PR growth brings greater ethical scrutiny

Guest blog post written by Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, chair and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

"Mo Money, Mo Problems" — Notorious B.I.G.

Rosanna M. FiskeNo, this isn't a column reminiscing about Biggie Smalls, or some on-the-fringe tabloid piece about the late rapper allegedly being alive in New Zealand. Rather, its focus is on public relations ethics; specifically, the state of ethics in a year that has been uncharacteristic in that category.

As befits a country as large and populous as the United States, the American public relations industry tends to experience its fair share of ethical mishaps, flaps and flubs each year. This year, for better or worse, is no different. Each mishap offers new lessons, or at the very least, new perspectives, on how PR professionals can ensure their work is ethically sound, while still meeting client and employer demands.

That's no easy task. As the profession expands — globally in influence and domestically in size and annual revenues — it is increasingly coming under a brighter and more finite microscope. Whether it's the media, public, government regulators or our own peers, our profession is experiencing unprecedented scrutiny that is meeting this growth at every turn.

That gets us back to: 'Mo Money, Mo Problems.'

Case in point: The recent Facebook/Burson-Marsteller incident. Combine a well-paying client, with agency leads who were either uninformed or ignorant of ethical standards and industry best practices, or worse negligent in following those, and you have a recipe for ethics disaster. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to an agency whose namesake has received some of the highest industry accolades.

We spoke out about the incident, both in how B-M handled the situation and its fallout. We also faulted Facebook for soliciting the egregious brief in which it apparently signed off on a clandestine campaign against one of its competitors — an unethical campaign both sides should have known would be discovered and criticized.

Equally disturbing was the reaction of some apologists who claimed that smear campaigns are an accepted and ethical public relations practice. We beg to differ. Negative campaigns are one thing; smear campaigns are another.

This incident brought into sharp light the heightened scrutiny our profession faces regarding its role and influence.

Government regulators are increasingly examining our work in ways we have rarely faced. Just last year, the Office of Fair Trade (OFT) launched its 'Handpicked Media' investigation in an effort to uncover the level of engagement of 'handpicked media' of bloggers on a commercial basis. That came on the heels of the Federal Trade Commission's 2009 ruling of similar note, otherwise known as the 'FTC blogger rules.'

And earlier this year, PRSA lobbied the US Senate to thwart onerous restrictions of government use of public relations firms.

The global public relations profession has had its ups and downs, no doubt. But one common thread that has held our work together for generations is our commitment to upholding ethical standards and best practices.

As PR continues to grow, we must keep those core ethical principles firmly intact. We also must continue to demonstrate that we are responsible communicators of democratic values and capable of self-regulation, in a manner that ensures the public's trust and best interests are considered. Not doing so risks onerous and overt regulation that could stifle much needed innovation and integration.

That doesn't mean we eschew new technologies, tactics or big ideas as they come along; the innovation that has built PR into a multi-billion-dollar global industry is vital and something we should continue to embrace. But the onus is on us to make sure what we do doesn't lose sight of what has allowed PR to move past its bygone days of press agentry and flacks.

We hold the power for PR to continue its role as a vital service for the global business community. We also hold the power to ensure our work meets our profession's own high ethical standards.

The choice is ours.