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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