Advocacy Ethics

Ethics and the Catbird Seat

Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important issues facing the public relations profession. This is the first post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.

At PRSA we take ethics seriously and hold our members to a high standard. Our Code of Ethics details acceptable behaviors for public relations professionals. Ethics is about more than adhering to words on a piece of paper, it is about acting in good conscience and advising others to do the same. The message that results from such actions is not always the most positive or favorable but it is inherently right and forever respected.

We have themed this year’s Ethics Month as “Act Ethically and Carry On” a take on the 1939 “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster created by the United Kingdom’s Ministry designed to strengthen morale in the face of potential wartime disaster. Our twist on the slogan reminds public relations professions to always act ethically and stay the course because that is the best course of action to take.

The time is nigh for public relations professionals to take the mantle of leadership an act upon the premise of good ethics as we take our seat at the table. As far as I can see, there is no longer the question of whether the public relations professional has a seat at the table but whether or not the practitioner is employing the seat in a manner that moves the organization forward and acts in the interests of all constituencies.

Social media infrastructure platforms have eternally changed the landscape of communications. A news cycle that once lent itself to printing deadlines that allowed time for thoughtful, strategic responses has now become a Twitter post that can go viral in a nanosecond and leave public relations professionals scrambling.

With new tools rapidly hitting cyberspace it is important that leaders are always mindful of their actions. Social media has a penchant for the misstep, the inconsiderate, and especially the ethical transgression.

Ethical flubs are merely enhanced by the presence of social media. Twitter, Facebook and the like act as a conduit for spotlighting bad behavior and providing fodder for the media circus.

As the mediums of information continue to evolve it is more important than ever for public relations professionals to serve as the conscience of an organization. A prescriptive approach to ethics must be adhered to and communicated to leadership.

Ethics should always be at the forefront of the practitioners mind and thoughtful diligence applied when decisions are made. Those in the C-suite have a variety of interests to protect and are often driven by the legal ramifications of a situation rather than the ethical or reputational consequences. Legal counsel generally has the ear of the CEO, leaving the corporate practitioner on the sidelines or out of the picture.

Progressive Insurance recently found itself in crisis communications mode when it defended its involvement in litigation with automated Tweets that read “[w]e feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations.” The company was responding to a blog post by the brother of woman killed in a car accident who claimed that Progressive was bankrolling defendant’s legal counsel in a lawsuit to determine who the responsible party was for the accident.

The cold, unfeeling tone of the message speaks of a well trained lawyer trying to avoid litigation at any cost, rather than the reputational words that a public relations professional would craft. In fact, the legalese automatically spit out by Progressive led to a loss of privileges on Twitter and a public social media flogging.

Sometimes ethics isn’t as difficult as following a code. Rather it is simply about acting in good conscience and doing what inherently feels right. Unfortunately, this does not always cast the most favorable light on a client but can stave off the type of public humiliation Progressive endured.

Progressive is hardly the first organization to find itself in the legal versus public relations war of words. In 2007, Toyota Motor Sales was alerted to a potential issue of sudden acceleration problems in their vehicles. After an investigation, Toyota announced there was an issue with the design of their floor mat that was interfering with the accelerator. This is where the real trouble started for Toyota.

Two years later a California Highway Patrol Officer and his family lost their lives in a car accident when the vehicle unexpectedly began to accelerate and could not be stopped. Toyota faced recalls by the federal government and proposed a solution of using zip-ties to hold the floor mats in place. Shortly thereafter a family in Texas endured the same fate following an acceleration issue – the floor mats were in the trunk of the vehicle.

Toyota went through several iterations of strategy before finally issuing an apology three years after the initial reported incident. A communique from an ethically minded public relations professional went ignored. The head of Toyota should have immediately come out with a public apology followed by a statement that the company values life and will let nothing stand in the way of finding the cause of the sudden acceleration. Instead, Instead, Toyota fumbled for three years with an issue that resulted in multiple fatalities.

Public relations professionals are in the catbird’s seat and need to jump feet first to ensure that their organizations are acting ethically, responsibly and in the interest of all constituencies. Ethics is leadership. There is no one better placed to provide leadership and counsel than an organization’s public relations professional.

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

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