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)

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

Social Media: Under Construction

On Wednesday, July 9, Terry Morawski and I collaborated on a social media presentation for the Greater Fort Worth chapter of PRSA:

Additional presentation options: .pdf, .ppt, slideshare

POST starts with "P"

This post first appeared on the nextcommunication blog on June 16, 2008.

I am reading Groundswell by Forrester Research’s Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. This book is easily one of the most intriguing professional books I’ve read in a while. According to Li and Bernoff the groundswell is:

A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.

While I don’t particularly care for the name they chose to describe the social media phenomenon, I do appreciate the terrific insight and research they’ve provided.

One graphical representation from the book helps explain the Social Technographics® Profile in the form of a Ladder to represent consumers’ social computing behavior categorized by participation.

Social Technographics Ladder

The social participation rungs in the ladder are (from bottom to top): Inactives, Spectators, Joiners, Collectors, Critics, and Creators with explanations of each. The authors provide various samples of profiles to help drive home the point that different people come to you and your company or organization at very different levels of social media participation.

The POST Method

There are implications for business in assessing participation, especially when one applies the POST method for a social media strategy:

    1. Assess the social activities of your People;

 

  • Decide what Objectives you want to accomplish;

 

 

  • Plan your Strategy for changes in customer relations; then

 

 

  • Decide on the suitable Technology or technologies to meet your goals.

 

 

I was struck by something so simple, but could have serious implications for those interested in social media if forgotten:
The POST method starts with “P” for People.

 

People Matter

If you don’t have your people, (audience, stakeholders, customers, community, or any other term you use) your social media strategy will be much harder to effectively implement and accurately assess.

To often Communication/PR practitioners are presented with the challenge of adding a social media to their communication efforts and they jump straight to the latest and greatest social media technology with buzz.

I am all for jumping in and experimenting with social media mainly because you are more credible if you’ve experienced the various forms of social media. This holds true even if you outsource.

However, I caution (from experience) that your community participation assessment should come first.

If the biggest sin in social media is inaction, then I think the biggest mistake is not knowing your people.