Posts Tagged ‘PR Ethics’

No More Mr. “Yes Man”: PR Professionals Can Promote Their Companies and the Public Good

February 22, 2013

The public relations industry is often portrayed as a mercenary trade dedicated to delivering corporate propaganda with little regard for the public good. To some extent, this slanted stereotype is rooted in the ethos of the old days of PR, long before the formation of professional groups with ethical standards designed to advance the practice and before it became a major academic field taught in prominent colleges and universities.

The fact is that we have come a long way since the Wild West days of PR, when sensational and sometimes deceptive information was used to influence the public. Today most American corporations rely on their public relations teams for strategic counsel, and PR executives often provide guidance to senior management on ethics. According to findings from a recent study, many PR professionals often espouse ideas for the public interest even when they are at odds with management views or not aligned with business interests.

Yes Man

The study, “Exploring Questions of Media Morality,” published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, drew on in-depth interviews with senior public relations professionals who had held top positions at corporations, nonprofits and government organizations. Most of those interviewed viewed themselves as an “independent voice” in the organization they worked for, and not “mired by its perspective or politics,” explained study author, Marlene Neill, Ph.D., of Baylor University.

There are obvious limitations to the study. The sample size of those interviewed was only 30 people, and it’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions from self-reported data (most of us probably like to think that we are ethical professionals). Nevertheless, the fact that PR professionals are embracing their role as the “organizational conscience” is a good indicator that these professionals are at least getting a seat at the table to give their input on ethical decisions.

It also suggests that these professionals are keeping their ears to the ground to monitor public sentiment about issues that could impact their companies. For these companies, PR is more than awareness-building; it is relationship management, which requires two-way communication between the company and its publics. While it may be hard to quantify the financial value of relationship management, we can assume that it’s far cheaper than the cost of crisis management for poor ethical decisions and the potential for downstream damage to the company’s reputation.

There will always be differences between individual companies in the function of public relations, but as one respondent in the study commented, “the ‘yes man’ has no value” in PR.” To be truly valued by their companies, PR professionals must have an independent voice, even when it means going against the grain sometimes by questioning the decisions of higher-ups. This can be a risky proposition. It can expose PR professionals to a “kill the messenger” mindset, and potentially put strain on their relationships with their bosses and the company’s senior management, but it is a risk worth taking.

What are your thoughts? Can public relations provide a moral compass for the executive suite while also looking out for the commercial interests of the business?


Jacob Seal


Right and Wrong, Black and White: Conventional Wisdom vs. Current Wisdom

January 29, 2013

A lot of what we learned as children has turned out to be misinformation. Not only have the facts changed, many standard right and wrong ways of doing things have also evolved over time.  Both science and language are examples of how right and wrong have changed over time.My grandparents were taught in school (probably around 1910) that there are eight planets. However, in 1930, Pluto was discovered and added as the ninth planet.  But what my grandparents learned in school turned out to be correct after all (at least for now), Learning Right and Wrongsince scientists agreed in 2006 after years of debate that Pluto really did not meet the criteria for a planet. It was reclassified as a dwarf planet and plutoid (also called an ice dwarf).

Another scientific fact we learned in high school is that the atomic weights of elements on the periodic table of elements are constant numbers that do not vary. In 2010 scientists discovered that some of the elements’ atomic weights actually do vary in nature, and should be expressed as a range. For example, the atomic weight of oxygen is slightly more in the air than it is in seawater.

Perhaps it’s not a good idea to categorize scientific theories as right or wrong, since there are grey areas in between. Science is obviously a work in progress. Scientists offer theories, and other scientists offer revisions of the theories.  Theories that are proven wrong may just be proven right after all in the future.

Our use of language is another area where right and wrong shifts over time.  Most of us were taught that it’s incorrect grammar to end a sentence with a preposition.  Most grammarians now disagree with this old rule because using a preposition at the end of a sentence reflects the way people actually speak. For example, it’s uncommon to hear people say, “With what did you open that wine bottle?” It sounds pretentious. The normal way of expressing this is, “What did you open that wine bottle with?”

One language issue now being widely discussed is the spacing between sentences on a typed page. We were taught that sentences should be separated with two spaces, a rule that goes back to the time when typewriters were first used. The spacing on a typewriter was the same for all characters, whether a narrow “I” or wide “M.” As a result, typewriting looked uneven, making it harder for the eye to see the end of one sentence and beginning of the next. Two spaces were used between sentences on typewriters to mimic the spacing by traditional typesetters. Now, however, the computer has provided proportional spacing. The readability problem that existed with typewriters has disappeared. The rule has evolved and now one space between sentences on word-processed material is considered proper.

Human beings tend to feel comfortable with absolutes – right or wrong, black or white, true or false, good or bad. But most things are neither right or wrong, black or white, they are shades of grey. This is as true for moral absolutes as it is for scientific theories and language use. When we’re young, we’re taught moral absolutes of right and wrong, often based on the 10 Commandments. As we get older, we learn to live with the vast grey areas, based on circumstances and human frailties.

In the public relations profession, we are frequently faced with a need to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s truth and what’s not, and sometimes are at odds with our employers or clients over this. We can’t live with the grey areas if it’s obvious that something is actually black or white.

Senior PR professionals surveyed in a recent study by a Baylor University researcher and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin believe they have a responsibility to be independent voices in their organizations not weighed down by politics or the perspectives of their organizations, and to criticize the decisions of people in senior management  when they believe them to be wrong.  The participants in the survey noted that it takes courage to disagree with the boss or the client on ethical issues. Some who did this were demoted or fired for refusing to do something that was blatantly unethical, and some resigned when their advice was rejected, including one who refused to include false information in a press release.

One thing is for certain: popular opinion is not the judge of right and wrong. The majority can be and have been wrong, time and again.

Lucy Siegel

Find out more about Bridge Global Strategies here.

Advance Approval of Interview Quotes: a Self-Destructive Media Policy

September 19, 2012

We’ve all been there: despite training and practice, the CEO blows a good media coverage opportunity by saying the wrong thing to a reporter, and neglects to say what should have been said to communicate the company’s key messages. We all want to see the best possible media portrayal of our companies, or clients’ companies, and there are times we’d love to rewind the interview to answer differently.

We’re finding out that within the political realm, this is indeed possible. It came out this summer that the staffs of both Presidential candidates have refused to grant media interviews with the candidates, their wives and their key aides unless the media outlet would agree to submitting the quotes used from the interview to the campaign staff for approval. Big influential media outlets like the New York Times have been acceding to this demand.


This practice clearly undermines the quality of the reporting by allowing the campaign staff to sanitize remarks made in interviews by changing quotes to make them more vague and less likely to offend anyone. Never mind that the quote reflected what the person actually said. The purpose of checking the quotes goes way beyond simple fact-checking; it’s aimed at damage control.

Quote approval gives the candidates the power to use the media to shape public perception.  The media play an important role in a democracy as independent third-party voices reporting the facts as objectively as possible. Allowing the candidates to control the reporting to the extent that they can take back what they said weakens the veracity of the reporting.

The cat is out of the bag. Some major media outlets readily admitted that reporters have been allowing quote checking (and alteration) by campaign staffers as a condition for obtaining an interview. Readers who are paying attention and now realize this is happening are bound to have less trust in the media.

This morning I attended a meeting where Bob DeFillippo, Chief Communications Officer at Prudential Financial, spoke about the ways social media has played a role in blurring the lines among earned media (i.e., what is reported by independent news organizations), paid media (i.e., advertising, and paid editorial coverage, often called “advertorial,” which is not earned media but advertising) and owned media (i.e., content that companies create and disseminate themselves, which is neither earned nor paid media). He pointed out that the definitions of the three are becoming more blurred every day, and commented that we need to respect the definitions, not contribute to changing them, because earned media plays such a significant role in building corporate credibility.

He concluded that it’s in the interest of PR people to safeguard the integrity of earned media in order to protect the powerful contribution it can make towards reputation-building. I totally agree with him.

There are many reasons for the blurring of the lines among paid, earned and owned media, not just the proliferation of social media. For example, “pay for play” media coverage – where a publication insists that an organization be an advertiser in order to receive any editorial coverage – is more and more common these days, unfortunately, due to the desperate financial straits many media companies find themselves in. My firm advises clients to stay far away from “pay for play” media situations.

It’s the responsibility of public relations professionals to prepare clients well for media interviews. Sometimes despite our best efforts to do this, clients aren’t portrayed the way we would like them to be in an interview. The solution is not to insist on the right to see and change their quotes. It is certainly not better to rely on “pay for play” media. We just need to see to it that clients get as many media opportunities as possible so that one media mishap doesn’t play a major role in defining the client’s reputation.

Lucy Siegel

Public Relations Society of America’s Terrible PR

October 21, 2011

I’m embarrassed by the totally unprofessional, unethical and childish behavior this week of the so-called leaders of my profession, the board and staff of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

I’ve been a PRSA member for many years and have paid dues and event fees for employees who’ve wanted to participate (something that most large agencies don’t do any more – score another point for PR boutiques). This week

Jack O'Dwyer

PRSA is holding its annual convention, and the organization has been all over the industry news – not due to the program, but because of its discrimination against one industry journalist, Jack O’Dwyer, publisher and editor-in-chief of the eponymous Jack O’Dwyers Newsletter.

O’Dwyer has been in a nearly 20-year-long vendetta with PRSA’s national staff and board. He scrutinizes PRSA’s finances every year and has been a thorn in the organization’s side by making extremely negative editorial comments about its expenses, staff and board. As a result, PRSA has singled O’Dwyer out for special treatment: last year he was charged full attendance fees at the convention while other journalists were invited free of charge. This year he was barred from attending altogether.

Here’s the thing: O’Dwyer is entirely right about PRSA’s expenses (and the behavior of the staff and board have proven him right about them, too). PRSA national has lost over $850K in the first nine months of this year. The association’s operating income vs. expenses barely broke even for 2010, and showed a loss of close to half a million in 2009. Meanwhile, I’m paying a total of $500 in annual dues. Of that, PRSA national gets $225 for general membership, and Counselors Academy, a PRSA special section, gets $195. The chapter gets only $80. Yet the chapter’s  frequent and widely varied programming is every bit as good as what the national organization provides. Most of the PRSA services provided in the NYC metro area come from the chapter, not PRSA national. Yet PRSA forces people to be national members in order to be chapter members.

I served on the board and as an officer of PRSA’s New York chapter for many years. I’ve visited PRSA’s national headquarters in downtown Manhattan on several occasions. There’s a ton of office space and a large staff down there. However, it’s volunteers who do all the program development. It’s not as if the money we members pay in dues is being well-spent on developing a positive image of the profession. It’s apparent to everyone that this industry association has  done a miserably poor job of PR for PR for as long as anyone can remember. So where’s the value for our money?

I feel an obligation to support the local chapter with my membership dues because of the important service it provides to the entire NYC PR community. I’ve also received value from PRSA’s Counselors Academy. Yet it galls me to pay those national dues every year. 

No matter what PRSA’s national board and staff think of Jack O’Dwyer’s  editorial coverage, their discrimination against one journalist is an embarrassment – not just to me, but to the entire public relations profession.

Lucy Siegel

PR Ethics: Is There a Right to PR?

October 18, 2011

Does every organization deserve PR? My answer: No, but

This has been debated in the public relations industry for many years. Some feel that just as everyone has a right to legal counsel, organizations have a right to PR counsel (even the governments of countries such as Iran and Qaddafi-ledLibya). Others disagree on the grounds that it’s morally wrong to provide bad guys like Qaddafi with the tools of persuasion we can offer. I don’t believe everyone has a right to PR. But the line between those who don’t deserve PR for ethical reasons and those who do isn’t always a clear one.

I just read an article published by the conservative American think tank, The Heritage Foundation, chastising the U.S. State Department for conducting an information campaign aimed at American students.  When it comes to doing PR for the U.S., the State Department by law is only allowed to target people outside the U.S., and communications aimed at U.S. citizens is forbidden. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 actually prohibits this for convoluted and complex reasons that are now being questioned in Congress.

I find it ironic that an important branch of our own government is denied the right to public relations outreach to U.S.citizens when foreign countries have that right. Among those exercising that right (by hiring U.S. lobbyists and/or public relations professionals) are Afghanistan, Iran, Russia (with no fewer than eight lobbying and PR organizations on its payroll, including Ketchum) and China (which has 11 on its payroll, including DDB Worldwide Communications Group, and Brown, Lloyd James, the PR company that once represented Libya).

Just after 9/11, the World Economic Forum (WEF) decided to move its annual meeting usually held in Davos to New York, to support the city. I was working at Publicis at that time and the company, which represents WEF, had the monumental task of moving a meeting with thousands of participants with a just a couple of month’s notice.  Publicis in New York was asked to help. My group was given responsibility for handling public relations for a delegation to the conference from the Council for Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry.  Because Osama bin Ladin and all but one of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, sentiment here was extremely hostile towards the country and its people, and the Council’s goal was to improve American attitudes towards the Saudi Arabian business community.  My team was charged with setting up interviews for members of the delegation with national business media and leaders of the business community, and arranging speaking engagements.

Since it wasn’t fair to blame the acts of Al Qaida on the entire Saudi business community, I felt the Council had a right to be heard in the U.S.  I put aside my own feelings about 9/11, and about Saudi statements on Israel and Jews over many years, and worked with the Council.

I’ve represented several other clients over the years that were considered morally repugnant by most people.

One was a company on the verge of bankruptcy due to extreme wrong-doing by several senior executives. People were dying because these executives had approved the sale of a product they knew to be harmful. We took on this client because the thousands of employees at the company who had nothing to do with the incident were in danger not only of losing their jobs but also of not finding new ones because of their association with the company. In addition, we realized that if the company went bankrupt, it wouldn’t be able to pay court-ordered damages to victims. Our work wasn’t intended to whitewash the executives’ crimes, it was geared towards the economic survival of the company so it could meet its obligations.

I would never force an employee to work with a client if it violated her personal values. We each have to follow our own moral compass.

Occasionally I hear about PR firms taking on assignments to “rebrand” terrorist or totalitarian countries, including organizations that are known to engage in mass murder or torture. I would never work with clients of that kind. I won’t be put in a position where my skills are being used to exonerate wrong-doing. Those who accept such assignments find ways to rationalize their decisions, but I couldn’t.

Lucy Siegel

Gold Nuggets: Short Reads I Recommend About Communications & Marketing

May 18, 2011

I am passing along to you some of the blog posts and articles I’ve read recently that have made me think, “I wish I had written that!” If you have time to try a couple of these links, please share your thoughts in the comment section.

The Atlantic:Google Doesn’t Laugh: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO” Alas, search engine optimization has made editors re-think the use of clever, catchy news headlines.

Slate: “Awsum Shoes: Is It Ethical to Fix Grammatical and Spelling Errors in Internet Reviews?”  Turns out that good grammar and proper spelling do count. An NYU Stern School of Business professor’s research shows that well-written reviews sell more product than poorly-written ones, even if the well-written reviews are negative. Some companies have started correcting the reviews on their websites.

PC Magazine: “Facebook Hired PR Firm to Run Smear Campaign Against Google” The PR firm hired was Burson Marsteller, one of the biggest PR companies in the world (and most expensive).  Burson has its company’s code of conduct on its website, which includes the statement, “We are committed to acting ethically in all aspects of our business and to maintaining the highest standards of honesty and integrity.”  Proves the point that bigger doesn’t equate with better.

Children in Beijing dress up as Colonel Sanders at a store opening in China

Jerusalem Post: “Success fees’ may not lead to success for Israeli firms” The author, a consultant in the U.S. to Israeli companies, says that they’re averse to marketing and often spend little effort marketing the world-class products they’ve labored hard to develop.  Israeli companies aren’t the only ones that act as if somehow their products will market themselves.  

Then there are the companies from other parts of the world that do come to the U.S. with plans for marketing, but the plans are the same ones they used back home and don’t work in the U.S. market. (Plenty of American companies have done this overseas. There’s the story about Kentucky Fried Chicken taking its U.S. ad campaign and simply translating it for use everywhere else. If it works here, it should be fine, right? So “Finger lickin’ good” was translated, and the ads in China told the local citizens: “Eat your fingers off.” Despite this, KFC is a huge hit in China!)
Lucy Siegel

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