Ethics…you mean there are ethics?

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ms. Campbell, who was kind enough to grace me with her xomapny at dinner last week along w/ ms. Vallejo and ms sena, recently brought us this blog post addressing ethics in our chosen profession — the great world of public relations in it’s various forms.
as in many other fields there are some bright lines that we dare nit cross. then there are those ethically grey areas. yes(!) — there can be ethically grey areas, not evwrythjng is black or white. these usually pop up when our own ethical rules for various areas of our life come into conflict and we must step up and make that decision of what/which is most important to us.
first let’s understand that ethics is diferejt than morality and differnt than legality. that could be (and is likely) the topic of thousands of blog posts (an dissertations). but for the purpose of separating the issues consider a physician in a state that does not permit assisted suicide.  certainly the doxtor’s priority is healing the sick, but in circumstances where that is a lost cause where does the physician’s duty lie — to his science to continue treating the untreatable or to end the suffering of his patient in any way he can.
certainly our own issues are rarely this dire but on a near daily basis we can potentilly confronted with issues where our various duties lie in conflict.
I do work with accounkng firms. not infrequently they’re called upon to present expert pinion on relevant topics.

This one’s in response (expansion) to a post from the lovely Ms. Campbell (@prsoapbox), who was kind enough to grace me with her company at dinner last week along with Ms. Vallejo and Ms. Sena. She recently brought us this blog post addressing the ethics in our chosen profession—the great world of public relations in its various forms.

As in many other fields, there are some bright lines that we dare not cross. Then there are those ethically grey areas.  Yes (!)—there can be ethically grey areas, not everything is easily placed on a black or white square. These usually pop up when our own ethical rules for various areas of our life (personal and professional) come into conflict and we must step up and make the decision of what/which is most important to us.

First let’s understand that “ethics” is different than legality and slightly different than morality as it is usually used.  “Morality” usually has the ring of “good” or “pure” as defined by the Judeo-Christian religious movement.  For good or bad, ethical issues usually require deeper analysis than simply “What would the good book expect of me?”

These issues by themselves could be (and are likely) the topic of thousands of blog posts (and dissertations)—i.e. that it is always unethical to break the law.  Yet some of our greatest social changes have taken place because of those willing to set a foot outside the bounds of legality.

For the purpose of separating the legal/ethical issue consider a physician in a state that does not permit assisted suicide.  Certainly the doctor’s priority is healing the sick, but in circumstances where that is a lost cause, where does the physician’s duty lie? To his science, to continue treating the untreatable; to the concept of always maintaining life, even if the person living that life does not consider it worthwhile; or to assist ending the suffering of his patient in any way he can?  It’s a thorny ethical issue.  The law, however, provides a clear line in the sand.

These aren’t easy questions and certainly our own issues are rarely this dire, but on a near daily basis we can be confronted with issues addressing where our various duties lie in conflict.

Anyway, back to PR . . . .

I do some work with accounting firms [100% red herring, but close enough in truth that the analogy carries]. Not infrequently they’re called upon to present an expert opinion on relevant topics.

Let’s review our top ethical priorities as PR Pros (in no particular order):

  • Do our best work for the client (part of this is doing as the client requests—it’s their dime and they don’t always clue us into all of their logic so sometimes we just have to take the marching orders).
  • Be responsible to the journalists that rely on us/that we have or are trying to build relationships with.
  • Be honest (with the implied caveat: whenever possible).

And so it was one casual afternoon I got a call from a reporter seeking comment from one of our accounting firms.  Made the usual promises: we’ll check with client, definitely get back to you by deadline, etc.

Call client.  Turns out they can’t comment—they worked for a company that had been acquired by this larger company and there’s likely an ethical issue since they have inside information on the company.  “No problem,” I begin. “I’ll let the reporter know there’s a potential conflict and you can’t comment.”

“Don’t do that—we’d prefer he not even know we worked for the acquired company,” Client responds. “Just don’t return his call and let your calls go to voicemail. We’d prefer they not even wonder why we can’t comment.”

Argh!!!!!

Now this is just a one-time call, but to not at least call the journalist back is bad form and does a disservice to your reputation and your other clients in the sector because it means you may lose your place on the journalist’s call sheet if you’re not reliable.

What to do?

  • Take the instruction of the client and potentially hurt the relationship and your representation of other clients.
  • Call the journalist, notwithstanding the client’s instruction, so you’re at least letting them know you won’t have anyone.
  • Or wait—try the white lie.

“Hi Bob . . . sorry, Client X won’t be able to comment; the right person to speak on the issue is on a plane at the moment.”

“Oh, too bad.  Thanks Cog.”

Next Day

“Cog, it’s Bob.  My deadline’s been extended [slam head on desk]. Can Client X talk now?”

“Let me check . . . I think they mentioned something about a 2-week ocean cruise . . . .”

Yes, this is all a bit melodramatic, but the scenario above has happened to me on more than one occasion in some form or another. (It seems the concept of an actual deadline is long gone.)

This is, of course, also a very light-weight issue but the same concepts extend to headier ethical questions in the practice of PR.

The final question ends up being: Which of your ethical obligations do you hold over the others?

And here’s where it turns into a real mindgame—that analysis will be different for each person and each agency.  For some (in our example) the sector could be their bread and butter and the relationship with the reporter is of utmost importance.  For others the client is 60% of their business and they don’t have clients in the sector so serving the client is a higher priority.

Here’s the real kicker—it’s no one’s duty or right, in these highly grey areas, to condemn the defensible actions of the person (or group) that had to make the decision.  Academic discussion is one thing, but given that no one will likely ever know each factor weighed when making a heavy ethical decision any such discussion will be incomplete.  That being said, for the sake of our profession, we definitely should examine the trials and tribulations of others to learn from them.

Outside the bright line of what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s our decision to form our own ethical code (which will hopefully be continually reviewed) and live by it—proudly.

Let the attacks begin . . . .

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  • http://Beedoodles.com/ @h0neyb

    It was sure nice meeting y'all.. I think you did the right thing with client x.. It must be hard being the nice guy but still trying to please everyones wishes. If white lies don't kill anyone, I say “Cheers to White Lies!”

  • colleencampbell

    Cog,
    Great post! I appreciate you weighing-in. Your example about the reporter requesting comment is a good representation of the tough situations PR Pros find themselves facing each day. In my post, I was trying to address the services (some of which the PRSA referenced in its press release on ethics) and how misrepresenation online, pay-for-play, and the lack of transparency of some firms will hurt the PR industry long term (e.g. agency loses business b/c they refuse to post positive comments or attack a client's competition on blogs, industry forums or even worse provide fake reviews/commentary, etc. ). For me, it's more about where the public relations business model is heading with the implementation and execution of services that may be unethical (or anti-PR) to start with. Some PR pros feel that they can't (shouldn't) push back on clients in these tough times (they're paying us aren't they?) However, I find a PR Pro's “value add” often comes from educating, directing and when necessary pushing back on clients to make sure they get the outcome they want, while protecting their brand and our own reputations in the industry. Now is the time to instill lasting ethical and strategic communications practices that reinforces all that is good and necessary about our profession. Again, great post Cog! Lots of food for thought! :) I enjoyed meeting you h0neyB and Amanda when you were in DC!

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Good thoughts here, Cog. I think depending on your firm's focus, a flack can find himself answering to four or five different masters. For example, since I work with books, we have to maintain the author, the publishing house, the editorial team, our journo colleagues, our own company's reputation, and any number of people who were also involved in the book. You can try to make everyone happy but sometimes situations crop up where it is clear that someone's interests will not be met, and you have to decide who you have the most obligation toward.

    It's complicated!

  • http://twitter.com/PRCog PRCog

    Hi Colleen -

    You're definitely correct — if we're headed in the wrong direction from the planning stage it's a very bad sign. I would hope we all start with the best of intentions and the ethical issues get sticky when the human variables are thrown in. Then again that's probably me just being optimistic (is that possible?).

    I also agree on the pushback issue. For smaller agencies I think this is particularly tough with large clients…boutiques and freelancers are a dime a dozen, if the client was the agency to just act as an additional layer but the client still runs the show completely they can go anywhere (and IMHO should). More complex when there are employees and an actual company to run tho.

    Thanks again,
    P

  • http://twitter.com/PRCog PRCog

    I hadn't even considered the hell of a 3 headed snake client — author, publishing house and ed. team.

    Of course, a carefully crafted lie should keep everyone happy ;)

  • http://Beedoodles.com/ @h0neyb

    It was sure nice meeting y'all.. I think you did the right thing with client x.. It must be hard being the nice guy but still trying to please everyones wishes. If white lies don't kill anyone, I say “Cheers to White Lies!”

  • colleencampbell

    Cog,
    Great post! I appreciate you weighing-in. Your example about the reporter requesting comment is a good representation of the tough situations PR Pros find themselves facing each day. In my post, I was trying to address the services (some of which the PRSA referenced in its press release on ethics) and how misrepresenation online, pay-for-play, and the lack of transparency of some firms will hurt the PR industry long term (e.g. agency loses business b/c they refuse to post positive comments or attack a client's competition on blogs, industry forums or even worse provide fake reviews/commentary, etc. ). For me, it's more about where the public relations business model is heading with the implementation and execution of services that may be unethical (or anti-PR) to start with. Some PR pros feel that they can't (shouldn't) push back on clients in these tough times (they're paying us aren't they?) However, I find a PR Pro's “value add” often comes from educating, directing and when necessary pushing back on clients to make sure they get the outcome they want, while protecting their brand and our own reputations in the industry. Now is the time to instill lasting ethical and strategic communications practices that reinforces all that is good and necessary about our profession. Again, great post Cog! Lots of food for thought! :) I enjoyed meeting you h0neyB and Amanda when you were in DC!

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Good thoughts here, Cog. I think depending on your firm's focus, a flack can find himself answering to four or five different masters. For example, since I work with books, we have to maintain the author, the publishing house, the editorial team, our journo colleagues, our own company's reputation, and any number of people who were also involved in the book. You can try to make everyone happy but sometimes situations crop up where it is clear that someone's interests will not be met, and you have to decide who you have the most obligation toward.

    It's complicated!

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    Hi Colleen -

    You're definitely correct — if we're headed in the wrong direction from the planning stage it's a very bad sign. I would hope we all start with the best of intentions and the ethical issues get sticky when the human variables are thrown in. Then again that's probably me just being optimistic (is that possible?).

    I also agree on the pushback issue. For smaller agencies I think this is particularly tough with large clients…boutiques and freelancers are a dime a dozen, if the client was the agency to just act as an additional layer but the client still runs the show completely they can go anywhere (and IMHO should). More complex when there are employees and an actual company to run tho.

    Thanks again,
    P

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com PR Cog

    I hadn't even considered the hell of a 3 headed snake client — author, publishing house and ed. team.

    Of course, a carefully crafted lie should keep everyone happy ;)

  • Kayla

    Recently I interviewed a PR professional but before that, I
    did my research. To my surprise, her social media sights were clean, pleasant,
    and even open to the public. That’s when my first experience with the “grey
    areas” started. She explained to me that as someone in PR, you have to have a
    good reputation and that includes being ethical in all aspects of your life. She
    explained that working in PR can and will go over into your personal life. I
    like that you made the ethical priorities simple and easy to follow. I will
    remember that PR has ethical obligations to their clients due to your post.