A few years ago, our colleagues at the Arthur W. Page Society published The Authentic Enterprise, a whitepaper that addresses the communications professional’s changing role. The paper emphasizes that:
“ … the corporation that wants to … achieve long-term success must, more than ever before, be grounded in a sure sense of what defines it — why it exists, what it stands for and what differentiates it in a marketplace of customers, investors and workers. Those definitions — call them values, principles, beliefs, mission, purpose or value proposition — must dictate consistent behavior and actions.”
I got to thinking about this recently when PRSA declined to take up a call-to-arms from Josh Bernoff, a well-respected analyst at Forrester Research and former PRSA conference keynoter, who was urging PRSA to create an industry-wide certification program for public relations professionals “who behave properly,” and to “de-certify” people “who don’t appear to care.”
Specifically, Bernoff was challenging PRSA to reduce the incidence of Spam email that he and other bloggers receive from public relations firms and corporate communications departments. “Right now,” Bernoff lamented, “every failure to respect an unsubscribe tarnishes [the public relations] industry.”
PRSA’s response was as honest as it was unequivocal: “We like the idea, but it’s not for us.” In other words, we support the end, we just disagree on the means.
Having taken a fresh look at The CAN-SPAM Act, Josh contacted us again yesterday. He asked, “which of the following statements would [PRSA] agree with?
PR emails, like any other marketing emails, are covered by CAN SPAM rules. As a result, all PR people must include an unsubscribe link in any emails they send to a group, and are responsible for removing people from their mailing lists when requested. PR people who don’t do this are subject to prosecution under the CAN SPAM act, and media people are within their rights to file complaints of this kind.
PR people are pursuing a relationship, not selling a product, and therefore are not covered by the CAN SPAM rules. CAN SPAM complaints should not apply in this case.
PRSA will study this, but does not have a position on it right now.
It’s not PRSA’s role to take a position on this issue.”
We answered him by saying that PRSA’s opinion cannot be neatly pigeonholed into any of these four responses.
What We Believe
Our view is that it’s the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s domain to enforce The CAN-SPAM Act, and to determine whether or not electronic communications between public relations professionals and journalists and bloggers are communications that may be regulated under the Act. That said, we’re not aware of any instances in which the FTC has investigated or taken action against public relations firms or their employees, or against corporations or their in-house communicators, for conduct that may be improper under the Act.
As for PRSA’s role, we see it as inspiring, motivating, focusing and illustrating for our members — and the broader public relations profession — what ethical behavior is and is not. We believe that every public relations professional has a role to play in policing the profession; that factual matters of law should be resolved in the courts or by the appropriate legislative or regulatory body; and that we should not “boot out” members who may have acted unethically anymore than a church looks to boot out parishioners who may have sinned.
Not long after The CAN-SPAM Act became effective in May 2004, for example, PRSA assembled a list of resources to help its members comply with the Act’s requirements. Then as now, PRSA did not take a position, advise its members on compliance or attempt to interpret the legislation, though we’ll continue to watch for updated guidance from the FTC and reevaluate our approach if and when the public relations industry might be impacted.
Contrast that with the very public way that PRSA supported (in a blog post, “For Immediate Release” podcast and letter to the editor of PRWeek UK) the Media Spamming Charter advanced by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and supported by the UK’s National Union of Journalists. Bernoff and supporters of his proposal will no doubt find it interesting that CIPR’s approach is similar to PRSA’s, in that the Charter is meant to guide CIPR members and the UK public relations profession on standards of conduct when working with the media and bloggers; it is not meant as a mechanism for professional “de-certification.”
Time and again, PRSA chooses to educate and inspire, rather than regulate and enforce. Even PRSA’s Social Media Policy (which is available free to both PRSA members and non-members), includes best-practices for working with bloggers:
Working with Bloggers
Similar to pitching traditional media, there are best practices to engaging bloggers. An unsolicited e-mail to a blogger from a public relations professional is often considered to be spam. PRSA recommends that you research the blogger, his/or her community, how the community interacts with the blogger, how members interact with one another, prior posts and the blogger’s professional areas of interest. Even knowing his/her personal interests can be helpful.
Very simply, this is a business best practice, regardless of whether or not such unsolicited email constitutes SPAM, and opinions on that vary.
Truth is, Mr. Bernoff is asking PRSA to solve a problem that it doesn’t have the authority or proclivity to solve. And that’s not because PRSA is disinterested, but because we tried ethics enforcement and public shaming for 50 years, and we know it doesn’t work. Not one of the cases — zero — that PRSA investigated between 1950 and 2000 resulted in sanctions or official notifications of “violations.”
Why is that? At the most basic level are issues of cooperation, cost, staffing, jurisdiction (the entire profession, or just PRSA members?) and, of course, a legal fund to defend PRSA against anyone who felt we came to the wrong conclusion in “de-certifying” him or her. And it isn’t just PRSA that has reached this conclusion: even the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), an organization of association management professionals, urges caution on the subject of enforceable codes.
Anyone who argues that PRSA should cede to Forrester’s wishes simply for publicity’s sake doesn’t know much about us, or apparently about the practice of public relations generally. (If you still think publicity for publicity’s sake is a good idea, see “Sheen, Charlie.” But then again, you can always find someone who thinks Charlie’s publicity campaign is going just swell).
PRSA often receives unsolicited advice, suggestions and criticisms through social media channels. None are particularly unwelcome, when done for reasons other than to build personal brands or generate traffic. When viewed through a constant-improvement lens, such feedback can be invaluable, which is why we monitor social media for such criticisms, take them seriously and change when we feel it’s necessary and in our members’ best interests. Anyone who has watched PRSA closely for the last five years knows of the positive changes and progress that we have made as an organization over that time.
Having addressed the issue of industry ethics for more than half a century, and having adapted our approach based on our own experience, expert legal counsel and association best practices, we’re comfortable in our own skin and confident that it was the right choice to turn this one down. That’s the authentic position.
William Murray, CAE, is the chief operating officer of PRSA.