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PR Ethics – an Oxymoron?

This is a post by PR columnist, Alison Kenney.

On a special web page devoted to ethics, PRSA has this to say,

The practice of public relations can present unique and challenging ethical issues. At the same time, protecting integrity and the public trust are fundamental to the profession’s role and reputation. Bottom line, successful public relations hinges on the ethics of its practitioners.”

With that in mind, consider these situations:

PR professional and former Boston Globe editor Doug Bailey recently wrote an expose for Boston Magazine on working as the Boston Red Sox’s PR resource that revealed several behind-the-scenes and not-so-flattering vignettes about team members and owners. When questioned if he had abused one of PRSA’s recommendations that PR professionals should “safeguard the confidences and privacy rights of clients and employees,” Bailey responded, “A fair question. But there must be a statute of limitations plus these are cocktail party stories.”

When I first heard that Nancy Assuncao, the PR representative for Paula Deen, had talked to the New York Post about why, in good conscious, she could no longer serve as Deen’s representative, I was disturbed by her airing her work-related dirty laundry so publicly. In taking an ethical stand, Assuncao seemed to violate the PRSA ethical code guideline, to Act in the best interest of clients or employers.” I won’t argue with the questionable strategy and timing Deen displayed in announcing her diabetes and subsequent endorsement of the diabetes drug from Novo Nordisk. If Assuncao knew about Deen’s diabetes (which some sources say Deen knew about for the past three years) and continued to promote Deen’s unhealthy style of cooking, then she was violating the PRSA code guideline, “Decline representation of clients requiring actions contrary to the Code.”

Personally I think parody tweeters can be funny and entertaining, but when do they cross the line? Did the actions of @BPGlobalPR on Twitter violate PRSA’s transparency code of ethics? Usually it’s when they’re unmasked and found to be a competitor of the person or brand being skewered –  for instance it was revealed that a senior advisor for Senator Scott Brown (R, MA) was sending disparaging tweets under the handle @CrazyKhazei (Alan Khazei was Brown’s Democratic rival) and he was called out for those actions by PRSA.

Last month Elizabeth Filkin released a report on her investigation of the relationships between Britain’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Among her findings came recommendations for PR professionals not to flirt with the media. Hmm…uh…now you’ve got me. PRSA certainly doesn’t disagree with Filkin’s advice…

What do you think? Are there shades of gray when it comes to PR ethics?

Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on You can find her at Learn more about Alison Kenney.


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