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PR Ethics – an Oxymoron?

Got ethics2 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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10 Comments - Add yours!

Gordon G. Andrew (February 14th, 2012)

Public Relations is the designated “shades of gray” profession. PR is also a business enterprise, not a religious calling. PRSA’s Code of Ethics notwithstanding, most PR practioners will put their practical needs (such as employment) over ethical considerations, and this compromise occurs in many other professional fields. I do believe that PR professionals, similar to lawyers and accountants, have an obligation maintain confidentiality regarding clients, even after the relationship has ended. In the case of Paula Deen’s flack, my guess is that she cooked up moral outrage as a convenient rationale in advance of Deen ending their relationship.

Kevin Mercuri (February 14th, 2012)

It’s painful to behold a PR Pro violate a Client’s confidences for the sake of a self-promoting story. It’s an easy way to get exposure, but you’re positioning yourself as someone who may reveal a client’s secrets if the opportunity arises. That isn’t a very compelling selling point for your agency, nor for the industry as a whole.

Most PR contracts have a Confidentiality Clause and I’m surprised that clients don’t enforce them more regularly.

Doug Bailey (February 15th, 2012)

I don’t think “PR Ethics” is an oxymoron, its just that for most PR practitioners it’s all situational – what may be verboten in some circumstance is suddenly okay in another. In my case, most of the criticism came from competitors who seized an opportunity to self-righteously and piously condemn the article and advertise the fact that they of course would never do such a thing. They’re partly right. They would never dare put their name on an article about former clients. Instead, they would anonymously dish out the stories to columnists and reporters in return for favorable treatment of their current clients (this is ethical?). In fact, one of the anecdotes I told was about a colleague who clumsily tried to do just that. And I protected his identity (so much for a tell all). I know for sure that some of the PR reps complaining the most about my Boston Magazine story make their stock and trade in quietly spreading gossip and nasty stories about clients and people in the community in return for frequent puff pieces and mentions about their their clients. How ironic that my ethics are called into question. The most recent story I recounted in the article occurred five years ago and most were nearly a decade old. Some occurred in relatively public places with multiple witnesses, had been told and retold countless times by others, including the participants themselves, could be verified in other public sources, and none portrayed anyone in a bad light. I know the difference between an amusing anecdote and confidential information and while I might have walked up to the line, I didn’t cross it, despite the headline and packaging the magazine’s editors draped around the story.

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Liz Floore (May 8th, 2012)

When it comes to ethics in public relations, the line can be very blurry. How much is too much? Where is the line between entertaining and inappropriate? What is considered being truthful, and what is considered libelous?
I am senior in college studying PR, and ethics was an issue we discussed in class just the other day. We discussed the importance of watching how writers word their press releases and other writings so as not to commit libel or portray someone in a false light. We also learned that public disclosure of private information is a violation of privacy rights. This issue gets a little fuzzy sometimes, like in the case with Doug Bailey. He claims that he wasn’t violating any ethics code, but is it right to reveal unflattering information about previous clients?
I think there are “shades of gray” in PR ethics, but that doesn’t mean that professionals should use that as an excuse for acting unethically. When PR professionals make a point to always try to be ethical in their work, it makes themselves and their industry look good.
The bottom line is all PR professionals should know there is a Code of Ethics set up by PRSA that governs how professionals should handle certain situations. Even if a professional is not a member of PRSA, the Code of Ethics is available to all professionals in the industry. Following these codes is up to the practitioner, but ultimately, choosing the high road is always the best way to go.

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