Ethically Speaking, Are You a Child Or an Adult?

September is PRSA Ethics Month again and it brought to mind a memory.

Years ago, long before I was a professor, I was speaking about public relations at an event and brought up the subject of ethics. An audience member sneered: “you can’t teach ethics.”

Well,  now I actually do teach ethics. So I could say that gentlemen was wrong. But his implied point is worth considering. What he really meant to say. is that you can teach ethics classes but that doesn’t mean people will behave ethically.

To that I say, of course. You can preach the gospel, but not all will believe. You can teach the importance of research, but not all will do it. You can conduct a fundraising campaign, but not all. will give.

In any of the above examples, of course the individual has their own will and responses will vary. That does not mean NONE will respond favorably, and therefore does not mean the activity is pointless or without merit.

So, in teaching ethics, the goal is inspiration, to make conscious the ethical implications of what we do in the profession, and then to instill a curiosity about the right thing to do and a motivation to be ethical in all professional practice.

There are two things that help my students internalize a lot of the ethical theories, concept and issues we discuss in class: the four motivations for being an ethical professional, and the three levels of ethical character.  I would encourage any PR professional to consider these in their daily practice::

Four motivations for being an ethical professional:

  • Personal = characterized by self-regulation, driven by personal conscience
  • Organizational = a concern for the corporate or organizational reputation, could be driven by policy or internal ethics code
  • Professional = to enhance the profession of public relations, in keeping with the 6th provision of the PRSA Code of Ethics
  • Societal = characterized by a big-picture concern for others, driven by a desire to contribute to the well-being of society (also called the professional role morality)

Three levels of ethical character:

  • “Child” – Acting ethically because of a fear of  punishment. (No developed internal ethical character)
  • “Adolescent” – Acting ethically to confirm to perceived group norm. (Which means can be easily persuaded by colleagues, boss,  or clients to engage in unethical practice).
  • “Adult” – Individual grasp of moral issue, personal principle. (Has internalized ethical principles and acts on basis of integrity and character more than external influence).

I’ll let people consider these for themselves. But I would say that some degree of all four motivations should be a basis for ethical behavior. And as for the levels of ethical character, I encourage all who practice PR to act like adults, and against the pressure from peers and others, be the ethical adult in the room.

PR Ethics Month…An Example and Some Resources

September is PR Ethics Month, organized by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) with events planned at the national and chapter level. Here’s a list of ethics activities from Debra Petersen of the Dayton Area Chapter. 

At the beginning of this month, I want to point out the fact that ethical situations happen every day, all year long. By ethical situations, I mean daily activities in which one must consider the consequences of personal and professional actions. The fact that PRSA designates a month to it simply means ethics is that important to concentrate on for a full month every year.

For example, let me share a phone inquiry I just had about ethics.

A former colleague who practiced and taught journalism for years finds himself doing what is essentially public relations. He was recently asked by a client to gather information from various sources on key topics, and write blog posts under the name of this client as a means of developing “thought leadership.”

My friend smelled something and said he thought to call me right away to get some insight and advice. We had a good talk about the issue, and I confirmed his fears. Research is ok, but not sourcing information and then even going beyond to present it as original insight for the purpose of self promotion is clearly a violation of several ethical values and principles, including honesty, fair competition, and disclosure of information. My colleague, who used to deride public relations with the smugness typical of journalists, realized that legitimate PR professionals have a solid grasp of ethics and are often the ones providing that insight, even though the profession too often unfairly gets blamed for “PR problems.”

At the beginning of this year’s month-long emphasis on PR ethics, I would encourage students of PR, current professionals, and even and especially non-PR professionals to learn more about public relations ethics with the following:


Who Should Be Your Spokesperson?

imagesJust recently, a client of mine was in the news. The story was not something we had pitched, it was just some journalistic enterprise stemming from a public meeting.

It just so happened that the CEO and COO were both across the country at a conference. So the VP of Finance took the call from a reporter and answered the questions. This was appropriate, given that the story was financial in nature. The reporter needed to verify and clarify some numbers and then ask for a quote. The resulting article was clear and positive and the finance expert had gained some media exposure.

I bring this up because people often wonder who their client or organization’s spokesperson should be. Some assume it should always be the CEO. Others think that’s the role of the PR person. Often in times of crisis it is a lawyer stepping up to the microphone (not always a good idea because of the implications of a lawyer speaking looking defensive as opposed to transparent).

The reality is, the best spokesperson depends on the subject matter and context.

When I did media training several times over the years for the client I mentioned, I always did it for not just the CEO but everyone on the management team, including finance, human resources, and other specific business area management leads. This is because everyone should be ready to give a clear interview that is both helpful to journalists and consistent with company objectives.

That is the purpose of media training–to make sure everyone who might do an interview is not mystified, afraid of, or antagonistic toward the media. They should know how to speak for print, radio, or TV–live or recorded–in a way that provides accurate and useful information that sounds genuine and not generic jargon.

In previous PR jobs where media relations was the focus, I often connected reporters to people other than myself for interviews. The idea was to shine a light on more people in an organization to show its depth and diversity, but also to have more insightful comments closer to the subject at hand. Reporters were always appreciative of the access to sources most suited for the story.

Here are some simple considerations for setting up a spokesperson on a given story:

  • authority/accountability–who has the power or made or will make a decision relative to the story? This could be the CEO, but it could be another member of management. Think in terms of who the public would want to hear from to justify themselves for the actions to be reported in the story. (This also is something to think about if debating whether someone from a PR agency or someone in-house should be the spokesperson for a story);
  • knowledge–who can really answer a reporter’s questions in detail in a way that can enlighten and educate an audience? This may be a scientist, a teacher, an accountant, an engineer, a safety officer or anyone who deals with the subject of a reporter’s story daily as the focus of their job;
  • accessibility–who is available right now or very soon? Reporters work on deadlines. Sometime there is a long lead time to set something up, but often the story is for tonight’s broadcast or going up online for the next app or email update. In this case, the PR professional may be the one to speak for the sake of efficiency.



Evidence That Good Management Depends on Good PR

UnknownA Wall Street Journal article yesterday about the Management Top 250–the most effectively managed companies–reminded me of a fundamental principle.

Good public relations is essentially the same thing as good management.

I learned that years ago reading a book by Peter Drucker, the management guru on whose principles these awards are based.

Public relations academics and seasoned professionals will say that public relations is a “management function.” We stress it in classes, at conferences, and on the job.

It’s important to stress, because the word on the street–and, sadly, even within the ranks of public relations practitioners–is that PR is merely media relations, one-way communication, or worse, purposeful spin and deception.

Public relations, properly understood, IS good management. If public relations is properly practiced, there are tangible management benefits. Practicing good PR means considering ALL publics, striving for mutually beneficial relationships with all of them, and communicating with them strategically through ALL available tactics.

As evidence, consider the five criteria of performance for the Management 250 and the corresponding public relations contribution to each:

  1. Customer satisfactionSome would think immediately this has to do with marketing. But PR involves consumer relations, communication after the sale, reputation, CRM (customer relationship management) and is the basis for concepts like “permission marketing” and “relationship marketing.” Customers do not only derive satisfaction from the product or service, but from the relationship with the brand.
  2. Employee engagement and development. Here, human resources comes to mind naturally. But public relations professionals who specialize in internal or employee relations have much to do with this performance indicator. Communicating beyond benefits and annual performance reviews, being intentional about culture, retention, empowerment, being the ’employer of choice,’ and other objectives are ways PR enhances this aspect of management.
  3. Innovation. As mentioned above, culture is a key objective of internal public relations. And studies have shown that companies that are innovative don’t just hire innovative individuals but work on developing an innovative culture. Culture is based on and perpetuated by communication, the purview of internal PR professionals.
  4. Social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility has been a key aspect of public relations for decades. It relates to the fact that proper PR considers not just reaching but listening to all stakeholders and working toward mutually beneficial relationships. Recent research has shown more PR professionals take on the role of corporate conscience or ethical conscience of their organization. This leads to socially responsible practice.
  5. Financial strength. OK, maybe we leave this one to the accountants and finance experts. However, numbers 1-4 above are key drivers of performance, which is what gets the finances you are able to manage.

So, while public relations is mentioned in articles about bad management and crises, the unseen truth is that the best managed companies have a good public relations person offering strategic counsel on relationships, ethics, culture and more that are well beyond mere proficiency in communication tactics.


Measuring Media Relations: More than ‘Word’ and ‘Awareness’

My colleagues and I cringe and roll our eyes when clients or others speak of their public relations goals as needing to “get the word out” or “raise awareness.” At first blush, those goals sound obvious and appropriate. But the problem is that they are too basic and don’t seek the true value public relations can offer.

The other problem, relative to an earlier post I wrote, (and someone reading that asked  for my perspective on this) is that such a view of publicity or earned media is not a complete view of public relations. The measurement goals of publicity should be consistent with the broader objectives of the big picture PR that goes well beyond getting yourself in the news.

Public relations is all about measuring objectives, and those objectives should be about the whole organization, not just the PR function. The PR industry has worked to derive standards for measurement of PR impact globally, resulting in a set of seven standard evaluation guidelines called the Barcelona Principles. PR measurement guru Katie Paine has a good summary of them on her own blog.

Given that broad background, let’s take a look at the ways to measure the publicity or earned media–again, just one aspect of public relations work–in the enlightened way consistent with measurement standards. In order of importance from least to most meaningful, measuring earned media includes:

  • Production. These are simply the copies of news releases, pitch letters and other media relations tactics produced by the PR professional or team. They show you have done something, but not the result.
  • Exposure. The old-fashioned clip reports, either hard copy or digital, that show actual articles, blog posts or transcripts of broadcast stories that result from the media relations tactics. This shows you got some coverage, and maybe even millions of impressions, but it says nothing about the quality of it.
  • Content analysis. Taking a bit more involved approach, this method looks at sentiment–positive or negative–as well as whether or not intended key messages of objectives were included in the resulting coverage. Negative coverage, contrary to the alleged statements by PT Barnum that “all news is good news,” getting negative media can damage reputational objectives quickly and broadly. Also, you can get lots  of coverage but the focus is not your intent and all that media is a fail. As an example, I once publicized the fact that the governor was speaking at a client event but the media only came to ask her about state budget issues, not at all about her purpose or speech that day for my client.
  • Competitive analysis. CEOs and others in management must grapple with how the organization is doing relative to competition. It’s how THEY are measured. So good media relations measurement should look at the “share of discussion” resulting from your efforts. If you get 50 media mentions in a month in targeted media, that’s good if the next closest competitor in your industry got 20, but bad if one or more competitors are yielding 75 or 100 articles or stories in the same period.
  • Response. Just as digital analytics looks for ‘conversion goals’ (people clicking on and doing things in response to digital PR, media relations measurement should include noting a causal response. This means after information is published or broadcast is there a corresponding increase in requests for information, attendance, voting, sales or other organizational objective?
  • Engagement. In the social media era in particular, media efforts that result in dialogue and conversation with key publics is important. So if media relations move conversations to your own blog, web site, and social platforms, as well as offline interaction, this is an important metric to plan for and measure.
  • Outcome. As the Barcelona principles note, this is the gold standard of all PR measurement and should be for media relations as well. Basically, do the publics  who see your publicity respond the way you intended in your stated objectives? This could mean a positive change in awareness, a depth of understanding, an attitude formed or strengthened and ultimately a specific action taken in response.

There are firms to help with large-scale measurement of media relations, including the PRTrak software by Burrelle’s Luce, Cision, and Meltwater. But much of this can be done by professionals in house with good planning and attention to these details.