Has marketing communications caused PR to compromise its ethics?

Have we sacrificed PR ethics in exchange for market share? Tactics such as whisper campaigns, samples, pay-for-play and aggressive marketing may be a win for clients, but they cause our field to lose trust and credibility.

As the lines between public relations and marketing have blurred, it seems that ethical lines have blurred as well.

Public relations, a communications function, creates and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its diverse publics.

Marketing, a sales and distribution function, focuses on a singular public – those who could buy, sell or distribute a product or service. When merged, the disciplines concentrate on the one group and all efforts are designed to support the selling of products and services to them.

The model works, and it has helped add solid measurement to the communications process.  However, I fear public relations may have lost sight of some of its longest held values with the merger – the values of trust and honesty.


PR ethics and media: Identifying sources and providing accurate information

Trust and honesty are important in all PR relationships, but they are especially critical in our relationships with media. We have a delicate dance. They provide our material with third party endorsement and serve as the gatekeepers to the publics we need to reach. However, many editors and reporters view public relations with suspicion. It’s understandable. They work to present information to the public without bias or prejudice. It can be argued PR practitioners have a natural bias and prejudice toward the organizations we represent.

The fields share a strong common foundation – ultimately, both serve the public, and both should be guided by the principles of honesty, fairness, and responsible, professional, and ethical relationships.

However, PR practitioners can cross both public relations’ and journalism’s ethical lines when it comes to marketing communications and the efforts to boost a client’s market position.

The recent Burson-Marsteller case provides an example of how the PR field is damaged when those lines are crossed. On May 10, 2011, “USA Today” revealed two Burson-Marsteller publicists, John Mercurio and Jim Goldman, launched a whisper campaign by an unnamed client against Google. In an email pitch to reporters and bloggers, Mercurio and Goldman claimed Google was collecting and storing personal information without users’ consent, and they encouraged the writers to run stories and editorials about the privacy issues.  When a blogger asked about who was funding the campaign, Mercurio said he couldn’t disclose his client. The blogger refused to do the story and exposed the campaign by publishing the original email and his response.

Shortly after the story broke, it was revealed that Facebook was the client behind the attempted Google smear. The negative campaign was launched shortly before Google kicked off its entrance into the social media sphere with Google+.

The men’s actions violated a core element of the Public Relations Society of America’s ethical code – honesty. The code states PRSA members must reveal the sponsors for causes and interests they represent and should avoid deceptive practices. Mercurio and Goldman failed to identify their client and much of the information in their pitch later proved to be inaccurate. The men were not PRSA members, but as former journalists themselves, they certainly knew better.

PRSA President and CEO Rossana M. Fiske blogged that Burson-Marsteller did get the press coverage they sought about Google’s privacy issues, but Fiske added,  “Unfortunately for the rest of us, its tactics in so doing have again called into question public relations professionals’ ethics. In that regard, we all lost.”


PR ethics and media: Providing samples and opportunities to review products or services

Serving the public interest is a core value for both public relations and journalism.  PRSA reiterates this value with its principle about protecting the free flow of information. In short, we should do nothing that could cause or even appear to cause the compromise of that information.  The organization reinforces the position by pointing out that the practice of receiving or giving gifts can impede this principle. The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethical code takes it a step further by strictly prohibiting journalists from accepting gifts or other freebies because it can lead to or create the appearance of bias.

Are we serving the publics’ interest by providing reporters with free samples and opportunities to review products and services? I don’t believe we are, and in my opinion, the marketing communications tactic crosses the ethical lines of both public relations and journalism.

I’ve discussed the issue with several colleagues, and many have shared cringe-worthy stories. One case involved a marketing communications agency that was trying to get media attention for a very upscale retailer. Reporters were offered a personal shopping experience and a sample pair of the retailer’s high-end sunglasses to review. Thankfully, most reporters flat out refused the offer, but a morning news show accepted the shades for its entire on-air team and featured the retailer throughout its broadcast.

Was it a win for the client? Yes, but it was a sad loss for ethics.


PR ethics and media: Pay-for-play

In some cases, the media themselves have willingly compromised ethics. It comes in the form of pay-for-play, when reporters or media receive undisclosed payment for the placement of editorial material.  There have been cases in which PR practitioners have offered it, but many have also encountered situations in which the medium requests or requires it.  At first, I was shocked when a few community papers required an advertising contract before they’d run a news story, a blogger told me about his fee to run a press release or write about an organization, or a network news director refused my subject matter expert because he was using one of his advertisers for the spot. Sadly, the shock has worn off because I’ve been encountering it more often.

While the practice is not condoned by PRSA, some practitioners may view it as just another way to get their messages to their target audience – as a mere cost of doing business.


PR ethics and the public: Providing information for responsible decision making

In addition to impacting our trust and honesty with media, the marketing communications approach also impacts trust and honesty with the very public we are trying to reach. By focusing solely on sales efforts, we are at risk of violating yet another PRSA core principle – to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.  If we communicate only about the virtues of a product and fail to address problems or items of concern, we make it impossible for this group to make an informed decision, and the organization risks losing credibility when another source brings these issues to light.

Consider the case of Merck’s Vioxx. When Vioxx was first introduced in 1999, it was heralded as a pain relief wonder drug.  Although many physicians expressed concerns about the drug, Merck downplayed their apprehensions and tried to win over dissenters with marketing incentives. Their efforts worked. By 2004, more than 25 million Americans had taken Vioxx; however, the drug was pulled off the shelves that year after an FDA study revealed it was responsible for thousands of heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths.

In 2011, Merck agreed to pay $950 million and pled guilty to a criminal charge over the marketing and sales of the painkiller. In addition, the company also paid $4.85 billion to settle 27,000 lawsuits by people who had claimed they or their relatives had suffered injury or death after taking the drug.

Merck, and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, suffered a severe loss of credibility and trust because of the Vioxx case. However, that loss of credibility and trust is nothing compared to the thousands of people who were injured or died because of irresponsible marketing and downplayed concerns.


PR ethics: The future

In addition to working as a PR consultant, I also serve an adjunct faculty member for the University of Memphis’ Department of Journalism. My colleagues and I work together to teach our students critical importance of ethics in our industry. We discuss the ethical codes and solicit their opinions about real-life cases. I’m proud to say the students truly “get it.” They know the codes, and they know how to respond.

However, I’m saddened to hear some of them are encountering unethical practitioners in the marketing communications workplace.  Former students have called me after they’ve been told to do something they know is ethically wrong. They fear refusing would lead to termination, and doing as they’re told would compromise them as practitioners. I can commiserate, advise and reassure them, but ultimately, the decision is theirs. It’s a choice they shouldn’t have to make, but some in our field truly believe the end justifies the means.

“Like any profession, PR has its bad practitioners,” wrote fellow educator Tim Penning in PR Daily. “But more often than not…“spin” is perpetuated by people who do not have a degree in PR, and are not members of PRSA and aware of its ethics code, and therefore should not be considered exemplary of PR as commonly practiced.”

I don’t believe Penning is saying a practitioner needs a degree in the field or membership in an organization to be exemplary; he is pointing out that practitioners need the knowledge and accountability these elements represent.

I worry that bad practitioners, those without this knowledge or accountability, are actually considered exemplary because they get the results clients want. Many clients may never know what was done on their behalf violated ethical principles, or some cases, they may not care.  All the client sees is a boost in market share; the blurred lines aren’t even noticed. It’s time we all notice the lines and get them back in focus.


What are your thoughts about today’s state of ethics in our industry? Please share your feedback and ideas about what we should be doing. I’d like to include your comments in an upcoming academic article.

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