Living in a pot of water warming to a boil

November 9, 2009 at 5:23 am 1 comment

SAN DIEGO, Calif — I’m attending the PRSA International Conference (#prsa2009). We had the Assembly Saturday and today, several business meetings.

The high point, for me, was the presentation to the Sections Council about plans to start a Real Estate and Construction section, a place for folks practicing public relations for clients — internal or external — involved in homebuilding, real estate, commercial building or other related industries to discuss PR issues.  More about that when I get confirmation that we can forge ahead with it.

The opening program was Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, author and TV personality. and healthcare advocate Wendell Potter, APR. Some time ago, I wrote about Potter (, so it was interesting to hear him speak today. And what he said affirms what I said last September.

As I tweeted during the talk, Potter’s tale is truly a cautionary one, especially for those of us who are in-house PR counsel. We have to buy into our client to do our job. We have to believe in what our company does and what we are doing to support our client’s business strategy. We can’t do our job unless we do.

Potter talked about doing an ethical self-check to be sure that your moral compass is working right. He gave certain warning signs, like being worried about information getting out and asking if you would be willing tell your mother what you’re doing. He suggested that he didn’t see the warning signs.  It should make every practitioner step back and re-examine what they’re doing and how they’re doing to check for warning signs.

Ethical breaches are a proverbial slippery slope that starts imperceptably. Potter alluded to the old story about a frog in a pot of water that’s being heated to a boil. The frog doesn’t notice til it’s too late, unlike what would happen if you dropped the frog into the boiling water. Kinda makes you look for signs that the water’s heating up.

It starts with being asked to put a “spin” on a story. Then maybe it’s changing numbers…you know…just a little. Where does it stop? At what point does it become worth threatening to quit?

These are tough questions. I guess there are times when a little spin, or an adjustment of numbers is harmless…providing you realize you’re on that slope. The problem, of course, is when they ask you to do it again, you’re going to have a harder time saying, “No.”

Potter talked about being the conscience of an organization. It’s a line I’ve used before, and I know many others have as well. But you can’t “spin” or adjust facts one minute, and be the conscience of the organization the next. Potter’s experience urges each of us to be very aware of the ethical implications of every decision we make, especially we’re playing with shades of the truth…or doing something you want to tell you mother.



Entry filed under: Ethics in Public Relations, PRSA. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Why My Mother Was My Best PR Teacher More discussion on the APR

1 Comment

  • 1. Mary Danielsen  |  November 12, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Great post, Doug. Thank you I wish there was a “Spin” app or checklist that I could maintain in my old-school Daytimer that would remind me in mid meeting to test the water.



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