Liar, liar, PR on fire

In this year's Illinois primaries, judge Morton Zwick's campaign for the Cook County slot on the Illinois Supreme Court proved to be quite expensive.

In this year's Illinois primaries, judge Morton Zwick's campaign for the Cook County slot on the Illinois Supreme Court proved to be quite expensive. A 30-second TV spot linked opponent Thomas R. Fitzgerald to wrongly convicted death row inmates - even though Fitzgerald had not presided over their trials. It was to turn the campaign into a PR nightmare.

Zwick came in last after the press pummeled the public with details of the scandal. But the smear campaign was considered so unethical that the Chicago Bar Association withdrew its rating of 'qualified,' usually a prerequisite for competing in a judicial race. 'Here is an instance where the advertising and PR people should have looked at the client's message and said no thanks,' says Steve Lundin, director of marketing and communications at Chicago law firm Holleb & Coff. 'Not only do they look sleazy but they are also on the record as not having served their client's best interest.'

Ethical dilemmas in the PR profession rarely grab headlines, in part because there is no means by which to disbar a practitioner. The industry may preach the virtues of honesty and integrity, but at the end of the day you're on your own.

In fact, in a new PRWeek survey of 1,705 PR professionals, 43.9% of the respondents say they have felt uncertain about the ethics of a task they were required to perform. And only 31.1% believe ethical boundaries have been clearly defined.

'I agree that there isn't enough education with regard to ethical situations,' says Robert Frause, chair of PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

When it comes to ethical certainty, there is surprisingly little difference between the experience of newbie practitioners (21.1% say they are certain) and those in the business for over 12 years (34.3% are certain) - suggesting that experience does not make ethics much easier. In their comments, many respondents pointed toward the lack of any requirements as one reason the boundaries of ethical behavior remain unclear. 'Haircutters and manicurists need more credentials than we do,' wrote one survey respondent.

Some admit to lying

And that lack of ethical fence posts may be playing itself out in a very troubling way.

A quarter of respondents (25%) say they have lied on the job - and those are just the ones who admit it. Clearly this is also an industry open to compromise. An astounding 61.8% of those surveyed say they have been compromised in their work by being told a lie. Those with the highest compromise rates include practitioners working at public affairs agencies (79.5%), in government positions (72.5%), as self-employed practitioners (70.5%) and at advertising agencies (70.4%). Nearly two-thirds (62%) also admit that they do not always check the validity of what they've been asked to communicate, perhaps because of their busy schedules.

So is this an industry in ethical crisis?

It's a question of perspective. After all, 75% of respondents say they have never lied. Nearly one in five respondents (18.5%) say they have left a job over ethical concerns and 28.4% knew someone who had done so.

Obviously, these pros were guided by strong ethical principles. 'For most professionals, their values are very important to them. If those values don't fit with those of their colleagues and supervisors then they will want to leave,' says Jack Bergen, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms.

In addition, more than half (52.9%) say they have declined to work on an account due to ethical reasons. The longer a practitioner has been in the profession the more likely he or she was to have declined an account.

One in five (19.3%) practitioners in the business for less than two years had done so while a clear majority (66.6%) of practitioners in business 12 years or more had declined accounts for ethical reasons. 'The longer people work in PR the more likely it will be for them to be presented with something that doesn't fit their ethical standards,' observes Frause.

Yet few respondents feel that acquiring an APR certification was a solution to the problem. The APR qualification attempts to provide practitioners with guidance on ethical behavior. A full 64.2% say that APR did not qualify them to be a good PR pro even though the test requires practitioners to study PRSA's code of ethics.

The PRSA code itself has been criticized for its lack of specificity and is currently being rewritten by the group's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (PRWeek, March 20, 2000). The code requires PRSA members to, among other things, act honestly and within the public interest. But the organization has taken few practitioners to task, leading critics to argue that the code has no teeth.

Many support ethical charter

Yet, in perhaps the most significant statistic in PRWeek's survey, half (49.9%) the respondents say they would support an ethical charter - even if it meant they could be thrown out of the profession if they did not meet those ethical guidelines. 'Registration per se means nothing, but if we are licensed, and we could lose the right to practice, that might make us think twice,' says Lou Williams, president of Chicago-based L.C. Williams & Associates.

As a relatively young industry, PR has yet to be fully defined, making the possibility of an authoritative ethics code even more difficult. A publicist, a crisis pro and a Capitol Hill lobbyist all do very different jobs, and face diverse ethical problems.

When Madonna's publicist says her superstar client isn't pregnant and one week later admits the fact that she actually is expecting, the consequences are few. But when a corporate spokesperson says that the green sludge from his company in the water supply is harmless - and it actually causes cancer - the ethical considerations become a matter of life and death.

When asking how much information should be released to the public, whether concerning a toxic spill or a new product, PR pros face more uncertain ethical terrain.

'I tell my advocacy communications classes that PR is about 'truth' and journalism is about 'accuracy'' - journalism gives both sides of the story, says Scott Ward, assistant VP and director of the environmental affairs practice at The Widmeyer-Baker Group in Washington, DC.

If there are always two sides to the truth, PR practitioners often find themselves representing only one side. When asked whether they always seek to be objective or rather always seek to put their client in the best possible light, 43.6% say sometimes one and sometimes the other.

But objectivity was not seen as opposed to putting the client in the best possible light.

And what about lying? One respondent wrote: 'Businesses often lie and often it's the PR people who convey those lies. Sometimes those lies are harmful and misleading, other times they're just polite. When an executive resigns to 'pursue other interests' but he's really been fired, no one is really harmed by the lie.'

So should this type of lie, used by businesses across the board, be considered a violation of the Arthur Page Society's requirement that practitioners always tell the truth?

Often the problem is not lying outright, but exaggerating. 'I would suspect that few of us have ever been directed to lie. What is more likely is that we are expected to fudge or exaggerate or omit,' says Williams.

In the survey, 38.4% of respondents say they have 'exaggerated information about a client, product or issue' in their work, while 61.1% said they haven't.

Honesty is the best (agency) policy

For a long time, ethics in the industry has been seen as a matter of not merely personal, but agency, conscience. Numerous agencies have written ethics guidelines into their employee work codes. At Dovetail Public Relations, Los Gatos, CA, a 100% honesty policy can be found in the employee manual and all new recruits must agree to it before they begin work. 'The policy is simple: a staffer will never lie to a client, reporter or co-worker.

If they violate the policy, they can lose their job,' says president Mark Coker. 'PR people need to believe in honesty as a core principle, otherwise the profession is bound to be ridiculed for years to come.'

Ketchum asks employees to sign a similar code of ethics and provides ethics information on its intranet site. Ruder Finn has an ethics council that meets every six weeks to discuss ethical concerns. So while 70.5% of those working at PR agencies feel no code of ethics is needed in the industry, it may be that ethical guidelines are more clearly defined within PR agencies than in the rest of the industry.

But some practitioners have seen codes as only marginally useful. 'We are in an unprecedented age of e-commerce, where the buyer has more information than the seller. Anyone considering nondisclosure of conflicts or even slightly prone to exaggeration will soon be out of business, if not in jail,' says Dee Dee LeGrand, partner at BRWLeGrand.

Of course, not everyone is found out. Disclosure has long been debated within the profession and clear guidelines have yet to be drafted. PR pros have led 'grass-roots' campaigns or spontaneous letter writing campaigns to Congressmen on behalf of undisclosed interest groups. The PRSA code requires members always to be able to say for whom they work for, but in times of undisclosed crisis, corporations rarely want the public to know that. How should these waters be negotiated? PR pros are left simply to use their conscience as a guide.

Many practitioners feel an enforceable ethical code would help the profession gain a better, more honest reputation. 'If competence is essentially self-regulating, ethics isn't. The profession will continue to suffer because we're viewed as mouthpieces for all manner of corporate and organizational behavior, for good or ill,' says Ken Greenberg, president of Edge Communications in Calabasas, CA.

Many are concerned that new practitioners need guidance as well as something to support their choices when facing clients. 'I have just finished my first full year in the PR profession. I cannot believe the claims my clients want me to make for their company. At 23, I sometimes wish I were a bit older and had the confidence to call them on it, especially the start-ups,' says one new practitioner who responded to the survey. Without any charter to point to, young professionals are susceptible to ethical problems in their daily tasks.

While legal or regulatory sanction could have some impact on behavior, some practitioners feel that day-to-day actions cannot be easily regulated.

'Organizations have made recommendations but without the force of law I don't get the sense that it's made a whole heck of a lot of difference,' says Ed Block, former head of PR at AT&T. 'My personal take is that an individual is either ethical or not, so a lot of the problem has to do with personal ethics.'

PR not alone debating dilemma

'Whatever breaches of ethical conduct there are in the world, they are no more prevalent in the practice of PR than in the practice of advertising, marketing, journalism or other forms of human communication,' says Don Bates, APR, fellow PRSA and MD of marketing and new media at Media Distribution Services.

Some practitioners argue that a code of ethics would do more than regulate practitioners, it would force regulation of clients and corporations.

'I lament the fact that public relations people seem to be less involved in corporate policy making,' says Block. 'These days, corporations are facing many ethical problems without a PR voice to counter them.'

But even if CEOs and CFOs realize the importance of truthful PR, legal counsel often requires nondisclosure. 'We have a lot of difficulty with legal counsel determined to protect the organization from liability at all costs. This can result in shading of the truth in an effort to stay inside the law,' says Melvin Sharpe, professor and coordinator of PR at Ball State University.

Sharpe argues that agencies need to have ethics codes that apply to how different stakeholder groups should be treated. 'We can have all the personal practitioner behavioral codes we want, but we will never change the image of public relations as unethical manipulation until we define standards for the organizational performance of PR,' he adds.

But even if an ethical code is decided upon and practitioners are required to use it, who will turn in wrong-doers? Although an ethical code may prevent some unethical behavior, when a transgression is made, only co-workers or clients may be aware of it. 'Ethical certification?' queried one respondent. 'Just the title sounds like some rabid right-wing plot that encourages spying and promotes tattletales. I have, at times, been disgusted with some PR colleagues and wish they could be exposed for the charlatans they are, but at what cost?'

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