PR TECHNIQUE ONLINE PR: Internet ethics for PR professionals

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

inadvertent inaccuracies.

"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

rightly so.

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,"

Edelman says.

"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

security breakdowns.

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

accurate information

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

highest standards

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.

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