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
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?