Nowhere to Hide — Transparency, Communication, Integrity Protect Reputation

By Joan Hunter

*My Summary, Plus Full Speech, of GFW PRSA Ethics Month Speaker John “Pat” Philbin, Crisis1 CEO and former FEMA official.

Unethical practices or actions “are going to come out,” said John “Pat” Philbin, president and CEO of Crisis1, in Washington D.C.

Speaking to one of the largest-attended GFW PRSA monthly programs during our chapter’s September Ethics month, the former director of external affairs of FEMA, offered his personal experience and professional expertise on how public relations professionals can help protect and defend their organizations against unethical conduct charges – whether unintended, true or publicly misperceived.

As an Accredited Public Relations (APR) professional and long-time member of PRSA, Philbin emphasized the importance of leading our organizations to adhere to PRSA’s national code of ethics.

Philbin graciously agreed to allow the Fort Worth Chapter to share the text of his remarks which can be accessed at the end of some of his major points I’ve summarized here:

*Philbin emphasized that PR professionals must match the speed of traditional news media in getting their organization’s own messages out simultaneously, not just to news media but to all their key audiences.

His observations about the environment in which our organizations operate today included:

*Today, speed is viewed as “more important than accuracy.”

*(As a result of this environment), “we also can observe the role of technology and influence of immediacy in watching reporters who monitor twitter accounts and broadcast reports live without so much as qualifying the veracity of the information.”

*“PRSA’s Code of Ethics requires us to advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information that serves the public interest. It is one of the primary reasons that I entered this profession in the mid-1980s.”

*“…We as communicators must embrace and leverage the capability it (technology) provides by getting critical information to those who matter most to our organizations because we will be held to a much higher standard than the media if the information is inaccurate.”

*“I believe it is imperative to help organizations create trust with those who matter most. One way to accomplish this is to promote and enhance transparency throughout our organizations.”

*“The interesting thing about being transparent is that it can actually reduce risk.”

*“Doing the right thing and performing well is necessary but not sufficient. An organization that does the right thing well can be quickly dismissed, marginalized, bankrupted, you-name-it, if it does not communicate well.”

*“As a communications professional, there is little I can do to help a client if they aren’t doing what they say they are doing. Integrity is the only currency we have in public relations.”

*Philbin’s 25+ year career includes public and international affairs, business development, change management, crisis communication, media relations, reputation management and strategic planning with top-level senior governmental officials and company executives. He may be reached at
jphilbin@crisis1.net or www.crisis1net.

Read the full text of Philbin’s remarks.

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.