On Friday, I was honored to be a part of a distinguished panel of public relations practitioners who were asked to speak on ethics before the Public Relations Society of America’s Detroit Chapter on the campus of U of M-Dearborn. Joining me were Nancy Cain of AAA Michigan, Bob Sadler of the Michigan Historical Museum and Tim Wieland from Airfoil.
The forum’s format presented a wonderful opportunity for each of us to pose a particular case study, offering a respectable ethical dilemma, which was then discussed by an audience offering solutions, followed by the actual resolution. Cain recounted a scenario where a ticket snafu by a vendor threatened to usurp a customer Rose Bowl trip, Sadler an act of vandalism at the museum. For both instances, the PR pros asked, should the occurrences have been acknowledged publicly or kept behind closed doors?
Tim Wieland described a client whose employees had posted positive product reviews online without proper attribution, made more complicated by the client CEO publicly criticizing a prominent journalist for discovering and writing about it. I, finally, told the tale of a major festival we had been involved with where board member collusion and other unethical behavior continually blocked our ability to further the event. What would you do, we queried those in attendance?
With ethics serving as the foundation for sound public relations practices, Cain and Sadler did not stick their heads in the sand. Rather, they first informed internal audiences (for Cain, those participating in the contest and AAA employees; for Sadler, key board members, donors and Michigan Historical Society/Museum employees) before also making events known (including corrective actions taken) to the media. Wieland’s firm recommended employee reviews be removed or given proper attribution while also going into relationship rebuilding mode between the client CEO and the discovering reporter.
As for what our firm did? After many months of our counsel being rebuffed in the wake of egregious conflicts of interests by board members that threatened the event’s very future, we resigned the account, post event, while working afterward to train well our replacements and preserve relationships with board members who did act for the “greater good”. In the end, and all things said, ethics in PR is all about doing the right thing – with honesty, transparency and selflessness. It’s a lesson for the forty-five PR students/future professionals who were in attendance, for the industry at large and for how each of us operates every day.