Archive for the ‘PR ethics’ Category

I was reading Shannon Bowen’s paper on public relations ethics on the Institute for PR’s site at about the same time that I was judging entries for PR industry awards.


Some recent award entries have very dubious strategies for evaluation that come up against the ethical buffers. Check these out:


“Objective 1: demonstrate the value of the public relations operation to senior management”.


“Measure how little unfavourable coverage [the organisation] has had compared with the competition”


“Demonstrate the high return on investment resulting from (a media relations action)”


Proving an organisational function like PR/CorpComms/Marcomms provides value is, of course, part and parcel of business life. But is it ethical to use corporate funds to engage a third party like a media analysis firm to do that job? Surely the evaluation objectives are about measurement of the impact of PR activity. In the case of the second and third examples, the objectives are skewed so that the supplier of evaluation information has a near-directive to come up with positive results. I think that’s downright unethical as well as being stupid.


Of course, these are errant examples and many award entries have sound, rational objectives but isn’t this the type of slipshod ethical approach that gets the PR industry into trouble with its reputation. To me, it is flackery that does us no good.


As a coda, I am amazed/appalled by PRistas’ dogged devotion to the ‘hypodermic model’ of communication. That’s the magic bullet model which says that a targeted message is directly received and fully accepted by the target. It had its heyday in the 1930s with the Nazis and has been succeeded by other models that give targeted messages rather less impact, which makes them harder to analyse. But in entry after entry, there it is in full glory with unsubstantiated claims that a direct causal connection is proven. Isn’t time to move on and accept that communication is a complex matter that doesn’t have simple metrics?


Here is a scenario for a campaign on human rights issues. The opponents claim serial oppression of an indigenous population in the developing world and provide evidence from observers in the field. Their campaign is marshaled by a determined, highly moral individual who is supported by church people, legislators and, increasingly, the media.

The campaign’s target, led by another national’s leader, fights back by questioning the motives of the campaign, the accuracy of the information and the economic impact should it have succeeded. Both use the media to make claim and counter-claim. The opponents make special use of church networks to roll out their campaign on both sides of the Atlantic. Both proponents and opponents lobby governments to make or reject laws on the economic exploitation.  

The proponents on two occasions set up “independent commissions” to investigate and report on the situation. The results of these commissions are challenged by the opponents as only limited sections of reports appear.  These are characteristics of modern human rights campaigns like those fought over environmental issues in the Amazon, the claims of “sweat shop” manufacturing in the developing world and of health issues such as tobacco and obesity.

But this scenario is taken from more than a century ago when the King of Belgium, Leopold II, was opening up and exploiting what we know now as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for rubber and ivory. His opponents were led by a feisty British journalist, E.D. Morel, who later became an MP by defeating Winston Churchill in the 1920s. Morel was not the first to be appalled by the exploitation of the Congolese or the first to campaign against it, but he was the first to mount and sustain an effective campaign using methods that we would consider part of modern democratic debate. His campaign brought major changes to the government of the Congo and some relief to its people.

The oppression of the Congolese, of whom 10 million are thought to have died during the period that Leopold II reigned, is a genocide that was supported by commercial and national interests and by the communication resources that they used and abused. The whole story is told by Adam Hochshild, in King Leopold’s Ghost published by Pan Book*. It is a book that should be read by practitioners, academics and students as it shows how public relations and corporate communication techniques can support evil practices, as well as effectively oppose them.

Over the past century, there is plenty of evidence that unethical practitioners in exploitation, lobbying and communication are as rife now as they were at the turn of the 19th century. As Adam Hochshild notes, “multinational have also been in on the take [in the DRC]” (p. 316). By 2004, there had been an estimated four million deaths and 2 million refugees in the DRC because of fighting in the east of the country and in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi. He concludes, “Tragically, no powerful outside constituency, like Morel’s Congo reformers, exists to lobby for measure that would help” (p. 317). 

* Hochshild, A. (2006) King Leopold’s Ghost (2nd edition). London: Pan Books. Also published by Houghton Mifflin in the US. ISBN 0-330-44198-1

One of the claims being made for new media is that it gives greater access for ordinary folks to express their views and debate politics. The current US election prologue is being put forward as the first real “Internet Election”, although this claim was made for the 2004 campaign.

In his ‘Read Me First’ column in the Guardian this week, Seth Finkelstein, takes a swipe at the limited access to citizens in the recent CNN YouTube debates with a column headed, New media is just another way to pull the same old tricks. Finkelstein argues that “new media bring new media manipulation and new media exploitation” and that the method of selecting YouTube postings by a gatekeeper was the same as “contests where the winner gets a cameo appearance on a TV show”.

He goes on criticise the process further with, “ss is typical of user-generated content, despite all the hype about empowering citizens, the individual is utterly powerless, except to try to please and serve the interests of the gatekeeper and thereby obtain some attention (but not remuneration).”

There is a raft of issues that arise from this critique: would the candidates have participated in an open-access debate where they didn’t know what issues were likely to be? That’s highly unlikely, although it might make edgy broadcasting. Would broadcasters, like CNN which staged this cross-media event, give up their control and their standards of presentation? Again, highly unlikely.

So Finkelstein’s hope that a true shift in power could have occurred was forlorn before the start of the process because the broadcaster as gatekeeper has too much to defend and he recognises this in his sign-off comment: “… we should never mistake a change in media style for any advance of citizens’ power in politics”.

New media has also brought unforeseen problems for two of the UK best known brands – Vodafone (mobule phones) and First Direct (online banking) which bought packages of online advertising space on Facebook and ended up on a page giving information about the far-right British National Party (BNP). As the Guardian reports, “the move may affect other advertisers on Facebook by highlighting a current lack of control over where the multimillion page network places their bookings”. The report highlights the problem that there is little control over where where advertisements appear.

Ironically, The Guardian’s online version of the report includes a Vodafone click-through advertisement across the top of the story (or it did when this blog was being written) which again shows the problems that advertisers have when seeking associative coverage of their organisation.

Perhaps these two instances of new media problems – lack of access to a range of voices and damaging associations – make a collateral case for well-researched, targeted public relations activity. The public relations practitioner as an intermediary can have a valuable and ethical role to play in promoting genuine debate.

Writing negative comments about your organisation on a personal blog is seen as ‘ethical’ by almost 50% of PR people. That’s one of the results of an international survey by Prof Don Wright and Michelle Hinson reported in the proceedings of the International Public Relations Research Conference, which have just been posted online.

The survey of PR practitioners found that 45% the respondents are aware that employees of their company or a client’s organization have communicated on weblogs, and that the outcomes have been mostly positive. As to whether it is ethical to monitor employee postings and to discipline staff, there was a strongly positive view. Some 79% said that monitoring staff was “ethical” and 59% backed discipline for staff who write negative statements, unless the staff were representing a labor organisation or trade union.

Despite these strongly held views, only 3% actually undertook research or measured “information their employees are blogging”, although 46% expect to do so in the future. Wright and Hinson also point out there is little research into the impact of blogs and other social media on the theory and best practice of communication. Obviously, there is a debate to be had on the ethics and legal issues that surround employee blogging.

Some examples of corporate behaviour are a joy to bloggers. The latest example is the famed advertising and marcoms group Saatchi & Saatchi’s creation of a girl band called ‘Honeyshot’. As reported in The Guardian (UK) recently, it had the explicit role of “a vessel for covertly advertising products to music fans”.

At the beginning of April, Honeyshot’s first single ‘Style, Attract, Shock’ was sent out to DJs but without notifying them that it had been created by a subsidiary of the ad agency and that its title was the new slogan for a hair gel called Shockwave.

It was quickly rumbled by the BBC, whose Radio 1 is the top audience pop and rock music station in the UK, and banned from playlists. But not without being played. This may have been an outcome that got coverage for the brand, which has been mentioned for reasons of explaining the story in the previous paragraph. And probably someone has already told the brand’s owner that this furore was worth some absurd figure in advertising value equivalent.

Peter Robinson, who broke the story, makes two cogent points – “From Saatchi & Saatchi’s point of view, it (the record) betrays a stunning level of deception – which is going some, in the ad industry” and “… it is important that the Honeyshot project fails, which it has, unless the whole thing was a double bluff aimed solely at securing Shockwave’s column inches to promote the company’s penchant for insulting their customers’ intelligence.”

Will brands, their owners and advisers ever learn that honesty and authenticity are integral to their reputation?

Following on from my post on SimplyCity, it is notable that the latest edition of The Economist reports on buzz marketing which is the close cousin of WOM sites like SimplyCity. In the article “Building buzz” (p.76 of the UK edition), it points to the problems of control and ethics that are implicit in buzz marketing. “The difficulty for marketers is creating the right kind of buzz and learning to control it. Negative views spread just as quickly as positive ones, so if a product has flaws people will soon find out”.

The example of Microsoft sending laptops loaded with Vista to key bloggers was an example of misjudgement that boomeranged on the software company. They (and the blogging community) responded negatively to what could have been seen as a bribe or at least an unduly large gift. But there was no doubt as to which company had sent the laptop and software to the bloggers, whereas buzz marketing in some forms uses so-called “volunteers”, recruited with offers of free product or a loyalty rewards programme, to promote a product or service to friends and relatives.

In this case there may be no disclosure of interest by the “volunteer” who is speaking about product. That is a practised deception and so is, in my view, unethical. It’s bad enough to be ambushed by people selling pyramid schemes like Amway or inviting you to product evenings, but at least you know what their interest is within a few moments. For someone to be either promoting a product (whisper marketing) or getting feedback for product development (buzz marketing) without telling you of their interest is dangerous for the reputation of organisation using this strategy and potentially deceptive.  We all have heard recommendations from friends about products, but you expect them to be based on their genuine experience and not a set of messages that have been sent to them in exchange for reward.

Already, many PR professional bodies have set out policies on ethical communication and I hope that these will be operationalised in public relations and the other below-the-line disciplines. If not, who can we trust?

Frank Luntz’s article in The Guardian (March 16, p.39) is a research-based demonstration of why “spin” dressed up as public relations and political communications is bound to fail. [,,2035405,00.html]. 

When authentic voices are lost, voters switch off. Luntz has reported on research amongst a panel of voters in England’s second city, Birmingham that found deep disenchantment with soundbite politics and “PR stunts”. Most of the panel believed that this was the characteristic of the Blair years (since 1997) and now featured amongst all parties.

Taking the example of Opposition leader David Cameron (himself a former public relations practitioner), the panel switched off when shown a web video of life in the Cameron household. The reaction, says Luntz, was “predictably negative” as it was seen as a PR-stunt. “Voters crave something real.”  When Cameron spoke from the heart that the policy changes he was proposing would include “pain and sacrifice”, they warmed to him as it was an authentic voice that made statements which the voter panel accepted as realistic.

The lessons for Cameron and other UK politicians were that after a decade of soundbite culture, “voters are more savvy and wary of anybody who sounds too good to be true”. Being aspirational and visionary is acceptable, as long as it is balanced with reality in the manner in which change and progress will be delivered.

The external view of public relations is that it is based on spin and publicity, a cocktail of one-way communication and deception. But the really effective public relations programmes are those which engage with stakeholders in their many and varied form and build a relationship based on mutual interests with an authentic voice. Political parties (and public relations practitioners) should take note of Luntz’s small-scale research, which endorses the best practice model.

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Tom Watson

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