Public Relations Tactics

Issues in ethics: Rescuing reputations at risk

September 1, 2011

September is PRSA’s annual Ethics Month. To mark the occasion, members of the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards conducted a roundtable discussion on July 22.  They discussed Burson Marsteller’s role in Facebook’s attempted smear campaign against Google, Duke Nukem’s poor PR response after receiving negative reviews and the Professional Standards Advisory No. 17 regarding student internships. Here’s an edited version of their conversation:

Burson Marsteller/Facebook

James Lukaszewski,  ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA: Let’s start with the Burson Marsteller/ Facebook incident that occurred in the first half of 2011.

In essence, Facebook hired Burson Marsteller to anonymously place negative and competitive information about Google.  The whole project came apart when one of the media outlets that the agency approached outed them in a blog post.

Deb Silverman, Ph.D.,  APR: As an educator, I’m planning to use the Burson Marsteller incident in my classes as an instance of what ought not to be done. Their behavior violated our Code on a number of fronts — the professional value of honesty, the professional value of fairness to competitors, the free flow of information and the disclosure of information for not revealing their sponsors.

Patrick McLaughlin,  APR:  This cautionary tale is an effective lesson about why knowledge of the PRSA Member Code of Ethics is essential. It not only gives PR practitioners solid footing to provide valuable counsel, it can also save the client from an embarrassing and potentially costly hit on their reputation.

Tom Eppes,  APR, Fellow PRSA: I’m betting that Burson Marsteller often counsels its clients to be forthcoming in situations like this one.

Acknowledge the error. Communicate in detail the remedial actions that will be taken. Follow up a week or two later with more information about what’s been done to ensure this cannot happen again. And join with industry leaders like PRSA to create special initiatives on ethical practice, ensuring the public knows that the agency takes this seriously and wants to help others avoid the same mistake.

Bob Frause,  APR, Fellow PRSA: When Facebook came out and told the truth, then the story got some legs. We don’t know if Facebook gave Burson Marsteller instructions to keep Facebook’s involvement confidential or not.  At least, at the end, BM did the right thing by coming out and telling the truth.

Eppes: I don’t think we should expect people who are new to public relations — particularly those entering from the news business — to automatically understand best practices for the profession.

I remember hiring a talented newspaper reporter once whose clips were amazing. But the first few pieces she wrote for our clients were awful. She said she was writing like so many of the news releases she’d received over the years. She lowered the quality of her work because she’d come to believe that’s what public relations was all about.

Pat Whalen, Ph.D.,  APR: That happens more often than we realize, and many ex-journalists feel like that they can “lower the bar,” especially with their ethical standards, when they join the PR profession. Somehow, they have come to believe that PR people are less professional and less ethical than  journalists, and that they can do things in public relations that they would have soundly criticized when they were working journalists.  We need to use forums such as this to disabuse them of this notion.

Nance Larsen,  APR, Fellow PRSA: Apparently, there was a failure [by Burson Marsteller] to counsel their client in the reputational value of honesty, fairness to competition and disclosure.

Tom Duke, APR, Fellow PRSA: We’re in a situation here where the client has to share the blame. But Facebook is run by a bunch of techies who are younger people with little knowledge of the PR profession. That has something to do with what happened.

Frause: The reality is a client like Facebook is a plum account, particularly from the financial standpoint.  You want to keep this kind of revenue.

Larsen:  Whether or not a client is considered a “plum” account from a financial perspective, the professional and ethical responsibility of the PR practitioner remains the same. Every client on an agency roster expects a level of professionalism, expertise and guidance, especially in times of crisis.

Frause: The bottom line here is that stealth strategies are unethical.

Ellen Hartman,  APR, Fellow PRSA: Who approved this strategy? Both companies should be blamed for the behavior and the outcomes.

Emmanuel Tchividjian: This was high-risk behavior.  Any experienced PR professional would have anticipated a backlash with a reputational risk.

Silverman: If these two experienced journalists had any PR training on the job, then this all might have ended differently.

Whalen: I wish more journalists would take PR classes.  Then they’d realize that we operate with high ethical standards. Our goals are focused on making sure that our clients’ side of the story is presented fairly and accurately, while the journalists’ goals are to get both sides out.

Mary Graybill,  APR, Fellow PRSA:  Journalists have their own code of ethics. It would be reasonable to expect these two journalists to bring that code of ethics to their PR work. Journalists have traditionally been gatekeepers of truth and fact.

Lukaszewski: If we could make a list of questions this whole episode raises, then what would those questions be that could benefit PR practitioners? One might be:  “How much did top management know and when did they know it?”

Larsen: Were the pros and cons adequately dissected before the decision was made to pursue these tactics?

Duke Nukem

Lukaszewski: That’s a good segue into the next topic: the Duke Nukem affair. Essentially, Duke Nukem Forever was a new game launched with the help of a PR agency,  The Redner Group. The game’s owners sent game software to selected reviewers.  The company expected at least good reviews, if not rave reviews.

Instead, the reviews were uniformly negative.  The Redner PR team then took to Twitter and threatened to blacklist those who provided negative reviews.

The original tweet read, in part: “Too many went too far with their reviews…we are reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom.”

Tchividjian: I’m rather sympathetic to The Redner Group.  The game is their property and they’re entitled to decide who gets a free copy and who does not. However, the ethical issue here is the expectancy that the review would be positive.

Larsen: A reviewer’s credibility is on the line with their audience every time they evaluate a product — the nature of which demands honesty, fairness and bias-free analysis. However frustrating a negative review may be, a developer’s relationship with reviewers is critical in reaching the marketplace. There is a trust factor between the two that should not be inhibited or breached by threats, which ultimately invalidate the assessment.

Graybill: It’s not a review if the product is not objectively discussed. That would be an endorsement.

Whalen: Absolutely. It’s the independent third-party endorsement that makes public relations a valuable tool. If the client buys the review — either through actual monetary exchange or through intimidation — the reviewer has no credibility.

Larsen: Social media is a two-way dialogue, and prohibiting interchange on any level — with profanity being the exception — is going to ultimately backfire. How the situation is addressed becomes critical.

Silverman: The company said they always maintained a mutually-respectful working relationship with the press and noted that they do not condone Redner’s actions in any way. Obviously, they understood the notion of a free flow of information.

Lukaszewski: So what is the lesson from this episode?

Whalen: Don’t be afraid of a few negative reviews. Customers will often overlook a reviewer’s comments and make up their own minds, but they have little tolerance for people who seem to be trying to manipulate them with fake reviews or intimidation.

Student internships

Lukaszewski: Now, let’s switch gears to one of our recent PSAs on the use of interns and whether they should be paid or unpaid.

Frause: If you are doing work for a client that you’re billing, then you need to pay [the intern]. On the other side of the equation, the kids are saying they need the experience. If you put the hammer down on agencies and make them all pay, then they’re going to cut back on the amount of interns that they take on.

Silverman: In the Educator’s Academy, there are a lot of mixed feelings about paying interns. Some find that there’s a lot of value in unpaid internships, especially with some of the nonprofits in our various cities that probably couldn’t afford to pay for students to be there.

Duke: In the past, internships were usually paid. It’s a different situation and a different feeling if you’re paid.  You take [the job] much more seriously if there’s some compensation involved.

Lukaszewski: The PSA talks about fixed standards or guidelines that are imposed by the Fair Labor Standards Act.  What you’re teaching an intern has to relate to something they are learning in school. The internship is for the benefit of the intern; and the intern may not displace a regular employee but works under close supervision.

The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage for the activities of the intern, and on occasion, its operations may even be impeded.  The unpaid intern is neither entitled to — nor should expect — a job at the conclusion of the internship. Finally, the employer and the unpaid intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent on an unpaid internship. Does that present problems?

Graybill: When we’ve had interns, we’ve always paid them. My own sense of fairness would never allow me to not pay them.

Silverman: I’d love to see more paid internships. But the reality for a lot of us in medium-sized cities, is that we’re not going to have as many paid internships as we would like to have.

Frause: In our intern program, we take on one or two interns a quarter and we pay them.  They have to be undergraduates.  We pay them because we bill their time.  They take on the same duties as an assistant account executive. They’re given the same kind of work as an assistant account executive.  They have a manager, too.

Silverman: When we send our students out to do internships, the students are required to have the basic PR courses, the principles course and the PR writing course finished before they’re able and allowed to [do] an internship for academic credit.

Eppes: Different universities have different approaches.  The PR professors at UNC-Charlotte came to our offices to outline their expectations for a good internship, offering detailed guidelines. It was helpful in ensuring that account managers who worked with interns provided a valuable experience.

Duke: We hired many of the interns as full-time employees after their internship periods because they had received intensive training and became valuable employees.

Hartman: In the last few years, we have hired what we call “externs.” They’re graduates, but have yet to find their first job. This gives us the opportunity to try them out and vice-versa.

Lukaszewski: If you do an internship for college credit, then you have to pay for those credits. Let’s say you have an unpaid internship for college credit. Does that mean that the student has incurred personal expenses as a result? Is this a revenue device for academic institutions selling credit hours? If they do it for credit, then do they have to pay for the credits?

Silverman: Yes, they do. Institutions that are accredited by ACEJMC (Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications) are prohibited from having students do internships for more than three credits in an academic year. Students can do more internships, but only three credits will be accepted.
We encourage students to have at least one internship before they graduate because not to have an internship these days is career suicide. Ideally, it would be for pay.


Tom Duke, APR, Fellow PRSA
Duke Public Relations

Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA
Roy H. Park Doctoral Fellow
University of North Carolina
Chair, BEPS

Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA
Chairman and CEO

Mary Graybill, APR, Fellow PRSA
Graybill Communications

Ellen Hartman, APR, Fellow PRSA
President and CEO
Hartman Public Relations

Nance Larsen, APR, Fellow PRSA
Communication Manager
The Pebble Partnership

James Lukaszewski, ABC, APR,
Fellow PRSA
The Lukaszewski Group Division, Risdall McKinney Public Relations

Patrick McLaughlin, APR
Founder and Principal
Caldo Communications LLC

Deb Silverman, Ph.D.,  APR
Associate Professor of Communication
Buffalo State College

Emmanuel Tchividjian
Senior Vice President, Ethics Officer
Ruder Finn, Inc.

Pat Whalen, Ph.D.,  APR
Whalen Communications Group


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