Ethical Lapses in PR: How Short-Term Thinking Can Lead to Long-Term Damage

Jun 20, 2012

By: Vanessa Horwell, Founder and Chief Visibility Officer of ThinkInk

In our age of polarizing politicians, rogue “banksters,” tan-crazy moms and zombie face-eaters, very little fazes me anymore.

But then I read the following PR industry news among my daily frenzy of emails and felt dismayed.

Why, PR person, why?

Wal-Mart, the retail Goliath that always seems to be generating some kind of controversy or criticism somewhere in the world, is once again scrubbing egg off its face. One of its PR peeps posed as a reporter to infiltrate a meeting of unionized workers opposed to a new Wal-Mart store in L.A.’s Chinatown. Classy act, no?

Stephanie Harnett, a Wal-Mart PR rep and lobbyist posed as a reporter, and got busted when a spokeswoman for the union soon spotted Harnett doing her real job at another event. Today, she’s out of a job and Wal-Mart is scrambling to cover its behind.

And the PR industry has a fresh black eye. What on earth was she – and her superiors at Mercury Public Affairs thinking? Not much.

To be sure, the PR industry’s reputation with the general public isn’t all that great (I have a post on this topic coming out in MediaPost later this week, so check back). What else could it be when some of the highest-profile firms take big bucks to do things like sexy-up the image of brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his fashion plate wife? Or allow two well-known former journalists to launch a hush-hush misinformation campaign against Google’s Social Circle network – on behalf of Facebook? Or plant fake positive product reviews online?

Is the lure of fat checks so great that integrity and ethics go out the window?

In the above cases, yes. While our goal is, as a PR agency, to support clients’ business objectives, we can only do that effectively if we take pains to be accurate, honest and fair. If something is unethical or downright illegal, no amount of money can make it right.

True PR professional know that keeping it honest is the only way to do the job. We are already surrounded by too much misinformation and half-truths, so why contribute more? Is the business climate so bad that some PR firms are tempted to cross ethical lines if the pay off seems high?

It’s precisely this short-term thinking that leads to long term damage for PR professionals and the industry as a whole. Case in point, Stephanie Harnett’s career and another nail in Wal-Mart PR disaster coffin.

Anything we do, whether online or offline is available for the whole world to see. There’s no hiding behind improper actions on the agency side or the client side. It all comes out in the end.  For some companies, like Wal-Mart, it’s almost always immediately. Others, like News Corp and Goldman, it can take a few years.

But any negative attention our actions draw will always hurt our agencies first. I don’t know about you, but that’s the last thing I want at ThinkInk.

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