When the rubber meets the road: Upholding ethics as PR professionals

by: Mary Verdin, President/Chief Strategy Officer

In a world of fake news and distrust toward media, the PR industry has a responsibility. It’s more important than ever that we hold each other accountable to doing the right thing and serving this industry with integrity.

I regularly speak to students at colleges and universities about what it takes to be successful in PR, marketing and communications. Recently, I was asked to share on the topic of ethics, and I was delighted to do so. It’s one of the best gifts I can give to this industry and the students who will someday be leading it.

Think about today’s digital space. It’s possible for anyone to take on any persona and publish anything online. This opens up a world of opportunity, but unfortunately, we don’t always see the responsibility stewarded well.

Here’s an example that I used for discussion with the class, taken from the textbook used in Cal Poly SLO’s Ethics in Journalism course, Media Ethics At Work, True Stories from Young Professionals edited by Lee Anne Peck and Guy S. Reel.

The Story of Jennie Quinn

Jennie Quinn, an account assistant for a global PR firm, was tasked with generating buzz for a new release from a musical artist. She was thrilled to be part of the promotional campaign – until she learned that part of her role was to pose as a 12-year-old girl in chat rooms, sharing wildly positive comments to influence opinions.

Her team was essentially asking her to lie to her target audience. Would you be bothered by this request? What would you do?

Jennie spoke up. She understood that public relations is about building mutually beneficial relationships, and taking on a fake identity does not carry out that function. It wasn’t only only a deceptive plan, but could lead to the failure of the campaign.

Jennie’s team listened to her. They changed their tactics, generating traffic to the download page using the musical artist’s social media pages instead. They got attention and downloads, but it took longer than the client wanted, and they lost the contract when it went back to RFP.

Jennie’s response didn’t lead to a big result for her client – but she stood up for PR professionals everywhere by refusing to take on a false identity to get a behavior change. It was a good lesson to Jennie and her firm that there are no “quick fixes” when it comes to building relationships for a brand. Long-term, viable relationships are built on trust.

Standing for Integrity Together

As PR professionals, we have a responsibility to our industry and to one another. I’m proud of Jennie, even though her stance led to losing the contract.

Here’s the good news: regardless of how those in your immediate circle respond to your stance, you have a huge support system behind you. PRSA’s Code of Ethics is a fantastic resource that spells out what specific ethical issues arise in this industry, and how we can respond with professionalism and integrity.

PRSA has a board solely dedicated to upholding the Code of Ethics and amending it to encompass new ethical issues that arise. It’s called the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. You can read more about their approach here, and learn about specific ethical issues that may arise in your career and how you can respond with integrity.

When you have that “not great” feeling in your chest, pay attention to it. Go back to what you know about PR and marketing done right. Reference PRSA’s Code of Ethics to see if it speaks to your situation. Listen to your conscience.

Verdin is a member of our local PRSA chapter, and we operate under the principle of “integrity-based marketing.” Doing the right thing, even when we take a hit because of it, like Jennie did. If we get a client who asks us to perform an unethical behavior, that client is not the right fit for our agency – and I hope we will always stand firm in that.

Integrity-based marketing is how I’ve built this business and our team. I believe in this principle 100%, and I believe we need to support one another in order to be the best stewards of our industry that we can.

As you continue in your career with a commitment to ethics, know the Verdin team is behind you and PR professionals around the world are, too.

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