Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!

This phrase from Sir Walter Scott (Scottish author & novelist, 1771 – 1832) has been coming to mind a lot lately as we learn of communicators practicing in deceiving manners. It’s very frustrating for the thousands of professionals who practice with ethical standards and commitment. It doesn’t seem that hard to me to observe the tenets of the professional Code of Ethics.

The basic tenets that guide my personal life also guide my professional life. I wouldn’t have it any other way:

I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public; to improve my individual competence and advance the knowledge and proficiency of the profession through continuing research and education.

While the basic premise of the PRSA Code might seem fairly easy to understand and abide by, it seems some in the profession, and also many in the media, are hell-bent on showing what unethical professionals we are.

Take a few of the most recent examples. In each of these cases, professionalism, honesty, fairness and responsibility were overtaken by greed and ego. Additionally, once uncovered the perpetrators really didn’t seem to understand what they had done was wrong.

  • Utah Mayor Mike Winder created a fake identity and provided his local newspaper with articles about his town…quoting the Mayor. He also used a guy’s photo found on Google Images as his alter ego. He says he just used a different name to get the publicity his city deserved. But he had to lie to get it so did his city really win in this case? I don’t think so.

  • LA-based Coglan Consulting Group created fake news sites for their clients so it looked like their clients were getting more news coverage. Gini Dietrich covered this quite well last week on SpinSucks as did PR pro Denis Wolcott when the story first broke in September.

  • In this case, I can’t really find a statement from either Coglan or their clients, namely the Central Basin Water District. So…no apology?  No commitment to make changes in how you do business? Unbelievable.

  • Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to smear Google in the press. Then, when exposed, the agency deleted Facebook posts on its page about the incident. Burson really didn’t do a great job of cleaning up the mess. This one hit especially hard because Burson is one of the oldest and most respected agencies in the US. It was founded by Hal Burson, one of the fathers of modern public relations. The agency apologized (called lukewarm by many) and promised to make sure their employees understand more about the code of ethics.

  • Reverb Communication wrote fake product reviews for their software customers about a year ago. The FTC cited them but many media put all PR pros in this bucket. In this case, Reverb said there were no rules against what they did. I was reminded of my Mom who would regularly ask us…if he asked you to jump off a bridge would you do that too? The answer, of course, was a sheepish no.

What’s missing from each of these stories is someone to say – hey don’t do that. It’s wrong. But also, what were the leaders at each company, client, agency or organization saying? For that matter, where were all the employees involved? It’s hard to believe it got this far without someone raising a flag. But I think it takes some guts to raise the flag today, when jobs are tight. However, one still has to feel good about going to work.

We need to feel okay in our jobs when we question a decision, especially when it’s a question based on honesty, transparency and decency.

One that’s so far from what we were taught as children we know it’s wrong. And, as senior leaders, we need to provide an environment where that line of questioning is allowed and even supported. We need to listen respectfully and promise to change. In fact, we need to teach ethical practices, demonstrate what high standards are, and reward those who support the ethical practice of public relations.

The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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