Ethical vs. Unethical: A Lot Rides on Only 2 Letters

Neon toys signMere weeks after the PR world was shocked with news of unethical product review practices of client-developed iPhone apps by Reverb Communications, the profession is again faced with revelations of supposedly unethical practices, this time stemming from the undisclosed use of paid spokespeople by the toy industry as supposedly third-part, objective experts on local TV newscasts throughout the country, as Los Angeles Times media columnist Jim Rainey chronicled last week.

This glaring example of ethical misgivings from the toy industry brings clear an ugly truth in the new world of public relations: what is often best for the client is increasingly winning out over what is most ethical and best for consumers.

And that’s bad news for anyone serious about seeing the profession evolve and thrive.

Despite what many social media experts and gurus would like us to believe, these nefarious practices are happening just as often within the digital/social media space (as Reverb’s settled charges with the FTC demonstrated) as they are within the traditional space.

Unfortunately, what has become apparent is that client allegiances within not only the toys industry, but several other consumer- and investor-focused industries, matter more than transparent and ethical practices. According to a tweet from The LA Times’ Rainey last Thursday, one day after his story broke:

The media, PR communities have lot to say re proliferation of pay-to-play spots on the news. Toy makers silent so far.

Sadly, the lack of explanation for these unethical practices (and that’s exactly what they are) gives regular, everyday people the impression that those of us who work in media—whether on the journalistic/editorial side, or within PR and advertising—think of consumers as schmucks who can’t tell when the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

Clearly, they can, and we should be thankful for that. As PR professionals, this very skepticism largely gives us ever more reason to be strategic and objective counselors for clients.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: Where do our allegiances lie? Is it with clients that pay our bills and keep our agencies running? With the media (reporters, bloggers, radio/TV hosts, etc.) who provide us ample earned media space? Or with consumers, the very people who ultimately make the purchasing and brand-affinity decisions that provide us with clients in the first place?

The transparency of social media, combined with a nagging recession that has shrunk resources and staffs of news outlets, means that PR professionals are increasingly faced with increasing opportunities and pitfalls.

The reality of today’s media landscape means there are ample amounts of editorial space waiting to be filled by experts; yet those editorial decisions are often being made by inexperienced junior producers, editors and reporters eager to fill editorial space, but also impressionable when met with a savvy professional on the other side (PR).

Ultimately, efforts throughout the profession—both by PRSA and its month-long ethics education series, and by individual professionals and agencies—will have to overcome the rather glaring instances of unethical practices that continue to creep up within PR.

For better or worse, ethical practices are now the most pressing issue facing the profession.

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  • Extremely important topic Keith,
    Unfortunately, while the channels change over time, the issue has always been there in PR. It’s why the industry continues to struggle with credibility and the perception that we’re often just paid lackeys instead of smart strategic thinkers.

    The key point I think about when faced with any decision that makes me feel even just a little sense of concern is that this is my name, my reputation. I expect (and need- unless that lottery thing comes through) to work in this profession for a long time. Trading your reputation, embarrassing the profession, and killing your future seem a little short-sighted to me. I think I’d rather say no to a client or boss willing to cross that ethical line.

    • Dave – Thanks for chiming in. I like your perspective that ultimately, every decision we make as professionals will have some type of impact on our own personal and professional reputation – whether that’s a decision to ensure we build a kick-ass media tour for a client, or if we’re faced with a situation that could put us in an ethical bind.

      The question I have, and where I think the professional as a whole often struggles is: How do we turn that personal decision to be ethical when faced with certain precarious situations into an agency-wide thought process? Not saying it’s not always thought of on an agency-wide basis, but it’s something that I think the culture of that agency needs to be one where top-down, bottom-up and everywhere in between, people are one in the same when believing, like you, that ultimate, it’s their reputation, the reputation of their agency and the reputation of the PR profession on the line whenever faced with ethical decisions.

  • Travis Van

    Re. “undisclosed use of paid spokespeople as supposedly third-part, objective experts”

    IMHO this is a fairly standard / widespread practice in the tech industry, via industry analysts. Of course not to say ALL analysts (or even most). But SOME of the very most important / influential analyst firms operate under sometimes-subte-sometimes-not-so-subtle-wink-wink-paid-clients-get-better-placements tactics. And when the wheels are sufficiently greased, it’s routine for those types of analysts to parade around with supporting quotes / endorsements on behalf of said vendors. And most of the time when a small fry vendor cries about the inequity of the set-up and lack of objectivity of analysis by the biggest firms, it’s cast aside as “sour grapes.” This has been going on routinely for decades.

    I find the firms profiting from systematic extortion for decades to be the most truly disturbing of all ethical issues in tech PR. If the ethics police are going to get riled up in tech PR – I’d recommend they start by focusing there, rather than looking at individual vendors’ unscrupulous tactics in a single campaign.

    • Interesting points, Travis, re: the use of undisclosed paid spokespeople within the tech industry. I think you make a valid point that in order to attack ethical issues from a profession-wide basis, at a certain point, specific groups that have been engaging in unethical practices for quite some time will have to be addressed as a group, rather than through individual, specific actions.

      Though I do think a blending between education and advocacy efforts that the profession is doing as a whole, combined with individual focus on engaging in ethical practices, will ultimately prove to be the tipping point toward a more ethical, honest and transparent profession, one where instances such as those noted in this post are merely isolated incidents, rather than something that brings to light ugly truths.

      Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts and insight!

  • maddymilan

    Re: “Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: Where do our allegiances lie?”

    As you hinted, keeping ethical (and being good at your job) means balancing your responsibility to all the groups you mentioned – clients, employers and consumers.

    But even if you believe (which I don’t) that your sole responsibility is to your client, that should still be enough to stop you from acting unethically. Because if, as these examples show, you act unethically on behalf of a client and get caught (which you almost always will), it harms your client’s reputation (as well as yours and your profession’s). Risking your client’s reputation isn’t serving them well at all, so should be enough to steer even the most client-focused PR professional away from acting unethically.