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.”
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.”
“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 . . . .