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.

Tweet. Meet. Give. Twestival Time

This post is brought to the GFW PRSA by Lauren Vargas:

On Thursday, February 12, users of the micro-blogging service Twitter will gather in over one hundred cities around the world to share the love and raise money for charity:water, a not-for-profit bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. The event is 100% volunteer-run.

The Dallas Twestival at Mockingbird Station will feature live music by local bands, food and drink, a raffle, WiFi, feeds from other global events, a free film at the Angelica Theater, a show at Hyena’s Comedy Club, and friendly, engaged Fort Worth and Dallasites united to “Tweet. Meet. Give.” 100% of proceeds go to charity:water. Purchase your tickets now for only $10!
The Dallas/Fort Worth Twestival goal is to raise $4000, which is the cost of one well. Dallas/Fort Worth Twestival volunteers are looking for sponsors at the $500 or $1000 levels, or who can offer goods or services for donation – these will be part of a raffle or silent auction. Sponsors’ logos will be displayed at the event, on the Dallas Twestival website, and included in the live streaming web broadcast; they may also provide materials to be distributed at the event. The sponsorship package information is available online at http://dallas.twestival.com/dallas-twestival-sponsorship/.
Additional information may be found at http://dallas.twestival.com and http://twestival.com.
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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.

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)