PR Pros: Liars, Defenders or Public Conscience?

by coach

No Tolerance (134/365)

Will Pro pros be liars, defenders or a conscience?

One of PR’s biggest challenges is finding the balance between what an organization or your clients want you to do and say…and what’s right.

That was never so clear this week as several major news stories collided, making me wonder whether PR professionals are forced to spend too much time being liars or defenders instead of building relationships, enhancing reputations and crafting communications programs that contribute to the bottom line?

I guess it comes with the territory but consider these recent news stories:

WikiLeaks Stalks Corporate America: How Companies Can Prepare? [Fast Company]
WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange Wants To Spill Your Corporate Secrets
A Former Insider Switches Policies [Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune]
Potter Asks Help of Leaders for PR Ethics
CFTC Refers Forged Comment Letters to Justice Department
[Bloomberg News]
In Fake CFTC Letters, an Arkansas Connection
[New York Times Deal Book]
Greenpeace Sues Chemical Makers, Alleging Spy Effort
[New York Times]

WikiLeaks’ high profile disclosures of hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents painted an embarrassing picture of US government intelligence and operations at home and abroad.

Former CIGNA insurance PR executive Wendell Potter spoke widely and passionately about unfair insurance industry practices and efforts to discredit healthcare reform. His new book Deadly Spin (Amazon link) called on PR leaders and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to strengthen and enforce its code of ethics.

In another major story, a Boston PR agency and its contractors in Arkansas were caught in a firestorm of controversy about blatantly forged letters sent to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

Also this week, Greenpeace sued Dow Chemical and alleged spying by another large US PR firm and security contractors to try and discredit the environmental organization.

An online store,, boasted about gaming Google news rankings by purposely delivering poor customer service to generate negative news stories. This resulted in higher page rankings and higher sales.

Even the article in Mom Blog Magazine (above) reflects a poor attitude towards mom bloggers by its anonymous PR consultant/author. It’s ironic that the blog would accept this post.

All in all, it felt like a discouraging week or even a massive PR Fail for some ethical PR practitioners.

It’s one thing for senior management to say “We’ll just bring in PR to clean it up!” after poor safety and environmental practices lead to crises; to run an insurance or Wall Street investment empire that operates without a moral compass; to encourage discriminatory lending practices; or to hire a bunch of PR “professionals” to spy on activists or forge representations to a Federal commission.

It’s quite another situation for an unnamed US financial group to face the prospect of a WikiLeaks tsunami because of documents leaked by whistle-blowing employees. This is extremely serious business of crisis proportions and no doubt banking PR executives are preparing for the worst.

Obviously, poor business practices, criminal activity or the lack of ethics are not the fault of “public relations.” But as Enron showed, knowledge of those activities and the effort to cover them up is definitely not part of the PR job description.

If there’s a good outcome to the WikiLeaks developments, it is surely that government and business ethics and actions will be under closer scrutiny by the public in the future. Coffee break conversations will definitely be more animated and interesting in the months ahead.

But many are also wondering who’s responsible for ensuring that WikiLeaks is above board and accountable in all of its dealings? Can we trust them when new disclosures are leaked?

It’s certainly a week for reflection on the core values of the PR profession and whether we’re prepared to uphold them as professionals?

One thing’s for sure. PR professionals have their work cut out for them. The scramble will be on to get ready to respond to the next anticipated WikiLeaks disclosures.

The big question then is will we be liars, defenders or the public conscience for our organizations?

Photo credit: Icky Pic via Flickr

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