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An Ethics Month discussion: Are current economic conditions affecting the ethical practice of public relations?

September 1, 2009

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.

Editor’s Note: September is PRSA’s annual Ethics Month. To mark the occasion, members of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) conducted a roundtable discussion via telephone on June 11. Here is an edited version of that conversation. A longer version of this discussion appears in the September issue of PR Tactics.

W. Thomas Duke, APR, Fellow PRSA,
PR consultant
Robert Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO and founder, Frause, BEPS Chair
Mary Graybill, APR, Fellow PRSA, principal, Graybill Communications
Patricia A. Grey, APR, public liaison, Ohio Department of Education
James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, chairman and president, The Lukaszewski Group Inc., Associate BEPS Chair
Keith V. Mabee, APR, vice chairman, Dix & Eaton
Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR, assistant professor, The Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, Hampton University
Patrick McLaughlin, APR, principal, Caldo Communications
Debra Peterson, APR, manager, media, relations, EMBARQ
Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR.,  assistant professor, Buffalo State University;  PRSA Board Member
Emmanuel Tchividjian, senior vice president, Ruder Finn, Inc.
Renée T. Walker, APR, associate vice president, university communications, Central Michigan University
Patricia T. Whalen, Ph.D., APR, assistant professor and director, Master of Arts degree in PR and advertising, College of Communication, DePaul University

James E. Lukaszewski,  ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA: By the time this discussion is published, PRSA will have released two new Professional Standards Advisories — one on pay for play (PSA-9) and one on phantom experience (PSA-10). Both of these are appropriate to our discussion today because it has been suggested that current economic conditions may be affecting the ethical practice of public relations. If you agree, what are those impacts and the ethical implications?

Patricia T. Whalen, Ph.D.,  APR: One ethical issue that relates to the economy is the potential for distorting expert information as individuals fear for their jobs or lose their jobs and try to get others. The pressure to enhance [résumés] and experience is greater in this economy than in the past.

Lukaszewski: We’ve called these behaviors phantom experience. 

W.  Thomas Duke,  APR, Fellow PRSA: You see this a lot in some agencies when staff members claim to have certain experience that they don’t in order to get an account. I think this has become a more serious problem.

Robert Frause,  APR, Fellow PRSA: In the Silver Anvil Awards competition, an agency or individual may claim the work of subcontractors as their work. When filling out award program applications, the applicant must be vigilant in recognizing those that actually created the product.

Duke: In Silver Anvil and Bronze Anvil Award entries, some might claim research that was never done or only partially done. It is an ethical issue if they don’t do any research but say who they do.

Emmanuel Tchividjian: A submission needs to include research in order to win. Too often, something that is not research is claimed to be research, or research is referred to, but not done.

Renée T. Walker,  APR: During this economic downturn, a significant number of individuals enter the PR profession solely for economic reasons. They have been laid off or are unable to find employment, and decide to provide PR services. Their phantom experiences create a lot more pressure for those of us performing ethically.

Whalen: Related to that, with today’s media problems and so many newspapers laying people off, we may see some journalists out there looking for gainful employment who aren’t trained in our profession but suggest that they are.

Duke: You see that with small or one-person agencies where [the practitioner] overstates their experience and undercuts the prices of larger agencies.

Patrick McLaughlin,  APR:  With many independent practitioners working in virtual teams, bringing in a colleague for specific expertise when the account calls for it, there is a tendency to overstate or leave the impression of personal capabilities or previous accomplishments to win accounts.

Frause: I always start case studies by saying “as part of a team with a previous agency/employer, I was involved in X” or something like that. I think there has to be a lot of care taken in how you characterize your role or the role of your current agency/employer in theses types of case studies.  You want a case study that’s valuable but that is honest and transparent.

Whalen: When students do team projects for real clients, they don’t know how to represent their individual contributions. They ask if they are misrepresenting reality if they put the project in their portfolios since they didn’t write the whole thing. I tell them that it’s perfectly fine to include it, but to make it clear that it was a team effort and claim credit for what they actually did.

Deborah A. Silverman, Ph.D., APR: PR professors who collaborate on academic research projects also deal with the same issue: How to take credit for a portion of an article that they co-authored, particularly if they are coming up for tenure review. It’s important to clearly identify what their individual contributions were to the research project.

Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR: When my students have to develop their professional portfolio to fulfill graduation requirements, their specific contributions have to be clearly explained. When I see professional-looking brochures, newsletters, etc. — products of internships for example — then students must be honest about their contributions. I ask them, “What will you say when the truth comes out?” Protect your reputation.  At the end of the day, that’s the most valuable capital you have.

McLaughlin: We’ve been discussing the individual’s responsibility and the potential damage to them if they misrepresent themselves. It’s also important to note that there is the potential for real damage to the client’s credibility.

Keith V. Mabee,  APR: It seems that the overarching themes in our conversation — and what we’re reinforcing — are transparency and truth.

Lukaszewski: PSA-10 lists and describes “Specific Ethical Practices,” including candor, correction, clarification, transparency, professionalism and disclosure.

Whalen: On the issue of  “clarification,” people sometimes develop exaggerated introductions, thinking they’re being nice. But, if they give you a higher title, then the ethical practitioner has the obligation to correct that as quickly as possible.

Lukaszewski: Somewhere down the line, someone will put that information to the truth test and you’ll get the blame for failing to correct it.  You can’t say,  “Well, I didn’t want to embarrass the guy who misstated it in 2004.” Under our Code, you have an affirmative obligation to correct that information as promptly as you can, and notify the people who might be affected or who will make decisions based on that erroneous information.

McLaughlin: There are numerous examples of individuals who, in retrospect, wish they had made the correction when they became aware of a misstated degree or professional accomplishment.

Mabee: It’s part of our professional roles as the social consciences of our clients, corporations or organizations. The opportunity is there for us to take on that counseling role and to get tough on these issues about timely and full disclosure. Often that’s a war with lawyers or others because they’re always going to look at, “Well, what will this look like in court?” Court may be two or three years [away], but we’re in the court of public opinion right now.  And the court of public opinion can influence legal outcomes.

Debra Peterson, APR: Many of the practices listed in PSA-10 — such as transparency and disclosure — are especially important given the advent of social media. It doesn’t take long for examples of bad ethical practices to be circulated widely via social media channels. In addition, the information then has a long shelf life due to Internet search capabilities.

Frause: On the ethical question of pay for play, economic pressures are also a factor.  As media budgets tighten, you might find more journalists being hosted at events. This PSA says you have to acknowledge that you are hosting journalists. If you’re a PR person who was hosting a journalist, then the PSA requires that you make it clear that there is no expectation of special treatment. It’s just a matter of being honest and open. PSA-9 provides some excellent advice.

Whalen: We’re starting to see economic pressures within the media industry. This pressure results in more creativity in enticing corporations by offering some editorial coverage in exchange for ad placement, or allowing hyperlinks or banner ads on the Web site. That’s tying public relations and advertising together in a pay- for-play kind of mode. How do we counsel our members? Are we telling them that the editorial or every one of those little banner ads has to have some sort of a “paid advertising” caveat by it?

Lukaszewski: In PSA-9, under “Recommended Practices,” our obligation is to request that the journalist makes a disclosure. It appears that PSA-9 allows the practice even if the participating journalism organization refuses to disclose. How do we counsel here?

Duke: It’s become a real problem in trade publications, especially in the automotive industry where publications will offer a full page of editorial for a full-page ad.  We can ultimately turn down that offer.

Mary Graybill,  APR, Fellow PRSA: It’s also a huge problem in the travel industry and for many small, local media, including ethnic publications. Some publishers and editors from different cultures have different values and perspectives. In the travel industry, publishers seem to be doing just about anything they can to survive.

Lukaszewski: My suggestion to clients is to [add] a disclaimer [as] part of any paid space. “Considerations were provided by this journal in exchange for running this advertisement for your benefit” — even copy in the editorial portion that acknowledges the consideration.

Duke: I think that’s fine, Jim, except I think the concept is wrong. I don’t think there should be advertising linked with editorial coverage.

Frause: I agree with that, but I really see a more grim future. I could see the day when it was just normal to pay for editorial coverage.

Lukaszewski: One of the more insidious areas of phantom experience exploitation is with larger agencies and departments. It’s senior people who sell the work, but it’s junior people who show up to do the work.  The agency imperative is to bill to the contract rather than billing to the work. It’s the department’s imperative to bill to the budget, again, rather than to the work. If the agency has a $20,000 per month deal, they have to bill $20,000 of work every month. That means if on the fifteenth of the month, they’re not going to make their target by the end of the month, a bunch of strangers show up all of a sudden to do “work.”  This is unethical unless the client is aware and approves.

Whalen: When I worked on the corporate side and agencies worked for me, I would hear from junior account people how they would be asked to make calls to reporters. They would spend two or three days doing nothing but following up on something that had already been followed up on. Not only did it tick off the reporters, but it was [also in an] effort to raise the billing.

Tchividjian: I’ve been thinking about how the present economic situation affects our work as ethics officers. I [often] hear, “Let me survive first and we’ll talk about ethics later.” Ethics is perceived as a luxury, but it’s our challenge to demonstrate that more often than not, ethics or its clear absence [plays a major role].

Duke: Do you think that ethics officers and PR officers are the same thing? Or should there be a division there?

Tchividjian: Corporate ethics and PR ethics share common principles.

Whalen: The majority of ethics officers in corporations tend to be lawyers, but there are some PR people who have that role as well.

Tchividjian: You’re right. I think 60 percent are lawyers, about 20 percent are [in] HR and then the rest are miscellaneous positions relating to corporate ethics. I agree that those questions apply generally to ethics and not specifically to public relations.

Peterson: Our company has an award-winning ethics program called “Competing with Integrity.” It provides guidance on ethical issues to employees throughout the company.  The program is administered by our legal department, but they work closely with us in corporate communications to implement a communications strategy about the importance of ethics and compliance. However, this type of effort is only successful if you have the CEO’s visible support of the program.

Duke: I would say that the only person who can be the conscience of the company is its CEO — and that has to be first and foremost.

Lukaszewski: Every PR practitioner in every organization is exposed, to some degree, to the ethical dilemmas that organizations and leaders face every day. We need to be the ones who say, “I think that’s a relatively dumb idea” or “Let’s move on to something we can actually do.” Almost everyone in the room knows it’s dumb, knows it’s stupid, knows it’s unethical, but nobody says anything. So some of these things actually get going.

McLaughlin: Speaking truth to the powerful is the most difficult, but [it’s] arguably the most important function a PR practitioner can bring to the table.

Patricia A. Grey,  APR: At a time when people want to hide and protect their jobs, the role of the PR practitioner is to have the courage to confront the issues and wave the red flag. That’s challenging in these economic times, but it is a characteristic that we, as PR professionals, must support in each other. It involves the art of asking the right questions so that you can talk your client or employer through the issue to do the right thing.

Lukaszewski: In my practice, I tend to work with all the staff functions, including operations. I get to see the lawyers, the accountants and the HR people. The one thing I find consistent among PR practitioners and communicators is our tendency to avoid the tough stuff.  We may say something afterward, but we don’t say it in the meetings.  We sit there and let things happen, and then we wonder why the boss doesn’t call us and say,  “Gee, I like your view on this matter.”  It’s because we had a chance to give it, privately or publicly, but we avoid these things. We avoid conflict or controversy.

Grey: Isn’t that because PR practitioners want to be liked?

Tchividjian: We also are careful not to antagonize the client in any way. It’s a matter of courage and taking risks. I think that when we do take the risk of saying something the client might not like to hear, in hindsight we might be seen as valuable and courageous.  After all, why do they consult with us?

Duke: There’s another reason we don’t say anything immediately. It’s because we don’t feel confident enough that we have the hard business skills that some people do.

Whalen: You’re absolutely right. While our program is a communications program, I tell my students, “Do not get out of here without going over to the business school and taking accounting, finance [and] marketing. Take those business courses because you need to know what you’re talking about. You can’t always rely on other people to tell you the facts. You’ve got to know the facts yourself.”

Duke: Sometimes the business school doesn’t have room for [these students] because they’re not enrolled in the business program. We have to promote the idea of teaching business skills within the schools of journalism and mass communication.

Grey: We hear a lot about the need for critical thinking skills in the education of our youth. The truth is that practitioners need to apply critical thinking now.  We all must ask more probing questions. So you have hit on it. It’s not just [about] taking a business course. It’s [about] understanding how to think critically about a topic. This may not be our best skill, but it’s crucial in a global economy.

Graybill: I try to get as many facts as I can. My job is to give my clients my best counsel. If I don’t give them the benefits of my knowledge, skills and abilities — and do my best to steer them away from blunders — then I’m not giving them the service they pay for.  But, of course, they don’t always listen. Sometimes, it’s because I don’t offer my rationale in business terms. Other times, my critical thinking is out of sync with theirs.

McDonald: Educators have to provide just that kind of ethical counseling for students. [Students] must learn the value of doing the right thing before they begin a professional career. If not, these bad habits will eventually show up when they become professionals.

Whalen: A lot of what companies do now is mandated by law. In the early 1980s, I was involved with massive layoffs at an automotive firm. That company acted admirably and did [the downsizing] the right way. Not only was it the right thing to do, but it also paid off in many ways. Competitors with minor downsizings had union protests outside of their plants. Customers defected.  All kinds of terrible things happened, but our employees didn’t do any of those things.  We got accolades from all corners.  And that was because we did it the right way.

Tchividjian: One thing that I’m a little bothered about [by] a layoff is when you let someone go for cause, but your official comment is, “He will pursue other opportunities.”  That’s often a blatant lie. I think everybody knows it, but we still say it and it’s not ethical. On the other hand, we’re afraid of being sued by saying negative things and we don’t want to hurt the person more. What should we do?

Lukaszewski: Before I call it unethical, I’d want to hear the circumstances. In the cases where this is the outcome, in the majority of situations I’ve been involved in, it was more the wish of the individual themselves — for whatever reason, they knew they were leaving. It allowed them [to have] a neutral platform to relaunch themselves as opposed to the company taking the risk of saying something beyond [future plans].

Whalen: Making a statement that you’re moving on to pursue other activities is probably the most ethical statement you could make that doesn’t hurt others. It certainly translates to anyone who reads it that this person is [leaving] because things didn’t work out.


Alan Stamm says:

I could have used a professor as savvy as Dr. Whalen while majoring in journalism at Syracuse University's Newhouse School back in . . . well, more than a few decades ago. Writing, editing and even photography training was top-notch . . . but not so my exposure to marketing, finance or management -- as I regretted even before becoming a communications consultant. It's heartening to know DePaul communications students are advised: "Do not get out of here without going over to the business school and taking accounting, finance, marketing. Take those business courses because you need to know what you’re talking about." I hope that message also is heard, and heeded, at my alma mater.

Sept. 1, 2009

Alan Hilburg says:

Great points all...but one of the fundamental realities that drives this ethics discussion effectively do you speak truth to power? When asked to do something unethical how comfortable are you speaking truth to power? Knowingly making unethical decisions devalues the individual as well as the profession. So, does the current economic conditions contribute to unethical behavior? Absolutely, because the 'fear factor' is higher than in recent memory. Too many folks see unethical behavior as 'not really hurting anyone.' The reality is...ethics are less about ethics and more about values and how those values (or the lack of them) affect your decisions.

Sept. 8, 2009

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