Don’t Blame it on Marketing

I read a worrisome (to me) article in The Boston Globe recently about a local healthcare provider’s activities relating to a planned customer satisfaction survey.

The gist of the story was that the organization had prepared a special script specifically for use by its customer service representatives when contacted by any existing subscriber who the organization knew would be contacted by the survey company.

Not to be used for other callers, mind you. Just for those who the organization knew would be included in the survey.

When contacted by a reporter from the Globe, of course, the organization’s response was pro forma: “We are committed to quality customer service,” etc. etc.

What wasn’t addressed was why just a specific audience would receive special treatment.

Now the cynic in me immediately said, “Hmmm. Why, indeed?”

And the skeptic residing among my multiple personalities asked, “Might this have something to do with future marketing plans?”

How convenient it would be to have “fresh” data showing that subscribers are raving about the high quality of customer service they have received from the organization!

I immediately thought of PRSA’s Code of Ethics and its admonishments to conduct open and honest communication with the publics we serve.

Manipulation of data does not translate into “open and honest.”

Perhaps the answer to this is that “well, we didn’t have anything to do with this…this was a marketing initiative.”

Deflecting the blame doesn’t change the perception of questionable activity, nor does it make the situation go away. It does, however, lead to yet another set of questions about the level of cooperation and collaboration that exists between the PR folks and the marketers.

As I tell my undergrad PR students at Curry College, our focus is on relationships, both external and internal. Selective ignorance of other departments’ activities doesn’t fit into this area.

In addition, any organization that is structurally designed to keep interdependent functional areas separate is doing a disservice both to its publics (who lose the benefit of combined thought processes) and to its employees (who, I firmly believe, have the best interests of the company and its publics at heart).

There’s a reason why it’s called “public relations,” and that reason is to ensure that all concerned parties, both internal and external, are afforded the opportunity to make decisions based on information available to all.

One key role of the public relations counsel is to act as the “corporate conscience,” which implies that someone in the organization’s public relations department should have raised his or her hand and asked the very simple question, “Are you sure this special treatment of a specific group of customers will provide us with unbiased information that we can use in future communication and marketing initiatives?”

Manipulation of information with the intent of misleading the public is neither ethical nor good business practice. As we know oh-so-well, sooner or later that public will find out, so here’s a thought…Don’t do it in the first place!

And if you choose to sit silent and allow an action to take place that your professional sense tells you is unethical and the public finds out…don’t “blame it on marketing.”

About the author

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk was inducted into PRSA’s prestigious College of Fellows in 2009 and is one of just two actively-teaching college professors in Massachusetts to have earned this distinction. You can read more of Kirk’s musings at his blog “A Professor’s Thought” and follow him on Twitter @KirkHazlett.


  • I experienced healthcare communication in action this morning.  My husband paid a visit to our local emergency room, where he had just had an MRI about three weeks ago.  He had to answer all of the “new patient” 15 minute admission questions again because the hospital doesn’t “share” the information between departments.  The nurse patiently (no pun intended) explained that the data resides on one computer but is complicated to retrieve between departments, so they just collect it again…and again…and again.  I am not raving about this care experience, because what I saw is one more example of “I don’t want to change.” 

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