I was stunned.
The college intern who had been working with the agency on my company’s account that summer was the son of the CEO of our biggest competitor.
My colleagues and I stumbled upon the information one afternoon late in the summer when we were discussing the competitive landscape. The competitor’s CEO and our intern had the same fairly common last name.
“Are you related?” we asked.
Yes, said the intern.
Yes, said the account executive. They are related and live in the same home but never, ever discuss business.
At last. The account executive revealed the relationship and the reasons it was not a problem. At least, it was not a problem for him.
Perhaps the son was as discrete as the account executive believed. Perhaps the CEO and his son never discussed their work. Still, the situation damaged our relationship with the agency, eroding our trust in people we had seen as business partners. If they were truly on our team, then why didn’t they tell us the facts?
Instead, they hired the son of our primary competitor’s CEO, assigned him to their one account that presented a conflict of interest, and never told us.
Had we known, we might have agreed to it and been cautious about the information we shared. We might have asked our corporate counsel for an opinion — could a regulator interpret the situation as a channel for collusion? We might have asked that the intern be assigned to one of the agency’s many other accounts.
We never had those options. Instead, the agency kept the information to itself, substituted its judgment for ours and damaged its longtime relationship with a client.
It was a conflict of interest. A situation with “the potential to undermine or compromise the impartiality, credibility or trustworthiness of a professional due to the possibility of a clash between the professional’s self-interest, professional interest, public interest or their client’s interest,” as Ethical Standards Advisory (ESA) 11 on Professional Conflicts of Interest puts it. (PRSA members may access the ESAs in the Ethics in Communication Community Library on MyPRSA.)
ESAs from PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards help professionals navigate possible ethical conflicts. Each ESA is a deep dive into a specific ethical topic. Together with our PRSA Code of Ethics and PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values, ESAs provide practitioners a framework for professional, ethical public relations.
The corporation I worked for and the agency that served us closed years ago. The agency’s primary business was advertising and it may not have had any PRSA members on staff. If PRSA members worked there, then they should have seen the conflicts with the intern’s work on our account:
- A professional conflict, defined in ESA 11 as “when the specific knowledge you have as a professional, professional advisor or consultant is being sought or could be used to the detriment of your clients.”
- A personal interest, “the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest.”
As PRSA members, we commit to following the Code of Ethics, which helps members understand their professional obligations and preserve their integrity. Many members consider it the most important benefit of PRSA membership.
Several Code provisions apply to professional conflicts of interest, including the situation with my company’s agency intern:
- Disclosure of information: Be honest and accurate in all communications. Avoid deceptive practices.
- Conflicts of interests: Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests.
And the Code provision to “enhance the profession, build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations” applies not only to conflicts of interest, but also to the whole of our professional practice.
PRSA Member Professional Values to consider when evaluating conflicts of interest
Honesty: We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
Independence: We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.
Loyalty: We are faithful to those we represent while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.
Fairness: We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.
Meredith Libbey, APR, is communications manager with Ford Credit and a past president of PRSA’s Nashville Chapter. She is a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS).[Photo credit: adobe art]