It’s a Question of Ethics

I was very happy to see PRSA finally respond to the recent controversy involving Scott McClellan–the former White House press secretary who just released his book that includes, among other controversial acknowledgments, his confessions about knowingly lying to the press corps on behalf of the president on more than one occasion.

First of all, with all the political mumbo-jumbo ongoing right now, my personal opinion is that once a liar always a liar. I’m not saying you can’t change if you lied in the past, but I am saying that we don’t have to believe you ever again. Think of it as the “fool me once” principle.

How can McClellan expect anyone to know he is telling the truth now, and not just trying to capitalize on the current animosity towards Bush and politicians in general? As a student of public relations (PR), he knows that playing on trends makes for a much more compelling story than if he launched his book a year after being asked to resign. Oh, did I just say he was (allegedly) asked to resign? If he was indeed asked to resign his credibility is even less than moot. But I digress.

His actions and those of other questionable PR professionals inspired me to write a little about the ethics of PR work, especially as it relates to Web 2.0.

Ethics in PR is even more important today given the ever changing landscape because of the Web. In a perfect world every PR practitioner would adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics. The sad truth is, not everyone does.

Given that we live in a Web 2.0 world, here is an outline of what the top five most important aspects of the ethical code for PR practitioners, as I see them (with some verbiage taken from the PRSA Code of Ethics when appropriate):

  • Disclosure: Anytime a paid representative of a company comments on a chat room, blog or news article, they should be required to identify themselves as such. Not doing is misleading and dishonest.
  • Transparency: A companies integrity, honesty and credibility are built upon this principle. This does not mean all information is and/or should be made public, but being honest and forthright about information relevant to its publics should be encouraged and practiced.
  • Conflicts of Interest: Practitioners should always act in the best interest of the company they represent, and should act promptly to inform a company of any circumstances that “may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests.” Also, a professional should promptly disclose “any existing or potential conflict of interest to affected clients or organizations.”
  • Confidentiality Agreements: Simply put, practitioners should “protect the privacy rights of clients, organizations and individuals by safeguarding confidential information” (and/or technology or ideas). Leaking information to the press or speaking with the press on the basis of anonymity without the permission of a company or client are breaches of this agreement. Though both appear to be common practice in today’s world, they discredit an story (Just ask Jayson Blair) and assume that everyone has the right to know everything that is going on within a company or organization. Exceptions do apply, but should be treated as such.
  • Honesty: This one speaks for itself.

There are more I could add to the list, so I welcome any and all other ethics that may have been missed.

The sad thing about one person (or several people as McClellan is not the only one to ever lie for a client) acting unethically is that it gives a whole industry, and sometimes people, a black eye. Examples of this exist all around us from the supposed “thug” image that the NBA is trying to overcome; the supposed “criminal” image the NFL is trying to overcome; or the “steroid-induced-cheater” image baseball is trying to overcome.

These examples exist professionally as well, from Jayson Blair (media) to Arthur Andersen (accounting), or from Eliot Spitzer (politics) to Scott McClellan (public relations).

At the end of the day, ethics are an important aspect of every day for our clients, companies, governments and selves. Abraham Lincoln summed it up by saying: “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.”

About Jonathan Bacon: Born and raised ‘north o’ the border’ in Toronto, Canada, Jonathan “Canadian” Bacon is an integral part of the Politis Communications team.

Bacon joined Politis Communications because of the opportunity to focus his communication skills in the technology marketplace. Prior to this focus on technology, his background was focused primarily on the health and lifestyle industry, although he worked on campaigns for clients from the real estate and government sectors as well. Bacon has been involved with communications campaigns for clients from many sectors including, non-profits, publicly traded companies and nationally recognized companies and brands including IHOP and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (during its 2006 visit to Logan, Utah).

While earning his degree in public relations from Brigham Young University (BYU), he served as the PRSSA chapter president. He and his wife Michelle have two sons and currently reside in Utah.

(This post can also be found at