PRSA Boston checked in with Mike Lawrence, Cone Communications’ EVP and Chief Reputation Officer, for his take on the state of ethics in PR.
Do you think practitioners’ personal ethics are being challenged now more than ever in the PR field? Why?
Ethics has always been a challenge in PR. There has always been built-in tension for PR folks. On the one hand, they often work with companies or individuals who expect support to look good or sell stuff.
On the other hand, they need to be a credible source to earned media, which means advocating without misleading. If you haven’t seen the movie “Days of Wine and Roses,” checkout this short clip in which the public relations man (Jack Lemmon) tries to explain what he does for a living. The movie is from 1962. That ought to tell you something about how long ethics has been a
Having said that, now that shared media and owned media (e.g. blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) have come of age, there are more opportunities for non-journalists and for PR people to be original creators of content that reaches a mass audience. That, in turn, provides more opportunity for ethical missteps such as pay-for-play.
Describe an ethical situation and how you handled it.
We had a consumer products client for which we were doing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work when some of its products were the subject of a recall. In helping the company investigate the situation, it became clear other products were also likely to face recalls down the road. Despite that, the company insisted on saying in its immediate messaging that – based on what it knew at the time – other products were not affected. We kept deleting that language, and executives at the company kept putting it back in, hoping to reassure folks in the short run. We ended up resigning the business.
If you were given a “do over” for this situation, would you handle it differently?
If someone has an ethical dilemma on the job, what are the resources they should tap into to help make a decision?
If their employer has an ethics policy, that’s a good place to start for guidance, as is the company’s ethics officer if such a role exists. Depending on the specific situation, their professional development manager or someone in their human resources department may be an appropriate resource. A mentor can be a valuable sounding board as well. Beyond that, there are good resources on PRSA’s website, and at the International Association of Business Communicators website. Both groups also offer opportunities to ask for confidential advice from experts in dealing with a specific ethical dilemma.
Do you think companies and agencies should have ethics training programs?
Absolutely. At Cone Communications, we do a 30-minute meeting as part of new employee orientation that covers ethics and conflict of interest. It’s meant to empower all levels of staff to be “eyes and ears” for potential concerns. Beyond that, we have done periodic 90 minute staff learning sessions with breakout groups working on different ethical scenarios. It’s impossible to anticipate every ethical risk. But, training sessions can send a signal that ethics are a priority concern, and everyone shares responsibility for maintaining an ethical culture at a company.
PRSA Boston is hosting an event on October 26 titled Solving Ethical Challenges in PR and Crisis Communications, at Lasell College. Go here, to get your ticket.
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