PR Ethics: Is your client telling you the whole story? - When your new client claims he was valedictorian at Harvard and a former Olympic athlete, should you just believe him and pitch his story to Forbes? Do so at your own risk, John Frank discovers

Reporters love to sit around swapping stories about lies their sources have tried passing off on them. Figuring out who’s telling the truth, who’s telling half-truths and who’s a bald-faced liar is part of the daily dance between reporters and sources.

Reporters love to sit around swapping stories about lies their sources have tried passing off on them. Figuring out who’s telling the truth, who’s telling half-truths and who’s a bald-faced liar is part of the daily dance between reporters and sources.

Reporters love to sit around swapping stories about lies their

sources have tried passing off on them. Figuring out who’s telling the

truth, who’s telling half-truths and who’s a bald-faced liar is part of

the daily dance between reporters and sources.

But should PR pros have to step to the same tune with their clients?

Do they accept whatever a client or potential client tells them as

gospel, or do they run their own checks? And if they check, how deeply

do they go? Is everything - even something as trivial as a CEO’s alma

mater - open to question?

The issue was graphically raised by recent headlines in the San

Francisco Chronicle, which reported that a hi-tech CEO faked credentials

on his resume. The CEO blamed the PR agency involved - The Horn Group -

which in turn said it was only passing on information he had given the

agency (PRWeek, July 24).

PR pros contacted for reaction said they couldn’t imagine an agency

making up a resume for a client. And all said they do some level of

checking on potential clients as well as on topics like new product

announcements for existing clients. But in PRWeek’s recent ethics

survey, 62% admitted they don’t always have time to check out the

validity of information they are divulging to the press. And most

concede there comes a point where a client has to be trusted to give

accurate information. So where do you draw the line?

Knowing when to trust a client and when to raise questions becomes

largely a matter of instinct, knowledge about the client’s business and

just plain gut feelings, they say.

A rich tradition of lying

The topic of clients lying is hardly new. Industry guru Tom Harris

recalls once sitting in an interview with a client and a reporter,

listening to the client make up a hotel project that didn’t exist just

to enhance his company’s reputation. And Harris is not alone: in PR

Week’s recent ethics survey (PRWeek, May 1), 62% of respondents said

they’d been ’compromised’ in their jobs either by being told a lie or

being denied access to the full story.

What’s different today is what Harris calls the ’cult of personality’ in

the business media. Companies are no longer covered so much as CEOs are.

As a result, PR people are under increasing pressure to turn CEOs into

media stars. But does that mean promulgating information that is

exaggerated or downright false?

Another facet relates to doing PR for hi-tech companies. How do PR pros

evaluate new tech clients, most of which have no business track records

to check and many of which are in such esoteric areas that few people

understand exactly what it is they do, let alone whether they can

actually pull it off?

’Firms are probably looking more closely at the claims their clients are

making’ these days, says Glenn Karwoski, SVP and managing director of

Minneapolis-based Karwoski & Courage. Karwoski says his agency three

years ago walked away from a client involved in a government regulatory

dispute because ’a few things happened which led us to question the

extent of information we were getting.’ In such a situation, an agency’s

reputation and credibility are at risk, he says.

Ruder Finn EVP Robert Dowling says his firm does extensive background

checks for dot-com companies, in part motivated by past problems.

’Claims were made that weren’t true, bills weren’t paid,’ he says. ’It’s

always the exception to the rule, but it hurts.’ Agencies obviously

don’t like to talk about deadbeat clients, but sources say getting

stiffed by dot-coms is an everyday occurrence.

Filters of credibility

Ruder Finn’s first criterion for working with a dot-com client is ’how

real that business is,’ Dowling says. He usually won’t touch business

from a company still in the concept stages, even though many approach

him for PR help. He also runs financial checks, such as a Dun &

Bradstreet report, and has started asking for a month or two of fees in

advance from new tech clients.

Kyle Holmes, VP of business development with Dallas-based M/C/C, has

developed an expertise handling telecom clients to the point where ’we

know that industry backwards and forwards,’ he crows. That helps him

filter out potential clients who aren’t credible: ’Part of our

responsibility as a PR firm is to know who is credible as an authority

in an organization.’

Fleishman-Hillard gets a lot of tech business on referral from

management consultants, venture capitalists, law firms and others, using

those sources as filters of credibility, says Joan Krga, SVP and partner

in the firm’s Chicago office. ’A lot of what they tell you is easily

validated,’ she says, but adds, ’we have walked away from business’

rather than take on clients Fleishman felt were suspect.

Legal covenants in contracts can help as well. Katherine Hutt, president

of Vienna, VA-based Nautilus Communications, works with clients filing

direct public offerings. Her contracts include language holding the

clients responsible for any legal action arising from their falsifying


’There is no way a PR agency can verify everything, but you have to

protect yourself and a clause in your contract seems an appropriate

first step,’ she says.

But some note that by the time such a matter gets to court, an agency’s

reputation could already be in tatters.

’The business takes enough heat as it is, we don’t need to add

disreputable clients on top of that,’ says Michael Young, SVP with

Porter Novelli Convergence Group. ’At the end of the day, the most

important thing is the firm’s reputation.’ Agrees Karwoski: ’Once you’re

in a situation where the media feels it has to verify everything you

say, there goes your agency.’

Young’s answer is for PR agencies to become as suspicious and skeptical

as reporters are when they’re told a client’s story. ’If something

smells stinky, it’s probably stinky,’ he says. That can be especially

true in promoting new products or services. Firms need to be as diligent

checking out product claims of clients as they are in checking out

clients themselves.

Two years ago, Karwoski spent two days with client Lincoln Reinsurance

to make sure a patented business knowledge management process it was

introducing was in fact something new. Even after he was comfortable

with the claim, he hedged a bit when approaching media - saying he had

not been able to find public record of anything like the product rather

than claiming unequivocally that it was new. That approach paid off when

Fortune magazine wrote favorably about the process.

’As long as you make a genuine effort, a good faith effort (to check out

client claims), that’s all you can be expected to do,’ Karwoski


Young chimes in: ’If someone wants to deceive their agency and others,

everyone is exceedingly vulnerable. That is an occupational hazard we

face.’ As a result, he says PR firms should ’have the same level of

healthy skepticism with clients as the media has with us.’ Good advice,

no matter what business you’re in.

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