Taking an Ethical Stand…or a Political One?

September 17, 2009 at 12:41 pm 1 comment

My son Ethan, a very smart, well-informed guy who works in the world of business and economics, sent me a post from Salon (http://tinyurl.com/r4e85l) written by the former head of public relations for Cigna. Wendell Potter has taken a stand against the role that insurance companies have played in healthcare reform. He also has been the subject of a news show segment. In fact, a quick Google search shows that he has been making the rounds.

Mr. Potter says that the insurance companies use “PR” to manipulate facts and block reform. He quit, he says, because, “I did not want to be involved in yet another P.R. and lobbying campaign to kill or gut reform.”  Calling his column “interesting,” Ethan says, “I think a good PR example?”  Well, maybe.

As I read Mr. Potter’s Salon story and reflected on the TV piece I saw about him, I can’t help but wonder whether Mr. Potter is taking an ethical stand or using his former position to help him take a political position. Perhaps a bit of both.

The behavior described by Mr. Potter, if  true, violates the PRSA Code of Ethics and probably other codes of ethics. Any of us that have been in this business any length of time have been asked to use similar tools. Most of us, I hope, refuse.  The moment we cease to be what PRSA President Mike Cherenson likes to call the “corporate consciousness,” we are no longer PR people, we’re co-conspirators.

Public relations, like the law, eminates from the Constitution. We are the responsible voice of organizations and those organizations have the right, in some cases the obligation, to be heard. It’s our job to focus their position and put that informaton into the right hands in a compelling manner. We also should be providing counsel when that position is being formulated, being sure that it is not only legal and profitable, but one that enhances a company’s reputation.

Our Professional Values guide us in how we present that position to those who determine the viability of the organizations we represent. Those values say that we must “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” Any veteran PR person knows that lying or “spinning” comes back to bite you.

Potter talks about using “shills and front groups to spread lies and disinformation.” Again, this isn’t PR. The Code of Ethics urges practitioners to “build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision building.” Front groups are specifically mentioned as an unethical practice.

Front groups shouldn’t be confused with coalitions. Broad-based coalitions are a valid way to move a political agenda. In New Jersey, I represent my company on such a coaliton dealing with affordable housing. A colleague represents us on a coalition dealing with economic stimulus. While we may not be out in front of a coalition, we are  up front about our membership. And to have any value, the coalition must be able to reveal its make-up and its mission.

I also question the implication that public relations practitioners are somehow overpowering the media and manipulating legislatures and voters. I imagine most reporters would take issue with that too. Any PR person who has tried to convince a reporter of the validity of a controversial position or faced a community meeting with an  unpopular idea, no matter how beneficial, knows that people don’t just lay down and go away. And even if traditional media is struggling, the use of blogs like this and other social media make it impossible today to control the dissemination of information.  Giving false information to reporters, by the way, violates our Code provision that tells us to “preserve the integrity of the process of communications” and to “be honest and acccurate in all communications.”

Any public relations practitioner who has been in this business for any length of time has made ethical decisions. We’ve all compromised on some things.  But many of us — myself included — have also had to take a stand. Usually, it’s simply counseling a client — internal or external — about something they want to do. 

Of course, sometimes that’s not easy. In the agency world, the worst that can happen is you lose an account for taking an ethical stand. Those of us who are in-house, however,  can lose our  job, especially if we find ourselves objecting more than once. I have faced those demons and have had a couple of show-downs. For the most part, especially in my current job, people want to do the right thing and err on the side of ethical behavior. I have,  however,  left a position over ethical behavior.  I did not do any media interviews about it, though, just got a new (and better) job.

I don’t know what Mr. Potter’s story is. A quick Google search shows that he now works for an organization that fancies itself a corporate and government watchdog. I’ve dealt with them and experienced their own brand of twisting the facts. He is making a lot of media appearences. It is a good story, but what is Mr. Potter’s agenda? It doesn’t matter here.

Have insurance company’s banded together to block healthcare reform? I don’t know. I hope not. If they have, there needs to be some accountability for corrupting the process. If Mr. Potter is correct, the industry’s behavior is contemptable,  but I’m a PR guy, not a lawyer. And it’s wrong to label such nefarious activity as public relations.

But insurance companies certainly have a right to be represented in the debate and there are, no doubt, public relations practitioners helping to shape their positions. Trust me: Those in favor of healthcare reform are using equal force, or should be. It’s called discussion and debate, and it’s an essential part of the legislative process is in a democracy. We can only hope that the public relations people on both sides are fighting to make sure the parties in the debate are conducting themselves honestly, ethically and respectfully. Lately, we seem to forget that those three traits need to be part of the discussion, as does listening and enough flexibility to find compromise.

As for Mr. Potter, I don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, but I wish him well. Your cause is noble, sir, but stop blaming me.  When he says what Cigna has done is the result of public relations activities, he’s branding me and every other practitioner. I don’t behave that way. If what he says about Cigna and other insurers is true, and he participated in all those things he’s accusing Cigna of doing, than he needs to accept some of the blame and instead of just wagging his finger. Part of the job of PR practitioner is represent a client’s point of view ethically.

For the rest of us, Mr. Potter’s media tour is a good reminder of what our task is. TV producers would have you think PR people write press releases and arrange parties.  We do. But the most important part of our task is to be part of the strategic planning  process and to make sure that any stategy stands up to the harsh spotlight of examination by being ethical, fair, honest and respectful. We also need to be able to make sure our leaders know the reaction to our strategy.

It’s not easy or fun but, in my opinion, we don’t get to run around pointing fingers unless we have vigorously advocated doing things the right way and refused to execute an unethical plan. If we’re quiet, we condone bad behavior. Mr. Potter says he’s doing what he’s doing now because his conscious was bothering him. About time.

So no, Ethan, condoning unethical corporate behavior, even by just standing by silently, is not good PR. Nor is using your inability to stop such behavior as a reason for a media tour. Good PR is a working tirelessly to keep your organization transparent, ethical and able to handle examination by almost anyone.

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