I finished out February by spending two days with public relations professionals from five states attending the Best of the Southwest Communicators Conference, presented by the Texas Public Relations Association and the PRSA Southwest District. It was well-organized, well-attended by professionals and students, and contained some great content, especially regarding strategic uses for social media. I really enjoyed networking and reconnecting with the old gang from Houston, where I practiced PR for nearly 20 years.
But there was one presentation that continues to eat at me. I had chosen this session because it covered a topic I hadn’t worked with in a number of years, and I saw it as a refresher as well as a chance to see how to apply new media to this topic. The room was full of veterans, mid-level, and beginning practitioners as well as a fair number of college students. I settled in between two gal-pals, one a college senior majoring in public relations, the other one a professor of PR at that same university (and like me, APR).
The speaker was a jovial professional with a distinguished career in news reporting before opening up a PR shop in Dallas. I had heard the name, and was anxious to hear what he had to offer. He used lots of visuals and war stories to punctuate his presentation.
Early on, after discussing an issue with multiple spokespersons, he said something like “make sure everyone gets together and gets their lies straight.” Madame professor looked at me in horror and scowled. Because I am often too willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, I whispered that I thought he was joking. It was, after all, late in the day on the 2nd day of the conference. However, nobody was laughing.
Our worst fears were confirmed during the Q&A session. In response to a question about dealing with bloggers criticizing your company or client, the speaker said something along the lines of “Oh yes, we’ll respond to a blogger. We won’t tell them who we are, but we’ll make our position known.”
Madame professor and I immediately started scribbling notes to each other and her student that this is a clear violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics. (See http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/psaPS8.html and http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/preamble_en.html ) If anybody else in the room was still awake enough to notice though, they didn’t say anything.
I now really wish I’d challenged the guy, but I wimped out. I’ve been thinking about it all week. I blew a chance to set the students in the room straight about the PRSA Code of Ethics, and remind all the professionals there too. Whether it’s because I was tired, afraid of confrontation, or just so amazed that the organizers didn’t vet this speaker better, I kept my mouth shut and instead exchanged notes with my seat partners like a group of schoolgirls. But I wanted to gather all the students and neophytes together, like a mother duck protecting her brood, and tell them this is not the way to practice PR. I blew my chance because I was afraid of being impolite.
This speaker reminded me of the Wizard of Oz—not the one who had Dorothy quaking in her ruby slippers, but the one behind the curtain. The guy playing with all the levers, pulling all the switches. The faker. The blowhard.
Blowhards like this guy are what give the entire public relations profession a black eye, and worse. And despite Sarbanes-Oxley and the fallout from the Enron scandal, the business world, including some in the PR world, still hasn’t learned that truthfulness is an essential business strategy. We watch Madoff and Stanford and some of our greatest American companies struggle with the truth in their business practices and ultimately in their PR practices, and we’re amazed at the damage they do and how they get away with it. And they get away with it because the media and the public assume their PR machines have gotten their lies straight.
In this age of citizen journalists, social networking and messaging at the speed of light, ethics, truthfulness and transparency are more vital than ever. Witnesses to events all have cell phone cameras and a means of communicating with them. Disloyal employees abound, and are only too willing to Tweet about the twits in the corner office, especially if they feel management is lying about something. In a viral world, there’s no such thing as confidential communications. Gone is the 24 hour news cycle to give everyone a chance to meet and, to use the presenter’s phrase, “get your lies straight.” Oh, yeah, you can try and cover something up, but sooner or later the truth will come out. As we said during Watergate, “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”
I don’t know what the answer here is, and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts about this. I’m truly hoping the ethical PR practitioners out there will keep leading by example, adhering to what’s ethical and right, even when it means risking a job or client. (And yes, I have quit a job over ethics.)
And let’s all grow the gonads and backbone to do what I didn’t do—challenge somebody who blatantly advocates unethical practices in business and PR.