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Managing Client Expectations: Your Public Relations Firm Must Operate in the Open

UPDATE: A similar, but slightly different version of this article is posted as a bonus commentary on the Public Relations Society of America''s PR Tactics Web site.

Disclosure: Dan Keeney is a shareholder of Wal-Mart.

The outing of Wal-Mart and its public relations firm for failing to disclose the fact a seemingly independent blog was actually part of its advocacy effort has prompted plenty of holier than thou prostheletizing on the part of supposed blogging “authorities.” The peanut gallery suggests that all bloggers should disclose any ties – financial or otherwise – to the subject matter they blog about.

Okay. Not a lot of deep thinking being exhibited there.

What is being missed in the heated exchanges that have taken place is that ALL public relations programs should face a high level of disclosure. In fact it is required under the Public Relations Society of America’s Member Code of Ethics. Sure, the Code preceded the advent of blogs and probably didn’t foresee a day when consumer-generated media, but it is applicable in this discussion.

Among its provisions is “Disclosure of Information,” which states, “Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.”

This provision specifically requires that public relations practitioners “Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” and it specifically cites “Front groups: A member implements "grass roots" campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups,” as an example of improper conduct. Another example of improper conduct is “A member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in "grass roots" campaigns.”

So all the hand wringing by the blogging elite that this was a breach of “netiquette” seems to miss the point. This was a breach of basic ethics, whether the behavior was in an online environment or offline.

Even so, unlike the peanut gallery, I know better than to judge Wal-Mart or its agency. They made a mistake and have apologized for it. But is there a greater sinister motive that’s been uncovered? Doubtful.

What’s been uncovered is that clients and agencies have a tendency to want to execute good ideas without giving full consideration to the ethics involved.

For example, we recently had a client ask us to do a simple task in advance of their move into a new service area. To get a sense of how others already providing similar services tell their story, they asked us to contact these companies posing as a potential customer. After explaining the ethical requirement that we disclose our client, we refocused the challenge and were able to gather valuable information on their behalf.

It often comes as a surprise to clients that the sources funding letters to the editor or op-eds must be disclosed. While our firm lives by these ethical standards, we know that others do not. We also know that the appearance of independence, even when false almost always trumps the disclosure of non-independence in terms of impact and credibility.

Disclosure is ethical and good, but it makes public relations work more complicated.

The point here is that it doesn’t serve a productive purpose to beat up the people caught in one particular lapse. It’s more important to use this as a teaching moment. Encourage all clients to operate in the open and take this as an opportunity to assess whether your public relations program is living up to the ethical standards that have been established.

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
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Author: Dan Keeney
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