Another PR Ethics Lapse: We Can’t Tolerate These

September 11, 2009 at 1:11 am

bribe[1]I was disappointed that a public relations practitioner, this time a publicist for CBS, got caught doing something really dumb. According to Deadline Hollywood, this person offered a $20 gift certificate to a blogger to consider writing about her program.  http://tinyurl.com/mjmt65  How many ways is this wrong?

First, whatever happened to not corrupting the editorial process? If your story isn’t worth writing about without the bribe, then a bribe isn’t going to change that. Of course, offering a bribe certainly becomes a good story, especially if you represent a company that claims to be virtuous and ethical.

Second, unless you’re in New Jersey, where public officials commonly toss away their careers, respect and good names for envelopes with amounts like $1,500 or so in them, a $20 gift card isn’t going get you much. If it’s from places like Starbucks, it won’t get you coffee, either!

Third, maybe a $20 gift card might not seem like much, but it’s about intent and respect. From the note I saw, it was  sheer quid-pro-quo.  Attempts like this are the reason many reporters won’t let me buy them so much as a cup of coffee.  As a former reporter, I understand that and respect it. I remember guys who thought that by befriending me over coffee or lunch, they could influence what I wrote. Reporters, whether they’re old fashioned print folks or new-fashioned bloggers and tweeters must maintain their independence. Without the credibility that comes with that independence, they’re no good to us. And unless they know that we’re going to offer them honest, interesting information, not a bribe, we’re no good to them.

Kinda makes me think about limits and campaigns. K. Hovnanian is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and we wanted to something to draw the media’s attention to it. Christy and I put together a birthday party in a box. We sent out the publicity information with a muffin and birthday candle. We got a lot of notice from the media…even got some coverage. That didn’t bother anyone. Was it the amount spent or how it was delivered? How close to the line was I with this approach? Of course, I handed them the muffin…I asked nothing in return. The article quotes the publicist for CBS as offering the gift card in return for “considering  the story.”  Ouch.

The company for which I work, K Hovnanian Homes, has a strong ethical position. Bribing a trade partner or other person with whom you do business or accepting a bribe can be a firing offense. Our PR department also adheres strictly to the PRSA Code of Ethics.  Both sets of standards also bar me from asking an agency to break the rules on our behalf. Besides, why would I want an agency representing me to act unethically? When one hears about offering a reporter $20 to write a story, one wonders what sort of ethical culture exists where that practioner works.

Those of us trying to practice ethical public relations must strongly condemn such action. If we don’t, we condone it. It opens us to being dumped in the same bucket as this practitioner. I don’t want to be there. And if CBS can do something like that and get away with it, my clients are probably within their rights to ask me why I can’t secure them coverage.

There is, of course, a way I can secure them coverage by offering a media person money. But let’s call that what it really is: advertising. If you want the impact of “earned media,” our clients — internal or external — need to understand that we earn it with the quality of our story and our pitch, not the amount of a gift card. And the added value we as PR practitioners must be able to bring is that of a solid reputation, both personal and professional.

One last thought: There’s two sides to every story. Part of the problem with our instant communicating world is we all start commenting before we’ve heard the other side of a story. Please, CBS and its publicist, tell me your side of the story and prove it’s all just a big misunderstanding. Otherwise…

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