Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is “Ethical PR” an Oxymoron?

It's very hard to conjure up a sentence containing the words “ethical” and “public relations” without inviting ridicule and invective. In the popular imagination the whole point of public relations is to flex the truth, to manipulate and obfuscate the facts of things in the self-serving interests of a client. In the war between Hack and Flack, most often it's journalists who come off as the protectors of truth's virtue, and PR pros as grubby low-lifes. They make Oscar-winning movies about investigative journalists; I can't think of a single movie that has a flack as its hero.

This all came to mind when I read that Cambridge-based consulting firm Monitor Group had taken on Moammhar Khadafy and Libya as a client, their brief being to somehow rehabilitate the dictator's image and “generate positive news coverage of the country.” Yuck. Then today Kirk Hazlett, writing on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America in the letters page of the Boston Globe, felt inclined to point out that (a) Monitor Group is most definitely not a public relations agency, and (b) organizations like the PRSA have a code of ethics designed to deal with just these sort of nasty situations. Needless to say, Hazlett's letter was greeted with the ridicule and invective mentioned above.

So, what's the truth here? Are PR firms – and their employees – a bunch of unscrupulous peddlers of lies, damn lies and even more damn lies? Are they turning a blind eye to obvious evil in exchange for a retainer contract plus expenses? Do they meddle in political affairs and do business with dictators?

Well, sometimes.

Lets first agree that if your client is Rwanda, Uganda, Kazakhstan or Sri Lanka, you're doing business with folks that have reputation issues that go well beyond your usual brand management challenges. These countries, and others like them, engage in torture, corruption and murder of their own citizens on a grand and well-documented scale. And they've all had representation by PR firms, including major names like Hill & Knowlton. Edelman represented Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and even today the Brit PR agency Bell Pottinger is representing Bahrain. Rehabilitating third-world despots is a thriving business.

So, whatever the PRSA may say, plenty of PR firms do deals with devils. But is this sufficient to damn a whole industry?

Of course not. The other side of the flack coin is that many agencies do wonderful work for organizations that are fighting the most to make changes in these dictatorships. Amnesty International, UNICEF, Oxfam and others have all relied on agency support.

The problem, I suspect, is in the toothless declarations made by organizations like the PRSA about “codes of ethics.” We should ask ourselves what consequences arise if these ethical codes are violated, and to what extent the PRSA and others police agencies to ensure compliance. It's interesting to note that whenever a TV shows attracts the ire of public watchdogs, as MTV's Skins has recently done, advertisers vote by removing their financial support. I don't see many clients of PR agencies taking a similar view, and this too should be questioned.


Arthur Yann, VP/PR, PRSA said...

Hi Ian,

Thanks for your interest in the ethical conduct of public relations professionals; it's a topic that's definitely on the mind of today's practitioners.

Unfortunately, you (and you're not alone) are asking PRSA to solve a problem that we don't have the authority or proclivity to solve. And that's not because we're passive or disinterested, but because we tried ethics enforcement and public shaming for 50 years (http://ow.ly/4aTmR), and we know it doesn't work. Not one of the cases — zero — that PRSA investigated between 1950 and 2000 resulted in sanctions or official notifications of "violations."

Why is that? At the most basic level are issues of cooperation, cost, staffing, jurisdiction (we have no authority to "regulate" the industry beyond our own 32,000 members) and, of course, a legal fund to defend PRSA against anyone who felt we came to the wrong conclusion in "sanctioning" him, her or it. And it isn't just PRSA that has reached this conclusion: even the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), an organization of association management professionals, urges caution on the subject of enforceable codes (http://ow.ly/4aTqd).

PRSA views its role as one of inspiring, motivating, focusing and illustrating for our members — and the broader public relations profession — what ethical behavior is and is not. We believe that every public relations professional has a role to play in policing the profession; that factual matters of law should be resolved in the courts or by the appropriate legislative or regulatory body; and that we should not "boot out" members who may have acted unethically anymore than a church looks to boot out parishioners who may have sinned.

May I ask what industry group you belong to, and what it is doing to address the issue of ethics in the public relations profession?

Ian Bruce said...


First, many thanks for posting such as thoughtful and considered response. I think it's a great testament to the PRSA that you consider ethics such an important topic and take it so seriously.

To answer your last question first, I'm a marketing professional with a background in technology. I taught briefly at Syracuse University's Newhouse School while I got a PhD there, so I'm very familiar with the theory and practice of public relations. I'm not a member of the PRSA or other PR organization. I currently run PR and AR for a large, publicly-traded IT company but my background is really marketing.

I'm sympathetic to the arguments you make. The PRSA has very limited jurisdiction, limited resources, and would struggle to wield a stick with any real threat. Or at least, I'd agree that historically that was certainly true.

I have two main reactions to your comment. First, I'm concerned that the PRSA would argue that sanctioning unethical behavior is in itself ineffective. Signaling publicly that a member of an organization has breached a code is, if nothing else, a classic PR ploy and I'm confused why a PR association wouldn't use it. “Name and Shame” can work. Second, I do think that times have changed. You say that “not one of the cases — zero — that PRSA investigated between 1950 and 2000 resulted in sanctions or official notifications of 'violations.'” In the last decade we've seen a revolution in mass communications and the technologies that underpin the information economy. Publicly admonishing those that breach a code of ethical behavior is a greater threat today, if the PRSA has the courage to enforce. And needless to say, the heightened level of transparency today places new pressure on organizations like the PRSA to not just suggest a code, but to take action.

Finally, I would say that my blog post oversimplifies things. Doing business with a third-world dictatorship is hardly the unique province of PR agencies. Our government and many multinationals routinely conduct business with all the countries I mentioned. There's an argument to be said that engagement can engender change. In some few cases, this may be the motivation. In a few.

Thanks again.