakeholders, placing a priority on consequences. A communitarian ethic balances individual freedoms and social responsibility so that an organization’s decisions result from values expressed by its stakeholders.
To perform the exercise, focus both utilitarian and communitarian lenses on a particular corporate action, using PRSA member values: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. Prioritize these values first within one model, then the other.
Jacque Lambiase, associate professor of strategic communications at Texas Christian University, uses this exercise to illustrate how the same values can produce very different outcomes. She says that objectively gauging corporate ethics is helpful for pros in the middle of a crisis or for those who experience a disconnect between corporate policy and corporate actions.

Red Flags

Unfortunately, when organizations begin to stray from an ethical course, PR pros aren’t always able to pinpoint the departure. But certain red flags can signal shifts in a company’s moral compass:
1. The organization’s decisions reflect an absence or low priority on ethics. Many organizations say that integrity is a core value, but the real test is whether the C-level emphasizes that value and demonstrates that behavior.
At American Airlines, Charley Wilson, managing director, external communications and international advertising, says that during a recent crisis, the airline’s CEO requested that a customer’s family receive the first communication, one of sympathy, before making any statement. That type of ethical leadership powerfully impresses employees. Indeed, a 2007 Deloitte & Touche Ethics and Workplace Survey revealed that 42 percent of employees believe that management’s behavior positively impacts organizational ethics. “We require our team to adhere to the airline’s standards of conduct, but nothing beats a leader who walks the talk,” says Wilson.
2. The organization does not show an overt commitment to ethics. Just because an organization says it is ethical does not mean it acts ethically. Ask these questions: Does the company corporately abide by a code of ethics? Are its values taken seriously internally? Is there infrastructure to support ethics or ethics compliance? Internally, does the company encourage open communications?
Reace Alvarenga Smith, APR, PR manager for Texas Health Resources, says that her organization places special emphasis on the company’s code of conduct, known as their company’s promise. “We provide monthly training sessions on what our promise means and behaviors we expect from employees,” Smith says. “Our promise gives us a filter by which we make all our corporate decisions and foster open discussions.”
Recent research undertaken by Jinae Kang, a doctoral student at The University of Alabama, reinforces PR perceptions of ethical practice in an open communications structure.
3. The organization lacks a robust fact-checking and approval process. PR professionals most often work collaboratively or cross-functionally when crafting communications. This means that attorneys, executives or coworkers review documents for factual errors or suggestions. If this process is absent, that indicates lax oversight. Wilson says that the airline’s Corporate Communications team complies with both the letter and the spirit of the law. If an issue arises, leaders at the company guide discussions, but decisions are rarely made in a vacuum.
4. The organization shifts responsibility. Lambiase points to an example in 2007 when a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo killed a visitor. “In addition to releasing incorrect information, the zoo director maligned the victim rather than focusing on the zoo’s responsibility to keep the public safe.” When things go wrong, ask yourself and your team whether the organization looks at its own role or assigns blame to others.

Ethics Strategies

PR pros who find themselves working with or for an unethical organization can employ a number of strategies, according to Dr. Karla Gower, director of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations:

  • Arm yourself with knowledge. Know the laws and regulations that concern the organization’s industry, especially laws dealing with communications. Be able to discern if something is seriously amiss with a company’s financial statements.
  • Prepare for a variety of crisis situations now. Once a crisis occurs, there is more potential for the legal response to take over at the expense of public relations. Gain buy-in now on the priorities for making appropriate and sensitive messages.
  • Trust your instincts. Don’t blindly accept assignments. Ask questions!
  • Begin a campaign for ethics. Occupy the role of ethics counselor, and campaign for the organization to adopt ethical practices.

What if the PR professional continues to grapple with conflicts or meets extreme resistance? Gower says it may be time to end the relationship. “It’s never easy to walk away from a job, especially in this economy, but at the end of the day all you have is your integrity,” she says. “You won’t get any thanks for staying loyal to an unethical company, not even when you end up taking the fall for others.”


Linda Ld Jacobson, APR, is the principal of Que Public Relations and an instructor of PR ethics at The University of North Texas. She can be reached at ljacobson@quepr.com or via Twitter @LindaJacobson.

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Wrestling with Ethical Dilemmas

Cafe Terrace at NightImage via Wikipedia

by Margaret Ritsch

I’m chair of the ethics committee for the Greater Fort Worth Chapter PRSA (Public Relations Society of America). My big responsibility, and really my only responsibility in this volunteer position, is to put together a program focused on ethics in the fall.

All along I have wanted this program to be highly interactive — to really challenge us to carefully think through situations we face everyday in our profession that call into question our values and ethics. Now it’s just around the corner and I’m very excited!

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, we will run a full morning and lunch program with guest speaker Alan Hilburg called “Building a Recession-Proof Brand Communications Strategy Through Ethical Decision-Making.”

We’re asking everyone who plans to attend to be prepared to think through — and share — real situations and challenging questions.

We will work in small groups of four, following a conversational process that Hilburg helped develop called “World Cafe.” Sounds cool, huh? Brings to mind a little cafe on the River Gauche, smoke wafting from your Gauloises as you rereading your Camus and gaze at the stylish passers-by …. Back to Fort Worth. The program will be held at the Petroleum Club in our usual 39th floor setting overlooking the city.

Here’s Hilburg’s description of World Café:

“a conversational process based on a set of integrated design principles that reveal a deeper living network pattern through which we co-evolve our collective future. As a conversational process, the World Café is an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work, or community. As a process, the World Café can evoke and make visible the collective intelligence of any group, thus increasing people’s capacity for effective action in pursuit of common aims.

❧ Seat four or five people at small Café-style tables or in conversation clusters.
❧ Set up progressive (usually two) rounds of conversation of approximately 20 minutes each.
❧ Questions or issues will focus on ethics, ethical judgment and ethical decisions in life, work or community
❧ Each table has a host. Both table hosts and members to write, doodle and draw key ideas on their tablecloths or to note key ideas on large index cards or placemats in the center of the group.
❧ Upon completing the initial round of conversation, one person remains at the table as the “host” while the others serve as travelers or “ambassadors of meaning.” The travelers carry key ideas, themes and questions into their new conversations.
❧ Ask the table host to welcome the new guests and briefly share the main ideas, themes and questions of the initial conversation. Encourage guests to link and connect ideas coming from their previous table conversations—listening carefully and building on each other’s contributions.
❧ By providing opportunities for people to move in several rounds of conversation, ideas, questions, and themes begin to link and connect. At the end of the second round, all of the tables or conversation clusters in the room will be cross-pollinated with insights from prior conversations.
❧ In the third round of conversation, a new question is posed to deepen the exploration of the focus and again participants switch tables to synthesize their discoveries .

Round One Questions:
1. Write a definition of what constitutes unethical communications?
2. What is poor ethical judgment?

Round Two Questions:
1. What are examples of unethical language?
2. What contributes to unethical behavior?

Round Three Questions:
1. Describe the most unethical business situation you are aware of?
2. What are your most significant barriers to maintaining your own values when confronting unethical business situations?

Round Four Questions:
1. If you were going to create a PRSA Code of Ethical Communications, what would be the three most important elements of that work?
2. What are the greatest challenges in getting this Code adopted?

Please join us for this important, engaging learning opportunity at the Petroleum Club! The program begins at 9 a.m.; breakfast and networking at 8:30 a.m. Find out more and register at www.fortworthprsa.org.

More about the speaker:

Alan Hilburg, president and CEO of Hilburg Associates, is an award winning author, filmmaker, teacher and senior advisor in organizational transition communications and marketing. Now based in Northern Virginia, Hilburg lived in the DFW for many years when he served as president of the former Bloom Co. Hilberg is perhaps best known for his leadership, for over 30 years, as one of the world’s leading strategic institutional branding counselors assisting senior executive teams and boards of directors survive organizational transitions (crisis, litigation and the introduction and socialization of principles of values-based decision-making) while maintaining the continuity of their institutional brand objectives.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

The last PR stand

This post by Linda Jacobson, APR is cross-posted from her blog, The Saltlick.


I’ve long been a proponent for ensuring that those who practice public relations need a sound ethical basis. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to make a decision that only you can make, whether it’s for a client or for a company and its employees. And it will involve this basic question: What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity? That’s the question Kwame Anthony Appiah asked in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers.

My premise is this: Whether you’re an adherent of a communitarian or utilitarian perspective, as a PR practitioner, be smart enough to know the values you follow before the proverbial s*** hits the fan.

Recently, I accepted a position with a company to direct its communications. It’s an exciting time for this firm internally, as the company is undergoing major restructuring. Change always brings possibilities – both good and bad. Almost immediately, however, I understood a culture that was devoid of fact checking and one that assumed “fudging” – a term, when I hear it, that always gives me pause and tells me a whole heckuva lot about the person who used it. Now “fudging” can possess varying degrees of meaning – but it always involves untruth.

In addition to hearing this term, I heard other statements from employees that were worrisome to me. Here’s a list that should raise red flags for any PR practitioner:
• This is the way we do it here—we’re [insert name of department].
• If we write it that way, then that’s the way it is.
• You’re new to this industry; we don’t ever tell our true [insert noun—numbers, facts, situation].
• I don’t care if you think this is wrong. Do what I told you to do.
• You have been told to get this done and to get it done by this date. Do you have a problem with that?
• Are you refusing to do the job for which we hired you?

Even before it happened, I knew that my time with this company would be short. Sure enough, within a few weeks, I was asked to publish a press release that had material errors in it. I knew the information to be incorrect. And, in my judgment, the errors were not of the “fudging” kind. They were substantial. And in that moment, the moment that I call the “last PR stand,” I had a decision to make.

In military terms, a “last stand,” occurs in one of two ways. One situation calls for the defending force to retreat, which leads to immediate defeat, usually due to the surrounding geography or shortage of supplies or support. The other situation arises when the defending force are ordered to defend their positions. Thus, retreat is not possible without being considered a deserter.

In my case, I knew I had no support for refusing to include incorrect statements. In fact, I was told to issue the release with the incorrect statements. I opted to retreat – resign – thus deserting. I turned in my security badge and my electronic gadgetry without the slightest thought of surrendering to the edict.

I’m now happily unemployed. I say this not because I am pleased about being unemployed – I’m not, and Lord knows in this economy, I could use the income – but because I know the worth that integrity brings to a PR professional and, by extension, to a client or a company that demands it.

If you’re in the PR or communications field, take the time to understand or to review your ethics perspective. In today’s troubling environment, you’re better served to be prepared.

Recommended resources:

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of stranger :: Kwame Anthony Appiah
Contemporary Media Ethics :: A practical guide for students, scholars and professionals :: Bill Hornaday and Mitchell Land (editors)
Public Relations Society of America :: Ethics resources

USA Today book review slams public relations ethics

This post re-printed with permission via Dan Keeney, APR:

I have not seen the book, “PR: A Persuasive Industry: Spin, Public Relations and the Shaping of the Modern Media,” but I already hate it. So did USA Today, which featured a review of the book today.

I’m not one to normally judge a book without reading it, but I’ll make an exception in this case. Any book about public relations that includes the word “spin” in the title has a huge strike against it. You see, “spin” is a derogatory word that suggests that we twist the truth or distract people in the practice of public relations. It’s not a good thing. And it is not reflective of what public relations practitioners do.

So I agree with USA Today’s ultimate assessment of the book today:

“If you are looking for a book to conclusively answer your PR questions, keep looking.”

Now for Seth Brown, who writes The Rising Pun and penned the USA Today review of the book. I have sent Seth an e-mail requesting that he cite the source of the very damaging claim he makes in his review.

“A poll of industry insiders revealed that most professionals don’t feel telling the truth is a duty of PR.”

Umm. Say again? I am knee deep in public relations issues and research every day and I’ve never heard of such findings. I hope Seth responds, because that is interesting information.

The Public Relations Society of America requires every member to abide by the PRSA Member Code of Ethics, which was most recently revised in 2000. The preamble to the Code notes the primary purpose of such rules:

“The level of public trust PRSA members seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically.”

The Code clearly lays out the common values that guide a public relations counselor, the second of which is HONESTY.

“We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”

The first of the Core Principle described in the PRSA Member Code of Ethics is “Free Flow of Information,” which states:

“Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.”

So Seth’s suggestion that public relations counselors are propogandists is troubling to say the least.

One more thing: the USA Today piece suggested that there is no universally accepted test for public relations counselors. That is incorrect. The test for accreditation in public relations that is managed by the Universal Accreditation Board is exactly that — a test of a public relations counselor’s experience, knowledge, proficiency and professionalism.

Of course, that does not mean we can have some kind of certification of PR pros. There is a little thing called the First Amendment that prohibits limitations on free speech (except in cases of public safety or hate speech). So, no, we can’t limit a person’s ability to hang a shingle and call herself a public relations counselor. But you can ask if she is accredited if you want assurance of her credentials and capabilities.

Also, check out yesterday’s post, Ethics: Doing the right thing shouldn’t be so uncommon.

Discussion: Press Credentials for Non-Press Professionals

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...Image via Wikipedia

We are going to try something a little different in this space. Occassionally, chapter members will start an e-mail discussion over a topic where a group is CC’d in and then the “Reply to all” game is played. I will say often these discussions are interesting and lead to offline dialogue or other networking opportunities.

One such discussion recently developed:

GFW Chapter President, Andra Bennett, APR, sent out an e-mail concerning a PR ethics question raised by Fot Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy. Kennedy wrote:

“So when a PR person is gathering newsfilm — Do they get a press credential?”

He was referencing this post in the Texas Politics Blog related Chuck McDonald, a Lobbyist/PR guy, having press credentials and being on the Texas House floor for Gov. Perry State of the State address.

The Discussion Begins
The ensuing e-mails were pretty thoughtful and interesting. At one point in the discussion I ask the group if anyone minded me putting some of this down for a blog post since others might benefit from the discussion.

I was given the green light, so here’s what’s been said on the issue:

Video news releases have been around for 20+ years. VNR-1 — I never heard of them asking for “press credentials.” They knew they were on the PR side. That is all changing now…

I personally do not think they should have press credentials if they are being paid by clients to support a lobbying function, whether they are “registered” as a lobbyist or not.

McDonald’s website is a fine idea, but his mistake was that he didn’t play by the rules, and that came back to bite him and cast (once again!) all PR people in a poor ethical light.

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McDonald’s tactics disgust me.  If we don’t respect the news media as being a different animal from us, meriting the privilege of “press credentials,” then we ultimately weaken the public’s confidence in the news media. Which in turn weakens the impact we can have for our clients.

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In this age of citizen media, any organization that seeks to restrict access to information on the base of credentialing is risking its reputation. It just doesn’t make sense anymore. My 11 year old niece could shoot video from her phone that could be played on CNN — so why shouldn’t she and everyone like her have access to the same information at the same time?

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I think there are three issues, or questions here:

1) Was what Chuck McDonald did okay, or was it wrong? Wrong. But, in my opinion, only because he was a registered lobbyist, and rules prohibit registered lobbyists from being on the floor of the Texas House when the chamber is in session.

2) Should PR people be able to obtain press credentials? Certainly. We’re in the news business, one way or another. If press credentials are required for obtaining access to the gathering of information a public relations professional needs to perform his or her job, and the public relations professional obtains the credentials in an above-board, legal manner, what’s the problem? For instance, yesterday IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano, was at the podium with President Obama, talking about the economic stimulus plan and the support it was receiving from IBM and other corporations. To have full access to that historic moment, should an IBM public relations staff person, or a person from a public relations firm representing IBM, been able to request and receive through the White House press credentials to be a part of and capture in photographs, film and/or audio that moment for archives and IBM “promotional” purposes, without having to rely on getting material from the news media? Absolutely. Should a public relations person working with a press credential purport to be a part of the “news media?” Absolutely not. We should always be above board about who we are, what we are doing and what are our interest level and intent. As a matter of information, the material from Washington yesterday that is being posted internally within IBM is from the White House and media sources, such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, etc., and is appropriately labeled as being from those sources. And with my PR hat on, you can check out some video here.

3) How should material be handled by a public relations person who has gotten the material via a press credential? Straight forward and in an honest manner. If the presentation of the material has been altered in any way, it should be designated as not being an actual representation of what took place. In other words, that it’s not a news production, but rather a public relations production, on behalf of a “client.” Thus, it’s not only the manner in which the material is obtained, but also the manner in which the material is presented. With full disclosure in obtaining and using information, it then is up to the audiences to determine the validity and value of the information that is being communicated to them. In that regard, I had no problem with Shale.TV, since it was fully disclosed it was going to be a Chesapeake production and not a “news production,” but as most of you know, I had some serious issues with the manner in which Shale.TV was introduced and communications that were associated with the launch, which ultimately turned into a no-go.

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Very interesting issue. Great discussion. A few thoughts:
There needs to be a stand on defining journalism and/or degrees of journalism. Without licensing (God forbid), journalism is not as distinct a craft as it once was. As we see on the Web, anyone can practice journalism and claim to be a journalist. I’d guess that public perception of who/what journalists are still distinguishes professional journalists from amateurs and professional practitioners of communications for private- and public-sector entities.

Create a different credential for those who are not professional journalists but need access to an event, justifiably. I would not support “press” credentials for non-press folks. “Press” carries a distinct definition, legal boundaries and ethics. One needs to consider how this issue would play out in court. “Are you a member of the press, Ms. X?” No. “Then why were you claiming to be? Doesn’t this credential you were wearing say ‘Press’?”

Labeling a credential as “Press” instantly projects motivations, objectives and expectations that are distinct and not shared by other forms of communication.

Journalists’ constituents are the public. Their motivation is, at least it should be, to present factual reporting, from spot to investigative, free of a private- or public-sector entity’s aims. Enron comes to mind. Should Enron communicators have been issued “press” credentials as all of that coverage unfolded? I think not. Did those communicators deserve the same access to unfolding news events as the “press”? Absolutely. Was FEMA wrong to fake a “news” conference? Of course. Still, this is America after all and all things public are just that — public. Last I heard, public relations practitioners are as “public” as any other person, journalist or not.

I recall a “Far Side” cartoon in which vultures were gathered around the corpse of a ranch hand. One vulture had put the decedent’s hat on his head and was saying: “Hey, everybody, look at me! I’m a cowboy!” Right. Not that PR folks are vultures and journalists are dead meat. I’m just saying that “press” credentials should be issued only to practicing professional journalists. To be honest and ethical, let credentials label the press as such and come up with some other label for non-press.

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What do you think? Please weigh in via comments. The floor is yours.