Archive for the ‘PR and ethics’ Category

I’ve been away from MWL for a while now. I celebrated Christmas, began the instructional design of my spring 2009 classes, and actually got some much-needed rest. But as we approach the New Year, I feel like I should say something, anything, to mark the passage. Here goes…

Goodbye, good riddance.

We all know what 2008 was like. First, there was the dominating presidential election. The wars. The housing bubble bursting. The failing economy. The bailouts.

As interested as I am in politics, I even got sick of the presidential election. The election did bring closure to one thing, and that is the long, slow suicide of journalism.

Journalism is dead. It killed itself by cutting out its credibility. RIP New York Times, Washington Post, et al. Now what do I tell my highly ethical PR students about media relations, about building relationships with journalists? My PR students are steeped in the ethical and legal aspects of communication/public relations, including fairness and balance.  They get it.

The failing economy heightened the need for communicators/public relations practitioners to understand the relevant topics of finance, economics, and business management, with an emphasis on employee communication. I’ve been preaching this for decades, but I believe that this financial crisis finally drove home the message. 

I have seen a renewed effort by communicators/public relations practitioners to learn how to communicate about economic and financial issues in order to be more effective in representing their organizations with key publics. That makes me very happy indeed.

So much for 2008. There is more, of course, but let’s move on.

I love this time of the year. Out with the old, and in with the new. Rather than celebrate the New Year with noise and alcohol-induced reverie, I greet each New Year in quiet contemplation. I take a quick inventory of the year ending, then I think of all the promise the New Year holds.

I do not make a bold set of New Year’s Resolutions. Instead, I refine those goals that I have already set for myself, namely, to transform and evolve into a higher and better being here and now, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That includes specifics of becoming a better communicator, teacher, friend, husband, father, grandfather, student, employee, and neighbor.

Onward and upward. I wish you the happiest and most prosperous of New Years. Thank you for reading MWL in 2008. I look forward to our dialogue in 2009.


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The news of John Edwards’ affair once again calls into question the integrity of newspapers like the New York Times and The Washington Post.

It took what these institutions of faded glory like to call a “rag”, the National Enquirer, to break the Edwards story. Good for you, National Enquirer. You now have credibility that the Times and the Post do not. Those two, with all of their resources, either were clueless to the obvious or so bent on covering up the scandal that they let the National Enquirer scoop them.

Either way, it is not acceptable. Honest and ethical public relations professionals have to work with these media types who all-too-frequently look down their haughty noses at us, too.

More With Les does not cover politics, and this is not about politics. It is about the sorry state of what passes for journalism these days.

But who cares? Biased, agenda-driven media like the Times and the Post can only watch as their readership numbers and ad revenues continue to be in free fall. The New York Times’ stock is one cut above a junk rating, Bloomberg reports. The outlook for the Post is grim, too, as it recorded a second quarter net loss due to steep advertising revenue declines, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The ascendancy of blogs and other Web-based news sources is well-documented. Daily newspapers shrink in both newsroom employees and influence as their ad revenues and subscription rates fall. And all the while social media is on the rise. The days of news filtered by “gatekeepers” like the Times and the Post are gone.

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As the 2008 Summer Olympics in China begin, brace yourselves for the zillions of references to “public relations”. I dread it.

True, this has begun already. An example is the Olympic Torch Relay that some call a “public relations disaster” for China.

China’s winning bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics is incredibly important to the country. By hosting the Olympics, China plans to show that it is a major player on the world stage, a modern economic powerhouse, as if we didn’t know that.

But some fears of China as host have become reality. In submitting its winning bid to the IOC in 2001, China promised open access for journalists so that they could cover this Olympics as they would any other Olympics. Not so in reality, say early accounts. There appears to be a clash of what freedom of the press means to journalists and what it means to Chinese officials.

Internet access is tightly controlled, and many Websites are blocked. Also tightly controlled are what reporters can visit and who they are allowed to talk with. So much for promises of openness.

In terms of PR, China’s effort to be seen in the most favorable light possible is undermined by its efforts to control messages and images. What pains me is to have “public relations” applied to any of this. There are enough people in the world today who disrespect PR. Applying the term “PR” to any aspect of China’s efforts at controlled self-promotion is deeply troubling.

A free and open media is significant to the ethical and effective practice of public relations. The truth is that much of the news that appears in the media comes from public relations sources.

Publicity is uncontrolled information, meaning that once any information prepared by PR professionals leaves the hands of those professionals, that information is at the mercy of a free media’s decision makers. These folks choose what they do with the information — run it, ignore it, or edit it and run it.

But when the media uses information from PR professionals, in whole or in part, it runs as if the media outlet created it, thereby giving the message a much-valued status called “third party endorsement”. That simply means that media using the information gives it credibility and validity. Though great media coverage is hard to obtain, it is highly prized for this reason. Plus, it’s free. Some call this “earned media”.

When media is controlled by the state, and only approved messages and images are allowed, then that is not public relations, but propaganda. China may wish to persuade the world that it is what it wishes to be seen as, but its heavy-handed control of media is not helpful. Persuasion as a PR tool is acceptable when done ethically. Persuasion uses communication to win people over. Persuasion is used ethically in reputation management all the time.

But there is a distinct difference between persuasion and propaganda. Propagandists try to tell people what to think.

Any PR Principles class, professional association, or PR textbook will define PR as a management function that seeks to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics. That cannot be accomplished by manipulation, control, and coercion.

Truly effective public relations needs a free and open media. And a free and open media needs public relations as a source of worthwhile information. This is the truth that we must not forget in the coming weeks.

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“In responsibility both obedience and freedom are realized. Responsibility implies tension between obedience and freedom. There would be no more responsibility if either were made independent of the other.”

Dietrich Bonhoffer, “Freedom,” in Ethics

There comes a time when we have to adopt an ethical code to govern our lives. To live a professional life, as college prepares us for, is to learn responsibility. To live a responsible life is to live an ethical life. No matter what we do in life, no matter what our ultimate profession, an underpinning of ethics is necessary to be responsible.

Teachers are especially grounded in ethics. Education programs include healthy doses of ethics as part of the training.

Better communication/public relations programs include ethics as well. Towson’s PR Track includes a strong course in ethics. But beyond that one course, ethics is a subject taught in every one of my classes. In this time of heightened scrutiny of organizations due to such highly-publicized situations as the Enron and Worldcom scandals, to name just two, an ethical underpinning is critical to organizational success. No organization can have good PR in the absence of ethical business practice.

Where does it start? Where does an ethical perspective come from? Simply enough, I think the old saying, “if it is to be, then it begins with me,” fits nicely here. The college years are a great time for a future communication/PR practitioner or educator to form a personal ethical code.

John Dalla Costa said “to be ethical is first and foremost a choice.” Once this choice is made, a communicator/PR practitioner who chooses to practice ethically can look to IABC and PRSA for codes of ethics that will provide detailed guidance.

The same is true for educators. Codes of ethics are readily available from a variety of sources, including school boards. As a member of Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society for education, I have a network of top educators for advice and counsel plus many professional development opportunities.

But while there is a wealth of external guidance for ethics, I believe that adopting a personal code begins with an examination of who we are and what we believe. Much of this — if not all — is shaped by our own life experiences. Sometimes we must overcome early programming to behave ethically as adults. This requires reflection and self-examination. To practice ethically as a communication/PR professional or an educator, we must understand our own motivations and predispositions in order to challenge them if they interfere with our being able to act ethically.

Growing up is hard work, no matter what age we are. After much reflection, the underpinning of my own ethical code is simply this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

To me, the Golden Rule is the golden key to living successfully, fully, and ethically.


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NASCAR recently issued some of the strongest penalties in its history for rules infractions found in pre-qualifying inspections for the Daytona 500, which ran today. It appears that among sports that have been marred by cheating scandals of all types, NASCAR takes cheating seriously.

Michael Waltrip’s #55 Toyota, in its premier NASCAR appearance, was found in violation of three distinct rules.  One related to gasoline and was determined to be an effort to obtain more horsepower. That was the heart of the infractions that resulted in the harsh penalties NASCAR handed down. Waltrip and his team were assessed the following penalties:

  1. The Team’s crew chief was suspended indefinitely from NASCAR.
  2. The Team’s vice president for competition was suspended indefinitely from NASCAR.
  3. Another crew chief was fined $100,000.
  4. Driver Waltrip was docked 100 driver points.
  5. Car owner Buffy Waltrip, Michael’s wife, was docked 100 car owner points.
  6. NASCAR confiscated the #55 Toyota.

For non-NASCAR fans, that all might sound like gibberish. But believe me (for I am a NASCAR fan) it is huge for any sport.

What can we learn from this? To me, from a public relations standpoint, NASCAR did the right thing and maintains — maybe even enhances — its reputation among fans, participants, and observers. In terms of ethics, NASCAR “walked the talk” in this incident.

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