A front-page exposé in The Wall Street Journal this week offers both good news and bad news for those who care about ethics in the public relations profession. I’ll address the bad news first.
In an article headlined “Rival Chains Secretly Fund Opposition to Wal-Mart” (June7), Ann Zimmerman reports that Saint Consulting Group is using a variety of tactics that most PRSA members would find reprehensible. Many are in clear conflict with the PRSA Code of Ethics — with no gray areas. Zimmerman says that the firm, which “jokingly called its staff the ‘Wal-Mart killers,’” deployed front groups, phony employees with fake names, and other deceptive acts designed to prevent Wal-Mart’s entry into new markets.
Communities themselves get to choose whether Wal-Mart’s site selections are good or bad for their citizens. But those decisions should be based on ethical, honest and open communications in the public debate regardless of the point of view being expressed. Only truth and full disclosure can restore historically low trust in institutions. Those who damage that public trust must be called out.
The Journal story also notes that Saint, whose practices were revealed by former employees, actually appears to take pride in its behavior. The firm’s website links to a Forbes article (Feb. 16, 2009), proudly dubbed “reprinted by permission,” describing similar tactics to those uncovered by The Wall Street Journal.
Forbes reports: “Funds to pay, say, a traffic expert are sometimes handled through attorneys so they can’t be traced back to Saint or its client. (Patrick) Fox (Saint’s president) encourages neighbors to hold fundraisers, which further disguises Saint’s fingerprints; often its agents use fake names.”
Saint’s activities seem not to be illegal, but they clearly fall outside the bounds of the ethical practices to which public relations professionals subscribe, including the following PRSA Code of Ethics values:
- We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent.
- We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
- We are guided by a responsibility to serve the public interest.
- We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public.
Saint’s activities also run afoul of key Code principles, including:
- Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society. We must preserve the integrity of the process of communication and be honest and accurate in all communications.
- Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society. The intent is to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision-making. That includes revealing sponsors for causes and interests represented and avoiding deceptive practices.
- Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession of public relations, with the intent being to build respect and credibility with the public for the profession.
There is no record to suggest a Saint employee is or has been a PRSA member, and so it could be argued that our Society lacks jurisdiction to comment. Moreover, P. Michael Saint, chairman and CEO of the organization, makes no claim to its being a public relations firm —that’s the good news part of this story. Nonetheless, the company’s engagement of communications techniques makes the distinction irrelevant to observers who could reasonably view his firm’s practices as those of public relations practitioners.
For that reason, it is essential that we clearly and firmly declare our separation from this “dark side” of communications. As ethical public relations practitioners, we encourage every reputable business and practitioner to join PRSA in categorically condemning and disavowing these strategies and those who practice them.
Thomas E. Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards