Spreading information on the internet is PR's secret weapon, and as
such, is subject to abuse. James Burnett looks at new rules designed to
keep the PR industry in line, online
In the fall of 2000, Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman
Public Relations, made a troubling discovery: Some of his employees were
covertly building buzz for their clients in online chat rooms, talking
up the virtues of the companies and their products without revealing
that this praise was the work of paid representatives, not average
"They were going in on an unattributed basis and saying, 'Well, the
GameCube - or whatever - is the world's greatest thing,'" Edelman says,
"and meanwhile, not revealing that 'Hi, I work for Nintendo.'"
Edelman had also just witnessed the infamous Emulex press release, in
which a 23-year-old Southern California student drove the
computer-component supplier's stock down 62% by posting false
information about it on Internet Wire. Edelman did not need convincing
that significant fallout could follow when the web is used for
unscrupulous PR purposes. "This sort of thing was being excused at our
firm, because every one else does it," he recalls.
"And I said, 'No, we can't do that. It's wrong, and it ruins our
Edelman responded to the infractions he found by pushing for guidelines
that could govern all internet-based PR activities, not only within his
own agency, but throughout the industry. Working with the Arthur W. Page
Society, he led a committee that spent several months crafting a
four-part declaration that was released last October, and has since been
adopted by 11 other groups (see sidebar). The rules extend commonly
accepted PR ethics to cover the unique burdens - and temptations for
abuse - encountered when practitioners venture onto the web.
"These principles were established to ensure that the same ethical
practices you signed on to when you entered this profession are being
carried through to this medium," says Sarah Drennan, acting president of
the Council of PR Firms.
The first axiom set forth by the Page Society - to "present fact-based
content" - is a more formal rendering of the basic idea that just
because communication is often more informal online, that doesn't make
it OK to lie. Withholding certain details - say, your real name, or the
fact that you work in PR - is a definite no-no, as is disseminating
"There's a bigger potential to make a mistake when using the internet
than there is when sending fax releases or doing a mail campaign,"
claims Bob Frause, president and founder of Seattle's The Frause Group,
and chair of the PRSA ethics board. "And there's not a whole lot of
opportunity to fix your error once you've pressed that send button."
The Page Society's second tenet for internet PR is to "be an objective
advocate." It's not enough that the data you share is as authoritative
as possible; you also have a responsibility to introduce viewers to
outside experts. "When you go out and announce, 'Here's our position on
Nintendo,'" Edelman explains, "you should also say, 'And for more
information, please see Walt Mossberg's column in The Wall Street
Journal.'" Reviews that are less than glowing should not be deliberately
excluded from your transmissions, and conflicts of interest that might
prompt positive biases should always be revealed.
Being selective about whom you choose to reach online also represents
something less than a best practice. "Earn the public's trust" is the
Society's third mandate, and its first component reads, "Simultaneously
contact multiple stakeholders with relevant and accurate information."
In other words, don't just direct your web-based communiques to a
hand-chosen audience; especially when the news is bad, the last people
clued in will be the first to feel that they've been wronged, and
There's another dimension to trust-inspiring internet PR, and it centers
on the duty to deal with rumors or misinformation about your client that
may be buried (or burning up the bulletin boards) online. This means
that exaggeratedly positive claims about a product ought to be defused
with more coolheaded messages. "You've got a credibility burden,"
"If you encounter something that is just patently silly - even if you
didn't put it out there - you should try to correct it."
Suggestions that your client may be placing people in danger, on the
other hand, must be reported. "If you work for a pharmaceutical company,
and you hear about an adverse event associated with a product, then by
law you have to get that information to the FDA," Drennan points
Representatives of financial firms are similarly bound to disclose
certain facts, but even PR pros not legally obligated to report problems
they uncover have a responsibility to pass the information to the proper
Advocates employed by the airline or tourism industries, for example,
have an ethical imperative to share web postings that deal with possible
The same goes for any security breakdowns occurring on your client's
website: As the Page Society sees it, PR departments must ensure that
user privacy is not compromised when a company's website is visited.
Those who have a firm grasp on all of these commandments have an
additional axiom to practice: Ethically sound internet practices need to
be spread to any peers who might still be bending the rules. To make
sure the Page Society meets its own standards, the organization is
fulfilling its fourth principle - to "educate the PR profession on best
practices" - by pulling together case studies on "proper" internet PR.
The tool kit is due sometime this spring.
"There was some sentiment that we should create sanctions to enforce
these principles," Edelman says, "but we decided the best sort of
enforcement is moral suasion.
"The internet is a platform that is just so perfect for PR," he
"We should really make our best efforts to excel here."
Arthur W. Page Society principles for PR on the web
1 Present fact-based content
a Tell the truth at all times
b Ensure timely delivery of information
c Tell the full story, adhering to accepted standards for accuracy of
2 Be an objective advocate
a Act as a credible information source, providing round-the-clock
b Know your subject
c Rely on credible sources for expert advice
d Offer opportunities for dialogue and interaction with experts
e Reveal the background of experts, disclosing any potential conflicts
of interest or anonymous economic support of content
3 Earn the public's trust
a Simultaneously contact multiple stakeholders with relevant and
b Disclose all participation in chat rooms and conferences
c Correct misinformation that is online
d Provide counsel on privacy, security, and other trust issues
4 Educate the PR profession on best practices
a Compile case studies on the best use of new media
b Advance and encourage industry-wide adoption of best practices on the
c Practice principled leadership in the digital world, adhering to the
Organizations endorsing the principles
Arthur W. Page Society;
Corporate Communications Institute;
Council of Communication Management;
Council of Public Relations Firms;
The Conference Board's Council on Corporate Communications Strategy;
Institute for Public Relations;
International Association of Business Communicators;
Public Affairs Council;
Public Relations Society of America;
Public Relations Society of America Foundation;
Women Executives in Public Relations.