PR image still improving after ethics issues

Several instances of questionable PR and public affairs practices became public this week, reflecting the industry's somewhat shaky definition of ethical PR.

Several instances of questionable PR and public affairs practices became public this week, reflecting the industry's somewhat shaky definition of ethical PR. 

The lawsuit filed by Greenpeace against two firms and the accusation that a firm's subcontractor sent unauthorized letters to federal regulators also raised questions about legal practices. Yet PR and public affairs practitioners say that these kinds of instances are isolated, especially as the industry has grown in prominence and the make-up of the workforce has changed.

“It's critical that people are educated in ethics,” says Denise Keyes, an associate dean PR and corporate communications at George Washington University. “But, it really is less about the industry than individuals. That is an extreme example and I really don't think that this is the norm.”

The Greenpeace lawsuit was filed November 29 against Ketchum, Dezenhall Resources, The Dow Chemical Company, Sasol, and four individuals formerly employed by a private security firm. It alleges that the complaints used “unlawful means” to steal confidential information about the environmental group in the late 90s.

Neither firm provided comment beyond a statement.

Dewey Square Group faced allegations in a Bloomberg story this week that a subcontractor of the firm was involved in sending forged letters, which argued for a proposed derivatives rule, to federal regulators as part of a multi-state grassroots campaign for an unnamed client.

The public affairs firm, which is owned by WPP Group, apologized in a statement and acknowledged that an individual hired by a subcontractor was at fault for the unauthorized letters.

“Every PR crisis is different,” says Ginny Terzano, principal at Dewey Square Group. “We knew there was a need to address the account. There was a need to get the facts out there.”

The firm also conducted an audit in other states to ensure the quality of the campaign it was working on and proactively reached out to reporters covering the issue.

Terzano, who had both political and corporate experience before joining Dewey Square Group in 2009, said that the firm asked itself the same questions it would ask a client: Do we have the facts? Will we get all the facts? Are we being transparent?

“You take all those steps,” she says, “and that drives PR excellence.”

Dewey Square's decision to address the issue and conduct interviews with reporters within 24 hours was unique in that it seems few firms are willing to publicly acknowledge an error, legal or illegal, even as the industry has matured and public understanding of PR has increased.

“There is good PR and there is bad PR, and there is good practice and there is bad practice,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “While we're coming up, we should be even more conscious of these kinds of reputational risks.”

Yet Edelman believes that the image of the PR industry has improved in recent years as the number of chief communications officers has grown and digital and social media have increased the prominence of communicators in the marketing mix.

Keyes, a former Fleishman-Hillard executive, also agrees that industry's image has improved, in part due to increased pressure from stakeholder groups but also due to the growing number of millennials working in PR.

“I don't think young PR professionals are willing to sell their soul to be in the profession,” she says. “They very much remain as individuals and we know from all the research that's done on millennials what they think about corporations and what they expect from them. We'll see that impacting the profession.”

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