Lessons From Flint: Where Crisis and Ethics Intersect

In January, the nation watched in shock as news of a man-made public health crisis unfolded in Flint, Michigan. Authorities knew there were dangerous levels of lead in tap water, threatening the health and development of thousands of children, and they did nothing about it for more than 18 months. This revelation has us all wondering whether our own tap water is safe, and it has PR people wondering, how could this happen?

ethics2Lots of factors contributed to the operational crisis in Flint, creating a perfect recipe for disaster: an aggressive water, lead pipes, a lack of treatment, a lack of data collection and a lack of communication. Though many communities have lead pipes, they don’t have the other factors to deal with, and so another operational disaster like Flint is unlikely. What is likely, however, is another similar PR disaster. Why? Discrimination, social injustice, and at its most basic – ethics.

It’s a cautionary tale. To avoid reputational damage, financial loss and litigation, brands think they need to erase their errors, spin their shortcomings or co-opt the conversation. On the contrary, the key to a long-standing trusted, profitable brand is honesty, transparency and, of course, an ethical approach.

Profits Over People

At the heart of the Flint crisis, which is at the heart of most crises organizations face, is a question of allegiance. Most organizations put their allegiance entirely to their brand. Why? Because they fear loss of profit and reputational damage if they don’t. Protect the brand is what we PR people are hired to do. Or is it?

Actually, the number one ethical principle underlying the practice of public relations is to “act in the public interest.” Simply put, that means our allegiance, if we’re working ethically, is first to the greater good for the majority of people and then to the brand we represent.

Stop and consider that. Are you acting in the interest of the greater good? Does your organization put the public interest before their brand? In perhaps the most famous, and sadly one of very few, cases where a company actually did, was Tylenol. In the early 80s, they recalled 100 percent of their product when they learned that criminal tampering had led to seven deaths. The action cost them $100 million and loss of market share. More than 30 years later, Tylenol is still at the top of the pain relief market, and remains the poster child – the exception to the rule – for crisis management.

Crimes vs Mistakes

What happened in Flint was a crime. So, from a PR perspective, the options aren’t great. If you found out tomorrow your organization had committed a crime or purposefully misled its stakeholders, which, in turn caused damage, what would you do? Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in your career. If your savings account permits, it’s an easy answer. You can walk away. But how likely is that the option we have? If you can’t quit, can you convince your organization to fess up and do the right thing? Moreover, do you have the strength and stomach to guide them through it? Is your organization willing? Do they even agree they have done wrong?

Many companies are either unwilling to admit wrongdoing or their lawyers will preclude it. Lawyers rarely even allow clients to say sorry because they say it is an admittance of guilt. In all other aspects of humanity, we know that saying sorry is an act of empathy, and the first step towards receiving forgiveness. Situations like Flint, with a breach of ethics so bold, pose a tough decision for PR people. It’s hard for a brand to recover from an outright crime and the PR person who stays to help them through it will undoubtedly test or breach the tenets of our Code of Ethics. At least for an innocent mistake, there’s hope. This is where the value proposition of PR comes in.

PR’s Value Proposition

Odds are in your favor if leading up to an event like this, you have built a long-lasting, enduring program of proactive public relations with ongoing, two-way engagement between your organization and the people on whom its success depends. Assuming you have built this kind of program, and your organization puts the public interest ahead of its own, you have a fighting chance. So when a crisis hits whether self-made or by accident, here’s the drill:

Step One: Be first to admit what you did, and, show regret and empathy.

Step Two: Describe in detail how you will fix it and prevent a recurrence, then over deliver on that promise.

Step Three: Do everything you said, and make sure everyone knows.

Very easily said. How these three steps get accomplished is not so easy and a Blog unto itself. Timing, credibility of spokesperson(s), word choice, nonverbal behavior and of course – the enterprise-wide operational feat of making things right again – is a formidable endeavor. But, as Tylenol proved, it’s always the right one if a full recovery is to be realized.

PR can’t fix bad behavior. Only good behavior can do that. PR can only reveal. It’s a lesson for us all. When you put the greater good as your focus, and let transparency be your guide, you will always come out right. But put your brand first like Flint did and you will end up meeting the destiny you fought so hard to avoid.

 

Samantha Villegas, APR

President

SaVi PR, LLC

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Reporters Urge White House Transparency: The challenge is access to experts

By Tracy Schario, originally posted at PRSAY

Tension with the media is sometimes an unfortunate and unintentional aspect of public relations. PR and public affairs practitioners often face a delicate balancing act between providing accurate information in a timely manner to reporters and bloggers while managing confidential employer/client information. When a PR contact doesn’t return a call or email, however, it can look like stonewalling or withholding information.

When it comes to covering the White House and federal policy and regulations, the stakes for media and public affairs are high. President George W. Bush’s administration was often criticized for being the most secretive administration in history. With this background, President Barack Obama took office in 2009 promising to lead the most transparent administration in history.

But, transparency is not the same as access to information, government officials and scientific experts who can help interpret presidential decisions and administrative actions. To this end, President Obama has been criticized by the media for a myriad of offenses:

  • Limited access for photographers in favor of releasing official White House photos.
  • Justice Department reviewed private communications of Fox News reporter James Rosen to find a national security leak.
  • Justice Department secretly obtained AP phone records in an effort to find a government leak.
  • Administration denied or censored more Freedom of Information Act requests than it approved.
  • Politically-driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, Fukushima).

This last protestation was codified in a July 8 letter signed by 39 individuals representing media associations including the Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Collegiate Press, Association of Opinion Journalists, Radio Television Digital News Association, National Press Photographers Association, and The Poytner Institute. They argue that the Obama administration’s restrictions on press access to public affairs offices and government sources are a form of censorship.

Politico Magazine recently surveyed members of the White House press corps regarding their opinions on transparency. The resulting infographic narrative is an instructive take on the fourth estate’s view. For example:

When President Obama calls this the “most transparent administration in history,” my reaction is… “To groan. Depends on what your definition of ‘transparent’ is. This WH means it is putting its own version of pictures, video and readouts on its own website.” —Ann Compton, ABC News 

The primary take away from the letter and survey is two-fold.  First, journalists want – and need – access to experts to fulfill the role of media watchdog, the hallmark of a democratic government.  Government officials, both on the record and “leaked” information, deliver the news and provide analysis for interpreting complex policy issues. Public affairs officers are the facilitator between the media and sources – and sometimes are the source.  Like it or not, reporters need the public relations function.

Even when the news is bad, government has a responsibility to be accessible, factual and transparent.  In 2010, I had the good fortune of teaching a master class in political communications with former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. She was fond of telling students to “own your bad facts.” In other words, don’t try to bury the news but acknowledge the facts, and do your best to present a positive and compelling narrative.

Second, journalists want to be treated with respect. For five years, I taught a graduate course in media relations at the George Washington University and hosted reporters throughout the semester. I was dismayed that most all commented on the amount of profanity used by public affairs officers in the Obama administration.  Even my PR colleagues in the administration admit that cursing is common place and sometimes encouraged. A “pro tip” in the Politico survey states: “Come on. If you can’t deal with a White House official swearing at you, it’s probably time to head for the exits of the profession.”

I must admit that when working in the tech sector, casual cursing was permissible – and a boss once told me profanity was an acceptable way to prove I had authority and knowledge. However, this is unprofessional behavior. It may be cliché, but I’ve found that a little honey goes a lot further to getting what you need – be it photo placement, a correction to a news story, or a follow up interview.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to the most recent criticisms in the journalists’ letter on CNN’s Reliable Sources defending the administration’s record of transparency. He also acknowledged the sometimes testy relationship with the press saying that if the press corps didn’t push for more access, that “is the day that they’re no longer doing their jobs.”

The media need sources and report on conflict. These are the realities of their link with public relations. The responsibility of a practitioner is to be responsive, truthful and facilitate access to expert sources. For PRSA members, that also means adhering to our code of ethics. Among its values and provisions are honesty, free flow of information, and enhancing the profession through respect. If we make a concerted effort every day to balance the sometimes competing needs of the press and business goals, we can take a step toward building stronger relationships with the media.

 

Tracy Schario, APR, is a member of PRSA’s Board of Directors and a past president of the National Capital Chapter. She has taught media relations at The George Washington University and speaks on media and PR strategy.

A Neat App to Help Us Act Ethically and Carry On!

PRSA Mobile App

September is ethics month at PRSA. Every September we are asked to think about what ethics means and to participate in activities designed to inform and educate us about PR issues in the field.

This is a good thing. We work in a field that is entrusted with developing and maintaining relationships between our organizations and their stakeholders. It is a sensitive position, bound by concepts of trust and responsibility to do the right thing. Relationships, after all, are based on trust, and trust, which is hard to earn in the first place, is too easily lost by unethical behavior.

Many of you know that I do not think once-a-year training in ethics is enough. In my experience, ethical issues don’t usually smack us in the face and announce their presence with a note to check out the ethics pages at PRSA. Rather, they build slowly over time. Little things that we let slide, or just don’t think about, eventually grow to become big things. And then they smack us!

To really deliver for our clients, leaders and managers, we need to be thinking about ethics all the time and weighing the impact of organizational decisions against our professional standards.  But who’s got the time? PRSA offers a variety of tools to help you. If you follow my quarterly musing on the PRSA-NCC blog, I’ve been taking you on a tour of the PRSA Code of Ethics.

This quarter, I’m going to take a little detour from my tour and introduce a neat little app that can help you keep ethics on your mind all the time.

The app, developed by PRSA, in partnership with MSLGROUP, has a distinctive “PRSA Ethics” icon that looks good on your mobile device and can serve as a daily reminder to “think ethics” every time you use your smartphone.

The home page (displayed above) welcomes you to a well designed and easy to navigate app that allows you to quickly (and painlessly) check up what our Code of Ethics has to say about a variety of situations.

A quick touch of the “Professional Values” button will provide you with insight into our values of advocacy, honesty, independence, loyalty and fairness, and “provisions of conduct,” such as being honest and accurate in all communications, revealing the sponsors of interests represented, safeguarding client confidences and avoiding conflicts of interest. Topics I discussed in my June blog.

The “Code Provisions” button provides insight into what I think is the real meat of our Code of Ethics. Here you find the core principles upon which our Code of Ethics is based: free flow of information, competition, disclosure of information, safeguarding confidences, conflicts of interest, and enhancing the profession.

You can also check into the PRSAY ethics blog, take an ethics quiz, look into the latest professional standards advisories, and send an email PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), the committee responsible for developing recommending refinements to PRSA’s ethical standards.

PRSA Chair and CEO Mickey G. Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA, says,  “The app will give professionals at all levels, who are committed to upholding the principles of ethical communications, easy access to real-time guidance to know that what they’re doing is right and, if they face questions, the support they need to justify their counsel…”

This little app goes a long way to making ethics awareness an everyday activity. Please download it and take it for a spin. I hope you find it as easy to use and as valuable as I do.

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Mitch Marovitz is the Treasurer and Ethics Committee Chair for the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchmarovitz.

Okay, We’re All Busy. Is That Really a Good Excuse?

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In my April 9, 2013 blog, I spoke of how Mickey Kennedy, founder of eReleases, commended the field for its embrace of codes of ethics. What I hope didn’t get lost in his message is that he also suggests we actually use those codes in our work. Our own organization’s Code of Ethics is one of the most widely recognized in the industry. Our website’s ethics area is expansive and includes case studies, professional standards advisories and a rich resource area.

Kennedy suggests the vast majority of us are good, ethical professionals trying to help our bosses and clients tell their story. I agree. I think the vast majority of us are good people. However, as Alison Kenney recently blogged, there are shades of gray in the ethical lifestyle we lead as PR professionals.

The problem I’ve always had figuring out “ethics issues” is that I don’t always see the ethical dilemma until its almost too late. At that point, all I can say is, “I’m sorry,” which of course is never good enough. At what point am I supposed to say, “That’s it! That crosses the line!” How am I supposed to know I’m there? And, once I’m there how do I know what I am supposed to do about it?

What conditions existed that allowed Penn State to cover-up the Jerry Sandusky scandal for so long? How could leaders at the IRS not see the impact their operational decisions would have on public opinion about their organization?

Can the resources we have available to us at http://www.prsa.org/ethics (and other places) help us? Let’s start with our Code of Ethics. Have you looked at it lately? It’s not really all that long and boils nicely down to six concepts called our “Statement of Professional Values:”

  • Advocacy
  • Honesty
  • Expertise
  • Independence
  • Loyalty
  • Fairness

Six concepts that are easy enough to remember.

I’ve had many discussions over the years about the concepts of advocacy and loyalty. Don’t they contravene the other four points? In my mind, there is not an inherent conflict among these six values. We are charged not just with advocating on behalf of our organizations or just being loyal to them. Rather, our Code charges us to advocate in a responsible manner and to be “…faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.” The information we provide into the marketplace of ideas is supposed to be accurate and truthful and further public debate on the issues. And, sometimes, loyalty to our organization means admitting we can do a better job of serving the public interest. Look to the Coca-Cola Company’s recent campaign about their—and their competitor’s—efforts to introduce reduced calorie soft drinks in schools. The campaign has taken some hits for being disingenuous, but if you take a look at the likes and dislikes and the comments at the YouTube page where the commercial resides, I think you will conclude that the campaign is furthering honest debate on the issue.

While the “Statement of Professional Values” is important, it doesn’t really provide the kind of guidance that can help you recognize when an ethical issue is about to hit you. I think the real meat of the Code lies in the next section, the “Code Provisions of Conduct.” It is here that you find the core principles upon which the Code of Ethics is based. These principles are:

  • Free flow of information
  • Competition
  • Disclosure of information
  • Safeguarding confidences
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Enhancing the profession

I will be discussing these code provisions in upcoming blogs. Hopefully, we can discuss them in a way that helps us find a way to internalize them and use them as triggers that will better arm us to recognize ethical dilemmas before they become ethical issues.

 

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Mitch Marovitz is the Treasurer and Ethics Committee Chair for the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter.

Why Do We Get Such Bad Press?

ethics2

I was reading an article by Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases, the other day. He wonders why we PR pros are often reluctant to tackle our own industry’s bad ethical reputation.

He speculates we earn this reputation due to our seemingly unending “…habit of spinning bad actions into a positive light…”

While the really bad decisions some of our so-called colleagues have made headlines, Kennedy says the real problems causing our bad reputation are the more common “…PR stunts such as pay-for-play television programming, where businesses pay to appear in news casts, blurring the line between editorial content (i.e. hard news) and advertisement.” Also hurting our reputation are “…anonymous internet postings where PR pros attempt to create fake word-of-mouth campaigns to promote products…[and]…’astroturfing,’ where corporations advance an agenda while trying to appear as if the effort were merely an astounding grassroots movement.”

If Kennedy has good news, it’s that he feels most of us are good people just trying to do our jobs. He says, “If the honest PR pros continue to uphold their ethics while denouncing PR pros that cross the line, then the industry can eventually shed its bad reputation.”

I agree. I’ve been in this business about 20 years, if you don’t include the time I spent in broadcasting. In all that time, I can count the number of people I wouldn’t do business with again on one hand.

Despite the reputation we carry as “just so much fluff” from some organizational middle managers, senior leader continue to hire us because they understand the vital role we play in the success of their organizations. These senior leaders understand we’ve got a tough job. We have to keep one foot in the organization and one foot with the organization’s stakeholders. Our bosses depend on us to know what’s going on inside and outside. And, they depend on us to give them good counsel.

Giving good counsel means tackling the tough problems, and tough problems often have an ethical component.

Kennedy commends the field for its embrace of codes of ethics and suggests we use them. I agree. Our own organization’s Code of Ethics is one of the most widely recognized in the industry. The PRSA website’s ethics area includes some great resources, including case studies, professional standards advisories and a rich resource area.

All of these resources are only as useful as we make them, of course. That means that in the heat of our busy days, we must recognize when we are facing an ethical situation, if we are ever to hope to resolve it. I think that’s the hardest thing to do of all and I’ll be talking about that in my next blog post.

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Mitch Marovitz is the Treasurer and Ethics Committee Chair for the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter.