PR pros should aim for transparency to make sure front groups maintain ethical practices
Several years ago, when former GCI Group CEO Jack Bergen was head of the Council of PR Firms, he and I had an interesting discussion about codes of ethics.
He was developing an ethics policy for the council and I was urging that he take a harder line than the PRSA, arguing that an ethics policy would only mean something if people could see violators sanctioned.
I couldn't recall the last time the PRSA had sanctioned someone for violating its policy on, say, front groups. Because I could reel off dozens of cases that I would consider abuses, I didn't think that was because PR people were all paragons of virtue. The only other explanation, I thought then, was that the policy in question had no teeth.
Anyway, I wanted to see prohibitions against certain behaviors or at least clear guidelines about what was acceptable and what was not. Bergen argued - not unconvincingly - that it was better to offer broad advice to "maintain total accuracy and truthfulness" than to create highly specific rules. The rules-based approach to business ethics, he argued, led people to figure that anything that was not explicitly prohibited was OK.
Recent discussions about the use of front groups has me thinking about the two approaches. A statement issued by the PRSA, for example, appears to combine both: It starts with rather general advice, "be honest and accurate in all information," then adds, a little more specifically, "reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented" and "disclose financial interest ... of the client organization."
In considering the best way to ensure ethical practice in this arena, it's worth taking a moment to agree on what we're trying to accomplish. I believe complete transparency should be the objective, but, at the same time, I'm mindful of the value of the tradition of the "anonymous pamphleteer." Anonymity has its value in the political realm because it gives the powerless freedom from fear of retribution when they criticize the powerful.
Of course, most front groups are not coalitions of the powerless, but their fear of retribution (perhaps in terms of boycotts or other withdrawals of public support) should not be dismissed simply because of their relative wealth.
However, because we're discussing ethical guidelines rather than laws, it's reasonable to agree that PR pros should strive for transparency. In fact, I feel there's a pragmatic reason for transparency, as well as an ethical one: Groups that strive to hide their true interests will eventually be unmasked. And when they are, the short-term wins they have gained will be offset by a long-term loss of trust.
Next week, I'll discuss the ethical issues around front groups in greater detail.