Where’s the Ethics?

Where’s the “Ethics?” The question plays on the words of the famous Wendy’s advertisement from the 1980s that questioned the quantity of meat in a bun.  Recent events have led to repeated questions about the ‘quantity’ of ethics within public relations.

So, what do a public campaign for a library bond issue, a call for slogans about the positives of arctic drilling, the placement of obscene stickers on a billboard promoting an author and Batman themed inhalers all have in common? They were all fabrications strategically executed by various groups and individuals claiming to be public relations professionals.

In this new age of ubiquitous social channels, the pendulum is swinging ever faster to allow for campaigns that quickly and decisively mislead the public. Even more troubling is that the mainstream media buys into the message because of the level of attention they are receiving on today’s most popular new media.

So, is it ever alright to lie or obfuscate in order to further your client’s position? What if it is just a little white lie? I say no.

Referring once again to the words of Arthur W. Page – “Public relations is 90 percent what you do, and only 10 percent what you say.”

Last year a Troy, Mich. library was facing closure due to budget constraints. Without the passage of a tax increase the library would no longer be able to operate. Leo Burnett Detroit anonymously took to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with a campaign telling people to vote to close the library then attend a book burning party several days later. The outrage generated by the campaign drove people to the polls and the tax passed in a landslide.

The Yes Men – a group who describe themselves as “people impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them” – partnered with Coal Kills Kids (created using the web based petition website to launch a campaign last year touting free child-friendly themed inhalers for children suffering from asthma due to coal manufacturing. The website looked as though Peabody Energy had developed the program when in fact it was all a spoof designed to embarrass the coal industry.

In recent weeks, Greenpeace and the Yes Men created a social campaign encouraging fans of Shell Oil Co. to suggest slogans on the positives of drilling for oil in the arctic. The campaign was designed to infuriate environmentally friendly individuals whereby encouraging them to protest Shell and, in turn, make the company look bad in the eyes of the public.

Last month, a new book by a 25 year-old self-proclaimed “media manipulator” reiterated this trend of bad behavior by detailing the author’s own exploitation of social and mainstream media. He used extreme and dishonest measures to get attention for his clients. After successfully lying to the New York Times, ABC, CBS and MSNBC the man came clean and admitted that he had intentionally lied to create buzz and manipulate the media.  He even tried to characterize his deed as an act of ‘calling out bad behavior’.

The aforementioned are a handful of disturbing stories that have been uncovered recently. The next question is when, or how, can we encourage the cessation of these unethical practices.  The PRSA Code of Ethics cannot be any clearer — PRSA members must “avoid deceptive practices.”  And more importantly, our industry must, and should, encourage transparency and honesty.

Public relations professionals “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent,” and espouse core values such as independence (we are accountable for our actions), loyalty (we are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest) and fairness (we deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public).

A campaign that may appear to have good intentions can often incite outrage. As a profession, public relations professionals should not encourage this type of behavior. Our duty is not only to our client but also to the public. While a deceptive campaign can have a desired outcome it violates the beliefs that we stand for and therefore should never become public.

The public relations industry needs to stand together and speak out against unethical practices regardless of the motivation. Let’s start asking the question – “Where’s the ethics?”  By doing so, we can maintain public trust and encourage integrity.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is PRSA’s 2012 Chair and CEO.

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