Last week Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, Utah, admitted to creating a false identity as a freelance writer “to try to restore balance” by increasing the number of positive news stories about his city over a two-year period. The deception included a fake Facebook page, the stolen image of a former professional tennis player and representing himself to multiple local publications via email and phone conversations as the made-up freelance writer “Richard Burwash.”
According to Winder, everything he wrote as Burwash was “100 percent truthful, accurate and verifiable.” He has stated publicly that he is not a member of the Public Relations Society of America and not a public relations professional, although he does serve as a director of public affairs for a local communications firm. However, at issue is how this incident reflects on professional communicators, the city Winder represents as Mayor (West Valley City, Utah) and Utah.
PRSA members commit to a Code of Ethics designed to protect the public relations profession and each other.
The Code is designed to promote the public good. Public relations professionals “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate” (PRSA Code of Ethics, Advocacy). Furthermore, we “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public” (PRSA Code of Ethics, Honesty).
Yes, PR professionals advocate — often vigorously — on behalf of those we represent. Our job is to promote a particular position or organization. But we also have an obligation to provide objective counsel to those we serve and to serve the public good by increasing awareness of an issue.
Many PR professionals are familiar with Winder’s chief complaint — that the organization we serve is over-represented by news stories with a negative slant, or not represented at all. His goal, he has said, was to increase positive stories about his city. His repeated defense for his actions has, in effect, been that the ends justified the means.
We disagree wholeheartedly.
Increasing the positive coverage of West Valley City, Utah, is exactly the kind of work a qualified PR professional would have undertaken. The methods, however, would have been quite different.
Instead of setting out to deceive or mislead the public, a professional would have identified the many good things taking place in West Valley City, Utah, established relationships with media outlets and reporters and worked to promote the city honestly and openly, keeping the city’s (and the Mayor’s) reputation above reproach. By choosing to take a shortcut via deception, Mayor Winder not only damaged his own reputation, but that of West Valley City, Utah, the city’s elected representatives and public relations professionals.
Mayor Winder chose to come clean, which was the right thing to do. He has apologized to some of those he harmed, which is the correct course of action. We hope that Mayor Winder has learned from his experience that honest and transparent promotion of his city is far more effective than other means in the long run. Certainly that is what the citizens of West Valley City and the rest of Utah deserve.
Public Relations Society of America
Updated #1 (Nov. 15, 2011): Various Salt Lake City media outlets have reported that Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, Utah, resigned his post as director of public affairs for The Summit Group, a public relations firm in the area.
Update #2 (Nov. 15, 2011): Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News and Salt Lake City TV news stations FOX 13 Now and KSL, commenting on this matter.