The Agency Business: Ethics committees give firms guidelines for facing problems

Though many firms do not believe that such panels are necessary, Ruder Finn maintains an ethics committee that helps the agency handle some tough business situations.

Though many firms do not believe that such panels are necessary, Ruder Finn maintains an ethics committee that helps the agency handle some tough business situations.

Most PR agencies, it seems, tackle ethical pickles in an ad hoc way: an issue raises its hairy head, and the firms scramble to decide what to do. One that takes a more considered approach is Ruder Finn (RF). The New York-based independent appears to be the rare PR firm with an ethics committee (informal research turned up no others). And it's had it since the McCarthy era of the 1940s and '50s, when the firm began hiring people who had been blacklisted, but wondered if it might be hurting itself in the process. Through consulting with a Columbia University philosopher, it decided the answer was to encourage other agencies to also hire the red hunters' targets. The ethics committee grew out of that experience. Having such a panel benefits RF by creating a culture of ethics, says agency VP and ethics officer Emmanuel Tchividjian, who is chairman of the committee. "I think everybody is aware that this is very much a part of the culture." In addition to his duties at RF, he is the ethics officer of the New York chapter of the PRSA and a member of the Ethics Officers Association. "A lot of agencies create ethical codes, and they feel that solves the problem," says agency chairman David Finn. "We don't think that's true." Not everyone agrees that ethics panels are necessary. Ned Barnett of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas, said that he was opposed to the idea because ethics are personal and not corporate, and because group-derived ethics usually don't match up to his standards. "It's true that you make personal decisions on ethics," Tchividjian responds. "But when you have to make a corporate decision, you have to involve more than just yourself. Also, you have amazing resources when you involve other people. You start to think of things you wouldn't have." The group has eight members. In addition to Tchividjian and Finn, they include agency co-chair Dena Merriam and chief creative officer Michael Schubert. "We take it seriously, and we do have senior people involved, as well as junior people," Finn says. The committee also currently has two revolving outside advisers: retired rabbi Ezra Finkelstein and minister Joan Brown Campbell. The panel holds a general luncheon meeting about every six weeks, open to all staff. Special sessions are held to deal with particular circumstances. In those cases, the committee meets privately with firm management and the people involved on the account. The ethics panel makes recommendations to the firm's executive committee. Tchividjian says that because several people serve on both, the firm has never had a case where its leaders didn't act on the ethics panel's advice. The ethics committee deals with both internal and external questions. Internal issues can be insensitive comments from employees. The main external issues are client conflicts of interest and activities with which the firm does not want to be associated. The agency's ethical guidelines list the activities the firm shies away from, such as those that violate client confidentiality, are harmful to the environment, or censor the arts. For example, one client, a large maker of durable goods, was accused by Greenpeace of considering an action that might harm the environment. The ethics panel took up the issue. Tchividjian came up with what he saw as a compromise. Ultimately, however, the client decided to scrap the activity, and the decision of the ethics panel did not need to be enacted. Tchividjian says employees from outside the New York office participate in the general meetings by phone. His dream is to have an ethics committee in each of RF's 14 offices (Chicago already has one). He is also looking into establishing one for more junior staff, as some are intimidated about speaking about such issues with the honchos.
  • PRWeek welcomes topic ideas for future Agency Business columns. Please send them to news@prweek.com. Ruder Finn's approach to ethics Ruder Finn's ethical guidelines say the firm does not want to be involved in PR activities it believes:
  • Violate client confidentiality
  • Defend or endorse the suppression of human rights anywhere in the world, or promote racism, discrimination, or terrorism
  • Defend or endorse the suppression of religious freedom
  • Censor the arts, curb free speech, or threaten world peace
  • Are hazardous to human health, a threat to the environment, or scientifically unsafe
  • Disseminate what it believes to be false and deceptive information
  • Make unsupported or misleading claims for products, corporations, institutions, government, or causes

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