ad:tech ruffles PR’s ethical feathers

Last month was PR Ethics Month, when we remind ourselves about the host of ethical dilemmas we, as PR practitioners, face. It’s also a time to reflect on our commitment to a stringent code of ethics placed at the highest point of our personal and professional standards. Each year, the world’s largest professional association for public relations practitioners, PRSA, makes it a point to highlight new changes to its ethical code, as well as promote various issues facing PR ethics and how to approach them.

Industry publications like PRSA Tactics, PRWeek and others regard ethics to reside at the core of public relations practice. Recently, leadership at ad:tech, an annual gathering of online marketers, offered free or discounted access to the conference for endorsed tweets, Facebook and blog posts from prominent bloggers. We in PR call this Pay-for-Play or Pay-to-Play. The definition was recently updated by the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) with PSA-9.

The request for coverage from ad:tech was exposed by bloggers and PR people within the industry. In a blog post by Jason Chupick from PRNewser on Oct. 17 detailed the news of what ad:tech had done, including the full letter of apology. Chupick said:

My co-editor confirmed by phone yesterday that the person who sent the emails neither works internally at ad:tech, or at their PR firm Edelman.

What the organization did
With the negative responses and comments swirling and growing stronger, Event Director, Mike Flynn, from ad:tech immediately posted a full apology for its inappropriate actions. This was the right move, and helped mitigate any further negative brand perception, but may have done some damage.

Regardless of who sent the emails to the bloggers and journalists, ad:tech management should have made sure they knew what was going on. Their PR firm – the world’s largest independently owned agency, Edelman – should have been a part of this since they were the agency of record and PR counsel to the organization. My question is, who sent out the emails then? And how are they being dealt with? This person/s should be held accountable in some way and exposed for what they did.

How ethical are PR people?
We keep saying we follow an ethical guiding light that points us in the right direction, but we hear too many stories similar to this one. That prompts me to wonder if we just think we’re ethical or if we truly understand ethical standards but turn a blind eye when we feel we can personally gain. Interestingly enough, a survey was done by Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., and Judith Rogala, for their book “Trust Inc,” revealing that less than 10 percent of PR practitioners ever received any training on how to make ethical decisions.

Ann Subervi, president and CEO of Utopia Communications, Inc. in Red Bank, N.J., made some comments that are a fitting end to this post and ones that we should try to employ.

Most of us struggle with what action to take when faced with an ethical dilemma. While awareness of ethics is great, the ability to act ethically is even better. Ethics cannot be a once-a-year focus. Rather, it needs to be an ongoing focus.

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