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.

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

Speaking Up for PRSA

The PR industry took an unfair hit from legal analyst Andrew Cohen of CBS related to former White House Press Secretary’s new tell-all book. In his report, Cohen accuses PR professionals of making a living on untruths. He even calls out PRSA’s ethics:

 

Apparently, an industry the very essence of which is to try to convince people that a turkey is really an eagle has a rule that condemns lying.

The Public Relations Society of America states: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent…” This clause strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

Show me a PR person who is “accurate” and “truthful,” and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.


PRSA wrote a response to Cohen that warrants repeating as many times as possible:

 

Dear Mr. Cohen,
Regarding your commentary on today’s CBS Sunday Morning, the Board of Directors of the Public Relations Society finds it imperative to affirm the professionalism of public relations practitioners and to take exception with what we regard as a misguided opinion. The PRSA Code of Ethics, to which all members pledge, embodies a strict set of guidelines defining ethical and professional practice in public relations. Professionals who meet the Code’s standards stand in stark contrast to the simplistic, erroneous characterization of the profession you presented.

Contrary to baseless assertions, truth and accuracy are the bread and butter of the public relations profession. In a business where success hinges on critical relationships built over many years with clients, journalists and a Web 2.0-empowered public, one’s credibility is the singular badge of viability. All professionals, including attorneys, accountants and physicians, aspire to ethical standards, and public relations professionals are no different, always striving for the ideal.

For public relations professionals, engaging diverse and often skeptical audiences requires top-flight skills in communications, creativity and even persuasion, but a trust once lost cannot be regained. Unemployment, contrary to your opinion, is reserved for the professional who has lost his or her credibility.

Read the full letter to Cohen on PRSA’s Web site.

We are encouraged by the immediate response by national PRSA and the opportunity to reiterate the ethical standards to which we should all adhere. It is unfortunate that high-profile situations become media fodder that is then used to paint wide brush strokes over an organization with professionals that seek to reach out and be effective communicators.