Monday, August 31, 2009

No Shades of Gray When It Comes To Ethics

Last week the PRSA (arguably our industry's most influential organization) released a statement in response to reports of public relations practitioners violating its ethical codes. 

In its press release, PRSA states: 
Over the last few months, there have been several news accounts of promotional tactics that signal a common thread of malpractice under the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics and PRSA Professional Standards Advisories (PSA). While each tactic varies in method and medium, PRSA states categorically that misrepresenting the nature of editorial content or intentionally failing to clearly reveal the source of message contents is unethical.
PRSA then goes on to address what constitutes deceptive online practices, illicit front groups, and anti-PR pay-for-play coverage, reminding communicators to remain transparent in their dealings online and disclose who, what and where the sources generating coverage are coming from (e.g. If a company sends you something for FREE to test out and evaluate on your blog, disclose that fact). Seems simple and straightforward to me. 

In a time where most agencies are just now beginning to recover from the recession, it pained me to read stories where firms and independent consultants allegedly violated or skirted ethical standards. I found myself asking - why is this happening? Is this a sign of the times because of the economy? Have firms and clients become so desperate in getting any kind of traction for their company/cause that we've now given up on creativity, genuine messaging, true engagement and caring about a customer/stakeholder that agencies and some individuals have turned towards an "easy fix" to generate manufactured ROI that allegedly influences and persuades audiences? Or worse yet: Has this *always* been going on?

I hope not. 

As I've advanced in my career, I'm met with a lot of young PR pros who have been taken advantage of by employers who wanted them to post anonymous or in some cases personal responses on blogs, online industry forums, or in the comments section of news articles to refute or attack a story or post about their client or bash a competitor. When I asked if they disclosed who they were working for/representing when responding or if they would have posted comments/reaction if they weren't prompted by their boss, more often than not they said no. They also did not seem to know that this was skirting the ethics of the PR practice as "online reputation management" was part of their job description.

One recent report alleges a PR firm AstroTurf-ing (faking) positive reviews of its client's iPhone applications in iTunes. What was so appalling to me about this is that it is reportedly the interns at this agency that were writing the evaluations. IMHO, having the interns write the supposed transparent evaluations is potentially setting them for a tough time later in their careers. It seems to be standard practice for an employer to research potential employees online to review social media interactions as well as any comments/stories/etc. to which the potential employee may be linked. Posting comments/posts without disclosing a relationship to a party may damage a candidates chances for a position later on or worse, misrepresent the character or interests of an individual. Even more disturbing is that young PR Pros may learn that this is "acceptable" PR practice and continue to perpetuate this tactic for other firms or on behalf of other clients. 

Online media and social networking has changed the way we communicate for ourselves and for our clients. However, even in this immediate gotta-know-right-now-press-publish world, we PR Pros need to adhere to and follow the ethical guidelines to play fair and engage openly with all audiences we serve. This starts with the core of understanding that transparency, openness, and responsiveness is the key to combating the negative associations with public relations. Now is the time to instill lasting ethical and strategic communications practices that reinforces all that is good and necessary about our profession.

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