Posts filed under ‘Ethics in Public Relations’

Some “Truths” About Public Relations

I often find myself talking about ethics and transparency with young practitioners and with potential clients. Some people, I think, regard such discussions as quaint or even a joke. To me, these are things that set public relations practitioners apart and are necessary to our task of looking out for the long-term reputation of an organization.

Jeff Domansky, APR, publishes a blog called the PR Coach. His column, called “10 PR Truths: How Do You Measure Up”” is aimed at practitioners. But whoever is communicating on behalf of his or her organization should look at these points.

Jeff’s blog post can be seen in its original format at http://www.theprcoach.com/ten-pr-truths-how-do-you-measure-up/ or you can read it below:

Glenn Ferrell wrote a really thoughtful post about the PR profession- Seven Ways to Change the Perception of PR. It got me thinking about truth and truths in PR or any business.

Here’s the reality of public relations. Our profession is constantly under pressure for results. We get slammed by critics from the media, activists and interest groups not to mention consumers and the general public for spinning or even worse, not always telling the truth.

We operate in real time whether it’s crafting a strategy, launching a product, managing a crisis, pitching the media, communicating to employees or responding to customers. When you add social media into the mix, you can go from hero to zero in moments unless you operate with clear fundamentals.

The most successful public relations pros I know get results with integrity and grace despite this challenging environment. I thought about what makes them so successful and came up with 10 PR truths they embrace:

  1. Truth – telling the truth is the foundation for their reputation. Everywhere.
  2. Transparency – disclosure is not an option. It’s a standard.
  3. Trust – they create trust with many, as well as trust others to do their best.
  4. Tell it like it is – the fact is, they deal in facts.
  5. Timeliness – operate with a sense of urgency.
  6. Take action – they lead, they act and they make things happen.
  7. Tell stories – they tell stories that mean something, that resonate and stand out from the crowd.
  8. Take responsibility – they usually share success and take ownership of problems.
  9. Tend to the details – sweating the small stuff is a habit.
  10. Trust your instincts – this is the art of PR. Great instincts come from good experience.

Here are a few favorite quotes about truth worth remembering:

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.
Buddha

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.
Winston Churchill

Half a truth is often a great lie.
Benjamin Franklin

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Oscar Wilde

Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.
Elvis Presley

Not one of the successful leaders and mentors I know lack any of these 10 important fundamentals. Think about your own PR practices. How do you measure up? The truth is, if you follow these PR truths, you can’t fail! And they would go a long way towards restoring positive perceptions of our profession.

It’s not just the truth, it’s the truths that make the difference.

# # #

What do you think of Jeff’s column? Is it fair to expect your communications representatives to meet these standards?

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August 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Will charging to read the news change how we pitch story ideas?

More and more newspapers are considering bolstering their financials by charging readers for content, according to an article posted last week in American Journalism Review.  The article discusses the dilemma from a publisher’s point of view, but I can’t help wondering what it means for those of us working with reporters and editors to tell our clients’ stories.

 Reporter Cary Spivak, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says some papers are charging for all of their content, others are using a meter system and others charge for special stories. Spivak also says some of their content will continue to be available without charge.

How will this change the way a reporter or editor evaluates information we give them? Will publications skew their news coverage by making available more stories that people will pay for, rather than stories that have important political and social impact? Will they ignore stories that might not be as exciting or that don’t sell as well as others?  Will they look for spokesperson stars (“spokestars”?) instead of quotable, knowledgeable people?

If any of these answers are affirmative, it could mean we will have to change how we develop and pitch story ideas. Perhaps we will have to put reputation and point of view in the backseat behind sellability.  Or maybe we will have to pick our spokespeople based on star-ability rather than credibility. 

This is a scenario that could have grave consequences for our profession and our democracy. Of course, if we’re doing our jobs well now, our spokespeople are knowledge and well-spoken and, if we’re lucky, approaching spokestar quality. The stories we’re pitching should be developed to not only present our point of view and bolster our clients’ reputations, but to be exciting, full of information and something that should help a reporter tell a story others will want to read, even if they have to pay for it.

But the idea of stories being judged on their ability to get people to open their wallets instead of their minds gives me pause. What do you think?

February 27, 2011 at 5:10 pm 4 comments

Secret to a successful CSR event: Believe!

Every now and again, I get to brag about my clients. It’s been a good month for doing community relations work that demonstrates that organizations with which I work have a conscience and like doing something for the community.

My big client, of course, is K. Hovnanian Homes. The company also is my employer. It has been working to strike the balance between pushing ahead with a popular community it’s building in Woodland Park, N.J., and protecting and preserving an important piece of history there. The company has entered an agreement with the New Jersey State Museum to identify and preserve dinosaur tracks and other items of geologic interest. You can read out it here: http://bit.ly/inhousepr1027101

Meanwhile, a few days after announcing the relationship with the museum and showing off the rock with the dinosaur track, the company sponsored the third Ride for a Child’s Hope in New Windsor, N.Y., to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, N.Y.

My favorite client – Jockey Hollow Dentistry (a.k.a. my wife’s dental practice) is also doing something good for the community.  She is taking part in Operation Gratitude, and buying back children’s Halloween candy. She’ll then take the candy, along with any donated candy and some dental supplies, pack it all up and send it to Operation Gratitude, which will then send it to our troops serving overseas. Read about it here: http://bit.ly/jhd-candy

And last, but far from least, are my brothers and sisters at the Flanders Fire Company and Rescue Squad. After some false starts, we finally got to show off our pink T-shirts and our membership in the Guardians of the Ribbon. (http://bit.ly/dCgHws )  Firehouses are pretty macho places, and getting guys to wear pink is supposed to be difficult. But our firefighters jumped to join this group. As part of the Guardian of the Ribbon program, the whole fire company has agreed to do what it can to show its support for local women with cancer. The night we took the photo that went the release, we were helping some Boy Scouts earn their fire safety merit badge. Lt. Melissa Widzemok talked to the boys, explaining our pink shirts. Later, one of the boys took Melissa aside and told her about a close relative who was suffering from cancer and had just been told that there was nothing else doctors could do. Money was an issue and the boy asked us for help.

 It doesn’t get any more real than that.

We talk a lot about corporate social responsibility and all the studies that show that given the choice, people would rather do business with an organization that supports causes they like. Many companies adopt a cause and make it a corporate mission and that works for them. But I’ve found that the best results come when the executive in charge of the project genuinely has a passion for the cause. That passion usually becomes contagious. Everybody buys into it and that results in more enthusiasm and better support. And from my vantage, it becomes a lot more fun to work on these projects.

October 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Fake reviews hurt every PR practitioner

Special thanks go out to Reverb Communications for apparently allowing its staff to post fake reviews, thus making my job and that of every other ethical pubic relations practitioner that much harder.

According to an article (http://tinyurl.com/2dcuood)  in the Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog,  Reverb agreed “to settle with the FTC over charges that its staff posed as members of the public to fake reviews of video games developed by its clients. The company and its owner were accused of engaging in deceptive advertising by having staff post game reviews without disclosing that they were hired to promote the games and that they often received a percentage of sales.”

For a minute, put aside the fact that no company wants to tangle with a federal agency. The Code of Ethics of the Public Relations Society of America ( http://tinyurl.com/yfp2ean) is pretty specific about this sort of thing. “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public,” it says. One of the guidelines says a member shall “be honest and accurate in all communications.” Another says that a practitioner shall “be honest and accurate in all communications,” “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” “disclose financial interest in a client’s organization” and “avoid deceptive practices.”

Do I need to burn pixels explaining those things in terms of not disclosing that you’re getting paid to write good reviews? PRSA member or not, do I need to burn more pixels explaining how damaging this is to the credibility of that public relations firm, its clients (all of them) and, by extension, everyone one of us who acts as a counselor on matters of public relations.

One of my jobs is to gather advertorials by customers. It’s the fun part of my job because these are all people who have purchased a home and they love the home. We don’t pay these people. We don’t allow our associates to do advertorials unless we disclose they are associates. And we never make up the people, although it’s been suggested.

But the next time I go into a meeting, and someone tells me to make up a homeowner or pay a homeowner to give a specific message, and I tell them it’s unethical and illegal, what’s to stop them from waving Reverb’s efforts in front of me?

Reverb says its staff posted the reviews after purchasing the games with their own money and the reviews reflected their own enthusiasm. Sorry. Doesn’t wash: Working ethically is an individual act, albeit made easier in a culture of ethical behavior. So if your people are working unethically, Reverb and anyone else thinking of taking this stand, it’s because you’re failing to educate them and failing to demand high ethical standards.

The Bulldog Reporter quotes Mary Engle, director of the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices as saying, “Companies, including public relations firms involved in online marketing, need to abide by the long-held principles of truth in advertising. Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product, and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers.”

Those rules of law apply to all of us who offer an opinion – ours or a customer’s – to the public as a way of positioning our clients. To me, though, the impact of the PRSA Code of Ethics is even more important: It’s about keeping communications and dialog open, credible and truthful. When you’re talking about a product, you’re talking about reputation and sales.

Important stuff. But take this tactic to the next step, and you may be taking about issues that pertain to the very foundation of democracy.

August 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm 4 comments

My Turn: NYC Mosque Debate Has Some Scary Implications for PR

I’ve been watching the debate over the NYC mosque with increasing frustration and disgust, exacerbated by news reports that people think that Pres. Barrack Obama is a Muslim and that his own church-going habits aren’t real.

 Who cares? Is he doing the right thing for the country?

 The whole mosque debate is absurd. If the zoning laws are OK with it, there is no reason that a group of Muslims can’t worship wherever they please, providing the State and City of New York has no legitimate reason for them not to.  This racially motivated attempt to block the mosque belongs in Selma, Ala., circa 1960, not here and now. We’re playing into the hands of Islamic and American Right Wing extremists.

As a PR guy, this has other scary overtones. Decision-making in a democracy is supposed to be about the intelligent exchange of ideas (stop laughing). Over the past few years, discussion, ethics and facts have been replaced with volume and innuendo. He who shouts loudest must be right. So those who aren’t so sure go along, making the volume higher. Reason, facts and morality get drowned out and we make dumb decisions. It’s plain scary.

While the mosque debate may be the loudest argument going on, it’s far from the only one. Many good public servants are finding themselves unemployed by groups using these tactics.

As a public relations person for a homebuilder, I see this tactic used regularly, if at a lower volume. The combination of statements at meetings and letters to the editor (had one the other day that talked about “all the government studies” – yeah? Show them to me!) are basically the same tactic. I’ve seen again and again opponents who don’t know the facts yell or write half truths and innuendos until the volume reaches  the point where it defeats sound judgment and, in some cases, the law. There’s oil leaching into one of New Jersey’s bays from a town that went that route rather than work with us.

I keep thinking of a profound line in Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” This latest trend of opinion influencing leverages that.  The media – traditional and social – exacerbates the problem, sometimes for readership, sometimes because reporters are caught up in it.

While we have to master the latest technology, maybe its time to also apply the original social media: community meetings, personal letters and other individual contact with persons. A person might listen and make a wise judgement. People, apparently, tend not to.  Who, for instance, is the face of New York City mosque? Perhaps if it had one, we’d be less afraid of it.

What do you think?

August 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

Calling the emporer on his clothes: Farmer nails it on today’s news coverage

Call me old-school, but the most exciting thing in Sunday’s Star Ledger (other than the fact that the Royals beat the Yankees) was John Farmer’s column about today’s political news coverage.

 He used the circus triggered by media that failed to double check a conservative blogger’s very special editing of a passionate speech by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official as a news peg.  Shirley Sherrod’s address carried a powerful message – if you took the time to hear the whole thing. Unfortunately, nobody – even her employer – bothered to double check what the blogger accused her of saying, resulting in some very well-publicized embarrassment.

Farmer talks about the evils of taking things at face value and how that has impacted what passes for news these days. When I became a reporter in the 1970s, I was taught about those same dangers. Farmer’s column, which you can read by clicking here, remembers the days when no self-respecting reporter would use a source’s information without double-checking the info. Nor would he or she use his or her news space or air time (no Web back then…ah, good old days) to create coverage that was deliberately slanted toward one position or another, unless the piece was labeled commentary. And we also understood that commentaries – and falsifying information –could make our jobs difficult later.

Farmer’s point is that if journalists aren’t going to exercise any scrutiny or healthy cynicism when they’re given information, especially stuff that grabs eyeballs and supports whatever position they want, then consumers of news will have to be cynical. To me, a firm believer in the role of journalism in keeping our democracy going, it’s a return to the yellow journalism or the post-Revolutionary War era, when newspapers were overtly supported by political parties.

Wonderful commentary, right? But I’m really thinking about the impact of this new journalistic style on those of us in public relations. We’re up against a 24/7 news cycle (and a million vendors who want to charge us to tell us how to cope with it). That would be enough of a challenge. But today, people will just as easily believe a story that puts our clients in a bad light, even if it’s 100 percent false and concocted and spread by someone with a definite axe to grind. And while doing well by doing good is more important than ever, it’s not enough. Stir in the reduced resources most of us have these days, and we face challenges that we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.

How we deal with this situation is what makes public relations different today than it was not so many years ago. A press and a public that regarded what they’re told with a little cynicism and an open mind would be helpful. Since that’s not going to happen, I figure we need to take the high road on behalf of our clients. We need to monitor what’s being said about us and the industries we represent. We need to know who’s saying what understand the axe they’re grinding. We need to use truth and good citizenship to make the organizations we represent defendable if not unassailable…and if a company doesn’t want to engage in good citizenship, we need to walk away.

It’s not much of an answer. And the way things move these days, by the time we figure out a better one, the question probably would change.  

Anyway that’s my take. What’s yours?

July 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm 2 comments

Fed rules make free summer internships too expensive

I’m thinking of creating a summer shadow program because, apparently, one is no longer allowed to offer unpaid summer internships. God forbid, the government has said, that you might gain something from the work of a student. 

New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse had a very interesting story this week on the topic with some good links to the six federal criteria for running an internship program.

 I can think of few things stupider to do to our students when they are having a hard time finding jobs. While we don’t want to create slave labor summer camps, I would think there could be some balance that would help students gain some real experience and, dare I say, some of us with cut-to-the-bone departments (or agencies) get a little help while teaching. I guess I dare not say.

 Some of this ridiculousness we – the employers – have probably brought on ourselves. If we hire interns as interns, we have an obligation to teach them something other than how to run the photocopier. We all do some scut work, but they’re here to learn and it should be a privilege to teach them. I always told my interns that they will get some crappy jobs, but that they also would write at least one advertorial, one release for distribution, handle one special event and accompany me to meetings. I also asked them if there was something special they wanted to do. In short, they were treated as junior staff.

Apparently, however, allowing them to write that advertorial and release and handle that special event is bad, according to the feds. Somebody is going to have to tell me how I can teach an intern to write a release without having them do one.

 Mr. Greenhouse’s article was not news to me. K. Hovnanian Public Relations had, if I say so myself, an excellent internship program for quite a while. Our interns went on to some really exciting jobs. At least one learned that he didn’t want to do public relations, which I think is a terrific use of an internship.  

 When the real estate market headed south, it took my internship budget with it. I got away with the unpaid thing for a while, but then human resources waved the guidelines under my nose.

I’d love to know how other firms and small departments are dealing with unpaid internships. What are you doing?  Or have you just given up? Use the comment  key below to share your thoughts.

I’m thinking of creating a summer shadow program. It wouldn’t be for the whole summer, but I’m going to see if I can make it worth some credit. I’m sure the intern – I mean, shadow — will get underfoot, so that’ll meet one of the federal criteria. But, for at least a short time, they can see what a corporate public relations operation is. And maybe they can get away with writing a press release or helping with an event. Would that be worthwhile? Or perhaps I should ask if it would provide me with too much benefit.

Anyway, I’ll let you know what happens.

April 6, 2010 at 11:40 pm 2 comments

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