By Lucy SiegelJuly 29, 2020

The following are three true stories involving public relations ethics.

It’s not personal, it’s just business

Several public relations agencies in New York City were competing for a new account. The client finally selected Agency A.  As the agency was beginning work, its president got a call from the client’s CEO.  The CEO said he had received a letter from the head of Agency B, which hadn’t even been among the competing agencies. He read the letter to Agency A’s president who became livid after hearing what it suggested: ‘”Congratulations on hiring Agency A. I’ve heard good things about them. I hope everything works out. If not or you find you need more serious PR, I would love to assist you. Enclosed is a list of our clients and the services we provide.”

Agency A president immediately called Agency B president and told him he had seen his letter and thought it was extremely unethical. The response he got from Agency B was, “It’s just business. You should do it, too. I’ve found a lot of clients this way.” (He would read about agencies winning new business and send a congratulatory letter accordingly.)

True Story Number Two: Unethical Influence in the Gulf War

In the early 1990s, one of the world’s largest public relations firms was hired by the government of Kuwait to help influence public opinion in the U.S. about the need to help oust Sadam Hussein and his Iraqi military from Kuwait.  The PR agency’s scheme included organizing a front group called “Citizens for a Free Kuwait” to disguise the role of the government of Kuwait in this effort. According to PR Watch, the front group was funded with nearly $12 million from the Kuwaiti government, used to pay the PR firm.  As part of its campaign for Kuwait, the PR firm developed a false report for Citizens for a Free Kuwait to present to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Later, this public affairs campaign made it into the media, and the PR firm’s behavior was severely criticized. In response, one senior agency executive reportedly told the agency’s staff: “We’d represent Satan if he paid.”

True Story Number Three: Feeding Disinformation to the Media and Public

After a politician spoke at his inauguration, he was upset that media photographs showed the crowd to be rather sparse in comparison to his predecessor’s inauguration. The politician’s communication director asked the government photographer for pictures that “more accurately represented the size of the crowd.” The photographer cropped out empty areas to make the crowd seem larger. The communications director shared the photos at a press gathering and said what the politician wanted the reporters to hear: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period.”

While the last of the three stories is well-known to most blog readers, the second story will also be remembered by many American PR professionals old enough to have lived through the Gulf War. However, all three stories display types of ethical dilemmas experienced by most PR people at some point during their careers.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has a code of public relations ethics that states the core values its members should view as the roots of ethical behavior. The values are:

  • Advocacy: acting as responsible advocates for the organizations they represent
  • Honesty: holding the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of the organizations they represent
  • Expertise: continually acquiring specialized knowledge and experience to build mutual understanding, credibility and relationships among a wide array of institutions and audiences
  • Independence: providing objective counsel
  • Loyalty: being faithful to the organizations they represent, while honoring an obligation to serving the public interest
  • Fairness: dealing fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the public

In all the stories above, at least one of these core values was violated by PR professionals. The result in all three cases was loss of trust in an individual and/or organization.

The Long and Short

In the first story, Agency B’s CEO subtly undermined Agency A‘s new client relationship by suggesting to the client that he may not be getting “serious PR” and may eventually need a more experienced replacement. The letter congratulated the client for his choice, but the ulterior motive was clear. Sew a few seeds of doubt and open the possibility for Agency B to step in.

The second story relates to “astroturfing,” defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public.” Using a front group is unethical since its very purpose is to deceive by creating a fake grass roots movement, when it is secretly funded by self-interested parties.

The senior executive’s comment about representing Satan if he paid brings to mind an old argument among PR agencies: whether all organizations have a right to public relations counsel, the way they have a right to legal counsel. Some see PR as the means for organizations to get a fair hearing of their points of view in the public forum, and therefore feel that PR is a right. Others disagree and point to organizations that are unethical (such as racist groups or companies that sell products that have been proven harmful, like guns and tobacco). I do not believe PR counsel is a right. The way I see it, if a PR firm loyally represents an organization, as called for in PRSA’s core values, and the organization is unethical or wants the PR firm to behave unethically, the PR firm harms the public interest.

In the third story a communications professional knowingly lied to the media. Perhaps he tried to counsel his boss that lying about the size of the crowd would harm, not help, his reputation, and his boss wouldn’t listen. If that were the case, he didn’t have the guts to stand up to his boss. Caving under pressure made him an accomplice to his boss’s unethical behavior.

The communications director in the third story was in a position many PR professionals find themselves in at some point in their careers: being told to lie. This feels like a no-win situation. When a client wants its PR agency to lie and the agency can’t dissuade the client from that course of action, the agency either acts unethically or risks losing the client. Inhouse PR staff also risk being fired if they refuse to communicate disinformation. Lose a job (or client), or act unethically?

An ever-increasing amount of disinformation is being spread these days, causing the public to wonder what is true and what is not. The most important factor in establishing credibility is trust in the source of the information, which in turn depends on ethical behavior by the source. Ethics in communication has never been more important.

The PR industry suffers a lack of trust. It is negatively perceived and criticized by many journalists and watchdog groups (such as PR Watch) for unethical behavior. PR pros are seen by many people as aiding and abetting the organizations they work for in deliberately deceiving the media and the public. Senior level PR professionals have access to top executives, with the opportunity and responsibility to counsel them. As the song in the Broadway show “Hamilton” says, they are “in the room where it happens,” and they have a professional duty to use their influence to advocate for ethical actions. Those who go along to get along show a lack of public relations ethics and cause distrust in public relations.