Recommit to PR Ethics: Strong Core Values Will Help PR Profession Rise Above Transgressions in the Burson Facebook-Google Fiasco
By Tom Gable, APR, PRSA Fellow, CEO, Gable PR
LAKE LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Senior counselors from throughout North America gathered here May 12 through 15 for the annual spring conference of the PRSA Counselors Academy, which produces a content-rich program each year aimed at sharing knowledge and setting new standards for the public relations profession.
Sessions stressed the importance of PR expanding its role as a vital, authentic, strategic force in helping clients of all sizes build long-term images and reputation. Experts covered how to translate solid corporate values to many audiences and walk the talk – with no empty claims or unethical tactics.
This was in sharp contrast to the negative coverage being given one of the larger PR firms in the country, Burson-Marsteller, for launching a whisper campaign on behalf of an unnamed client (later revealed to be Facebook) to drive negative coverage of Google. The PR fiasco soon blew up and was covered by USA Today, Media Bistro, The New York Times and many others.
Could this transgression damage the overall image of the profession, which has been pushing hard to promote an ethical agenda and an improved image for the practice of PR?
The pros here stressed the need to focus on image as a part of corporate strategy. Establish strong core values – what do you stand for – and then demonstrate proof of principle over time, building reputations for the long-term.
With the short-term incendiary Burson issue, Media Bistro noted that “two of Burson’s high-profile publicists — former CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio — sent a pitch to reporters suggesting an op-ed slamming Google.” Obviously, this wasn’t a random act and raises a few questions about organizational values:
- Who devised the strategy?
- Was there ever an internal debate about the ethics and potential consequences?
- Who approved its launch?
J.R.Hipple, current chairman of PRSA Counselors Academy, wondered about the account team involved in the Facebook assignment and its approach to authentic PR counsel.
“Did anyone question or object to the client’s request?” asked Hipple, president of Hipple & Co., Reputation Management, Atlanta. “If not, what can be done to ensure that employees have the courage to stand up to the client or their colleagues and do what is right?”
Janet Tyler, president of Airfoil Public Relations, Detroit, conducted a session on value-driven leadership and translating personal values into brand strategies. The concept: establish core values, which are used to build vision and mission and are then adapted into the everyday operation of any PR firm or client business.
Tyler, member of the Counselors Academy executive committee, said Burson’s actions cast a negative light on the entire PR industry.
“Unfortunately, there is no dramatic recourse agencies can take to undo the damage,” Tyler said. “Rather, responsible agencies can simply continue doing the right thing. If the majority champions ethical practices – actions, not words – the profession can repair reputational damage. So, while Burson has done a fair amount of tarnishing, others in the profession can accept this as a challenge to be even more vigilant in upholding the highest of PR standards.”
Tyler, Hipple and other Counselors Academy members referred to the PRSA Code of Ethics, which has two relevant guidelines in this case:
- Be honest and accurate in all communications.
- Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.
Tyler said agencies should always lead “with pure and positive intention and in the client’s best interest, as true advocates.”
“If Burson had done this, they would not have made the decision to undertake the Google smear because it was not a proactive focus on the client’s merits,” Tyler said. “If the agency had focused on ways to positively tell Facebook’s story, there could have been a depositioning of Google in the reporting process. If the client requested this approach, Burson should have counseled that this was not an optimal use of its PR investment because it was diverting resources away from more positive, and ultimately effective, efforts.”
The PRSA Code of Ethics has principles and guidelines for translating values into ethical practices. It advises professionals to:
- Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
- Foster informed decision making through open communication.
- Protect confidential and private information.
- Promote healthy and fair competition among professionals.
- Avoid conflicts of interest.
- Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.
Bottom line, as Tyler noted, it is up to everyone in the profession to champion ethical practices if PR is to successfully achieve the last goal noted above: strengthening public trust in the profession.
Tom Gable, APR and PRSA Fellow, is CEO of Gable PR, San Diego. He has been in the profession 35 years and is currently working on the Fifth Edition of his PR Client Service Manual.