PR Ethics: Talk is Cheap

by PR Coach on May 14, 2011

Unethical PR is a black eye for all

The furor over PR agency Burson-Marsteller’s whisper campaign to smear Google on behalf of undisclosed client Facebook is justified. It’s a black eye for all ethical PR practitioners.

That’s why I was stunned by one particular comment in Scott Friedman’s Hypertext blog post Facebook, Burson-Marsteller News is a Cautionary Tale for PR Practitioners.

Friedman acknowledges that the outing of B-M’s clandestine activities “taint not only the two companies directly involved, but our entire profession.”

So far so good until he slips into the role of apologist:

“I am sure there will be PR practitioners who join the public lambasting of the PR agency in question in a holier than thou attempt to position themselves above the fray.

The truth, however, is that anyone who has worked in our industry for a significant time has probably engaged in somewhat similar tactics. It is a regular practice in PR to create fear, uncertainty and doubt about our clients’ competition.”

I enjoy vigorous debate and different points of view. But I was insulted by Friedman’s assertions, especially It is a regular practice in PR to create fear, uncertainty and doubt about our clients’ competition.”

As I wrote in my comment reply on his blog post:

So Scott, I know you’re not condoning B-M’s actions but neither is it fair to cite this as “regular practice in PR.” The key issue isn’t “that the FUD campaign was mishandled” by B-M. That makes it sound like they were only guilty because they got caught.

The key issue for ethical PR people is that unethical practices are unacceptable. Always.

I suggest all PR people reread the PRSA Code of Ethics. In the Statement of Professional Values you’ll see words like “responsible advocates” “highest standards of accuracy and truth” “build mutual understanding, credibility and relationships” “accountable for our actions” and “honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.”

And: “We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.”

The PRSA Code Provisions have specific guidelines for members and here are just some of the guidelines that apply in this case:
“A member shall:

Be honest and accurate in all communications.
Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the practitioner is responsible.
Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
Avoid deceptive practices.
Keep informed and educated about practices in the profession to ensure ethical conduct.
Decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this Code.
Counsel subordinates in proper ethical decision making.
Require that subordinates adhere to the ethical requirements of the Code.
Report practices that fail to comply with the Code, whether committed by PRSA members or not, to the appropriate authority.”

The Council of Public Relations Firms, of which B-M is a member, also has a Code of Ethics. Its Statement of Principles also pledges actions such as: “highest standards of ethics”, “advise our clients to be transparent and willing to engage in debate and discussion”, “counseling clients is toward disclosure.” Principle #6 is especially worth noting:

6. We are committed to agency practices that increase society’s confidence in the practice of public relations.
When we engage with journalists, bloggers or other organizations, we disclose who we represent. We respect the opinions of journalists and other spokespeople as their own. We do not retain journalists to represent client interests in their media. We expect bloggers and other online influencers to be honest and accurate.
We will implement policies within our firms to carry out these principles, and we will train our employees about the imperative of upholding them and effectively communicating their importance to clients.

I don’t think you need to be “holier than thou” to believe unethical PR practices are always wrong. Unethical is as unethical does. Those ethical standards should apply to all professionals from the world’s largest to solo PR pros.

You can read my yesterday post on this issue B-M’s Bad PR Adventure, Ethics & Lessons. That said, I promise I won’t write another PR ethics post for a while. At least not this week!

What do you think about B-M/Facebook? Are negative PR tactics ever justified?  I’d enjoy hearing your opinion in our comments below.

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Photo Credit: M Glasgow via Flickr

Author: Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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