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Gini Dietrich

Ethics In Public Relations

By: Gini Dietrich | August 11, 2011 | 
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It’s Facebook question of the week time (clap, clap, clap!).

But this week I have a different video for you.

Johna Burke and I had a little chat about ethics at Counselors Academy in Las Vegas (well, really Lake Las Vegas, which is nowhere near the Strip) in May.

I know that was months ago, but she just posted it. Talk to her about it!

If you don’t know Johna, she works for Burrelles Luce and is one of the most hysterical people I’ve ever met. She’s witty, she’s smart, and she can flip words at you so fast you wonder if you heard her correctly (you did).

The Burson-Marsteller/Facebook imbroglio happened while we were at the conference this year. So we were all talking about ethics: Ethics in the clients we work with, ethics in handling issues and crises, ethics in our industry, and whether or not our trade organization is responsible for holding us accountable.

Imagine 200 leaders of PR firms in one room talking about what we each would have done differently had Facebook hired one of us to smear Google.

It won’t come as a surprise to you that I was pretty vocal about how unethical I thought the whole thing was so Johna asked me for 60 seconds on ethics.

She asked:

There’s a lot of talk about ethics with some of the current news events going on, and I would just like to get your perspective on how you educate and work with your clients and with your staff on how to be ethical in all of their activities.

My very short answer is below. See what you think…and see what you think about what I say when asked where people can find me. Apparently there is no such thing as an edit button.

We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week…so head over to Facebook and leave a question for me on our wall there.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

38 comments
yasinakgun-totalinsights
yasinakgun-totalinsights

At my university we haven't had a module on ethics (thank god) nor will we have any.

Someone who did not know that say for example having as part of a PR campaign smearing a rival company is unethical, will not after a module of ethics decide never to do that.

I don't understand why universities offer ethics as a module, ethics can't be taught in a class room or in a textbook

Hajra
Hajra

I could go on miles for ethics...but in my field...so that might be totally irrelevant here! But yes, sometimes it gets hard to make others understand that we have certain ethics and we would love it if they comply with it. And like you said they go like ... but why?

Like, when I was working as a psychologist in India, one patient wanted to "friend me on Facebook"... and as a ethical rule our clinic discouraged that sort of friendship, to stop it from getting personal and the patient went like "But why?"!

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

A company's culture - including its ethics - start at the top. Nobody should've been surprised at Burson-Marsteller's approach since their CEO, Mark Penn, was a White House pollster for six years and has a significant political background. The FB campaign against Google felt decidedly like an approach that would be taken in politics, and that is understandable if you look at Burson-Marsteller's leadership.

There is another point on the leadership. You could call Burson-Marsteller an industry leader. Along with Facebook, they engaged in a campaign most people would call unethical. Yet, Burson-Marsteller is hailed by PR Week magazine as one of the leading firms in PR and a model for the industry. What does that say about our industry?

As leaders, it is up to us to set the ethical tone of our company, but then to also push it out to the industry as a whole.

Ann Willets
Ann Willets

Gini,

Keep fighting the good fight! The leaders of our profession (especially those in Counselors Academy) keep ethics at the forefront of the discussion, the more others will pay attention to its importance.

Ann

daniellemkelly
daniellemkelly

Hi Gini,

Great blog post and answer. I agree that ethics needs to be integrated in everything we do. It is the only way we can battle spin and our cliche reputation. When I was studying, I had a Professor doing research into how to integrate ethical assessment into everyday PR activities. You should check out her research: http://www.prismjournal.org/ethics_pyramid.html

Cheers,

Danielle

Leon
Leon

G'Day Gini,

I moved my business online 3 years ago. The thing that punched me right in the face was the different ethical values between online and ofline. I'd run an offline business for 30 years. I really couldn't believe how outrageously unethical some internet marketers were.

It wasn't only their "get rich quick" mentality. It was also their utter disrespect for authorship, copyright and associated areas. I've since learnt that it's not all like that. But www does seem to contain a distinct imbalance of "cardsharps and crapshooters."

Thanks for this post. It was quite reassuring.

Avagoodweegend and...

Make sure you have fun

Regards

Leon

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

While I agree with everything you say about ethics, I most agree with the fact that Johna Burke is the most hysterical person ever. That is my deep thought for a Thursday morning.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

First, big kudos for using such a delicious word as 'imbroglio'. I'm such a word nerd.

It saddens me that people outside the industry have such negative reactions to PR & marketing when the likes of Burston-Marsteller are celebrated by other PR firms. I commend you, Gini, for taking such a strong stance in opposition to the welling tide.

I've had to fire clients in the past (related to my freelance copywriting pursuits) because it was clear that the relationship wasn't gelling - and it was often because their ethical stance was contrary to mine. I didn't want to attach my name with anything that they were doing.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Screw ethics! If businesses had ethics most of our biggest companies wouldn't exist. Walmart gone. Exxon gone. Facebook gone. Most of Congress gone. Most Presidents gone. Most CEOs gone. Most Banks gone.

Which really sucks for those of us who are ethical. Kind of just leaves just you Gini, me and Warren Buffet. Sigh.

BrianBWagner
BrianBWagner

Very interesting. I touched on this topic to some degree, but from a different angle (do PR people get vilified sometimes for representing clients because the media has a short memory in the 24/7 news cycle?) at Flack Me. The full article is here. And thanks as always to Gini for stimulating great conversation.

http://www.talentzoo.com/flack-me/blog_news.php?articleID=10976

John_Trader1
John_Trader1

I like how you followed up yesterday's post that arguably set off a lively discussion over the line between good PR and political objectives with one on ethics. Evgenia really does an outstanding job in summarizing the conundrum with regulating PR because of the blurry lines of an industry vs. a profession. In light of the fact that PR has surged to the top of business conscience due to the real time, socially connected world that we live in, an argument to whether an official set of ethical standards needs to be adopted is starting to become more prominent.

Obviously there are common sense ethical guidelines to follow that are applicable to businesses in general, but I believe that because PR strategies are customized to fit the industries where they are applied, it would be complicated to develop a set of standards that were relevant to PR on the aggregate. Nevertheless, a generally acceptable ethical guideline would be beneficial to develop, share with the industry and teach in academia to the younger generations that are the PR pros of the future. Since I did not have the benefit of taking a class in ethics during my school tenure, I'd be interested to hear from some students or recent grads (or professors) what is being taught today.

andreamv
andreamv

@ginidietrich good morning! Read your post...should probably not comment before second cup of coffee...made a typo.

Grinblo
Grinblo

I think ethical business distinguishes certain kinds of professionals from others, just like any other community. It's an always-relevant topic and one that deserves discussion. I wonder whether ethical conduct in PR and communications industry warrants the same kind of inside monitoring as professions such as medicine. The blurry line that makes it difficult is the lack of understanding whether PR is truly a profession (i.e., has a regulatory body, required training, etc) or simply an industry. The advent of less than perfectly understood tools for PR (such as social media) makes it hard to set strict standards and uphold them. The discussion on ethics could very well be married to the discussion on less-than-qualified SM marketing pros that's been popular recently. The view that no matter what, there will be ethics violations rests on a black-and-white notion that things are either ethical or not. The truth is, that while the Facebook case is widely accepted as unethical (and still, not by all), many smaller cases need some sort of a structured set of guidelines to understand and evaluate. Until there is a community-accepted standard for ethical conduct in our industry, ethics should remain a hot topic and one that @ginidietrich handles very gracefully.

AndreaMeyer
AndreaMeyer

I don't think it is every too late to discuss ethics. I still might write a post on the same topic because I get really tired of the bad examples garnering so much coverage. They overshadow the good programs out there. Thanks for the reminder.

daniellemkelly
daniellemkelly

@yasinakgun-totalinsights I agree with you to a certain extent. Yes, ppl have an intrinsic knowledge about what is right and wrong, but, that knowledge can be convinently forgotten when money or power are put in front of them. This is a cut throat world where ppl will do anything to get ahead, as demonstrated by FB and B-M. We need reminders, be them classroom or business situations, of the right thing to do. I would love to hear your feedback about the ethical PR planning process that was being taught, and researched at my old Univeristy. http://www.prismjournal.org/ethics_pyramid.html. I think something like this would be easy to integrate into any PR class.

KR, Danielle

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Hajra People are only concerned about themselves. We're very selfish beings. So your patient sees it as an insult, while you see it as ethical (I agree with you, BTW).

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@ClayMorgan You know, that is an excellent point. A sad state of affairs, but you're absolutely right in that ethics starts at the top.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Ann Willets Hi Ann!! :) I suppose there are unethical people in every industry. It just feels like our industry is picked on more than others.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Leon It's crazy, isn't it? My friend @kmueller62 wrote a blog post yesterday about people blatantly stealing content. And, then when called out, blaming it on the freelancers they hire.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jasonkonopinski We really only have two things: Our reputation and our ethics. If we can't bide by those two things, there isn't much else to say.

Grinblo
Grinblo

@HowieG Maybe they'd be gone as we know them. I'm pretty sure there isn't a universal rule that only those beings that can act unethically may continue to exist in the world. There are plenty of companies that do business ethically and some of them still would be employing children in post-colonial countries if they took your argument seriously. It isn't a question of whether or not ethics should be taken seriously, it's what's the best way of making it happen.

Grinblo
Grinblo

@John_Trader1 Thanks for the support. You have great thoughts to share as well, I see. Actually, the institution I just graduated from (@macalester), offers a philosophy course on the ethics of social media. I do wonder what they teach.

Makes me wonder: do we really need to tailor the teaching of ethics to this topic or is there something more fundamental than industry standards at play here? In other words: is trying to make money in dirty ways a PR ailment?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@John_Trader1 We've actually had this very conversation with PRSA, in the hopes that this is something they could/would take on. But we were told that, because PRSA is a membership organization, they can't also regulate. So I guess, John, you and I will have to create the guidelines and govern it. You in?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Grinblo You and me both! I would LOVE to have a governing board for our industry. There are so many icky things that go on (asking bloggers to write posts about sub-standard products in exchange for link bait) that it would really help to have a body watching out...and creating a profession for us.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@AndreaMeyer They really do overshadow the good stuff going on. Human beings like that kind of drama.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

@ginidietrich I was a 1099 copywriter with a social media marketing company for a short time last summer - I locked horns with the CEO repeatedly because I felt we were being bullied by our clients to the detriment of deliverables - and encouraging bad manners from those clients.

Grinblo
Grinblo

@ginidietrich True but turning professional means limitations as well as benefits. It would make entry more difficult (requiring future pros to pass tests or training that would be costly if someone had to regulate them), and possibly even raise ethical question insofar as limiting access to what what is considered a democratic medium (internet) to a select group of folks who have the resources to access it. Perhaps the answer is to regulate behaviors rather than the whole profession? I don't know! I'm just the one with the theories :)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jasonkonopinski So the CEO didn't think it was pertinent to keep morale high by not allowing clients to behave that way?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Grinblo The only way we can change is to discuss the theories. So keep them coming! You make good points. Personally, I don't have an issue with making entry more difficult.

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