Leave the Stunts to Hollywood

Competition can be fierce. Too often it gets dirty. But where is the line between acceptable and not?

We don’t have to look very far for examples to gauge that line. For example, there’s the stealthy smear campaign against Google. The two former journalists recently hired by Burson-Marsteller, acting on behalf of an anonymous client, used their clout to catch the ear of top media outlets and crow about a Google Gmail feature that supposedly violates users’ privacy rights. Then, as karma would have it, a blogger rejected an offer to have an op-ed ghostwritten, calling the claims “exaggerated,”and published the email exchange online. The final piece came crashing down when The Daily Beast uncovered the identity of the anonymous client…Facebook, the same company that wants “to share and make the world more open and connected.”

Sure it makes for great high-tech drama, but, if you’re counting at home, there were at least three examples of highly questionable behavior from a public relations and business perspective. Burson-Marsteller and Facebook issued apologies, but not before each company took a significant blow to their credibility. Score one for the reporters and blogger who used their knowledge and expertise to uncover the truth, and showed why an independent press corps continues to be valuable.    

Journalists migrating into the public relations field is not a new phenomenon. It has certainly been happening more frequently. The additions have enriched the PR trade; however, client pressures and unrealistic expectations may be tempting newcomers to cut corners.  

While we’re talking about cutting corners, here are two more examples of highly questionable tactics - a medical device company offering a reporter $250 to attend a roundtable discussion, a skincare company proposing a $100 to newspapers if they run their press release and someone buys the product.

Preventing these types of situations is one reason why groups like the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) exist. Although there is no PR licensing process, yet, the trade group provides standards of practice as well as the all important code of ethics. As a public relations professional and PRSA member, I took an oath to uphold the code of ethics which contains value statements such as:

  • Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
  • Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.
  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.
  • Decline representation of clients requiring actions contrary to the Code.

Setting realistic expectations with clients can go a long way toward establishing a solid client-agency relationship. Before work begins, it’s important for both sides to understand and agree on the scope of a project. This agreement will prevent the urge to pursue an unethical approach.