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Ethics for Beginners: PR Faces a Skeptical Public
"The bad news is Americans are much more
by Joel Bleifuss
Americans are in a cynical mood, according to the polling firm, Roper Starch Worldwide.
In a presentation to the PRSA annual convention, Roper Vice President Tom Miller reported survey results showing that the percentage of the population which believes business executives are less honest than other people has risen from 24 percent in 1984 to 33 percent in 1996. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who believe it is a responsibility of business to act honestly has dropped, from 84 percent to 65 percent.
"The bad news is Americans are much more cynical about business," said Miller. "The good news," he quipped, "is that Americans' expectations for honesty among businesses have gone down." The standing-room audience laughed appreciatively.
Miller's presentation was followed by a talk from Rand Corporation social scientist Francis Fukuyama, who contends that only those societies with a high degree of social trust "will be able to create the flexible, large-scale business organizations that are needed to compete in the new global economy."
"The bad news is Americans are much more
cynical about business. The good news
is that Americans' expectations for honesty
among businesses have gone down."
During his talk, which was sponsored by large-scale business organization Monsanto, Fukuyama argued that there is a "marked change in American's willingness to trust each other and in their ability to trust one another." A "decline in trust is at the center of many of our problems," he said.
Reaching Consumers in a Cynical Age
The theme of declining ethics and public trust ran through several conference workshops, including one titled "Watch Agency CEOs Play Ethics Jeopardy," described as an opportunity to "see your worst nightmares being played out in real time" by, among others, the CEOs of Ketchum Public Relations, Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller.
Another workshop, titled "Reaching Consumers in a Cynical Age," promised ways "to build 'authenticity' into public relations strategies and tactics" in order to reach "different segments of consumers," like "boomers, busters, genX, teens, boomlets, and the sandwich generation" all of whom "share a common cynicism."
In order to reach these groups, Porter/Novelli vice president Elizabeth England advised PR pros to "immerse ourselves in their world to get into their heads and their minds." After discovering the key to their thought processes, move quickly with the message. "It's like pitching the media; you've only got 30 seconds," she said.
As an example, England described work she had done to help promote the Lady Gillette razor. She studied the history of female shaving and used the information to "build a campaign in the press for stories about women shaving." The clincher was a story in USA Today about how "women used to shave their legs with stones" and today they do it in the shower.
Environmental Section Dinner and a PRSA scandal
In years past, environmentalism was a hot topic at PRSA conferences, but the attendance was sparse this year at a dinner event sponsored by PRSA's Environment Section. The dinner, however, turned out to be a gathering point for PR practitioners concerned with ethics and social responsibility.
Attendees included Janet Cannata, a public information officer at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, one of the most modern sewage treatment plants in North America. As part of her job, Cannata has been following the sewer sludge controversy (covered previously in PR Watch, vol. 2, no. 3) and had interesting things to say, but wouldn't talk on the record. Suffice it to say that I agreed with her.
Peter Hidalgo, another dinner-goer, is in charge of public relations for Metrolink, southern California's regional rail authority. He has the unenviable job of promoting mass transit in the land of the automobile. Without mass transit, he says, freeway congestion in Los Angles would be even worse. "If everyone who currently rides the train were to return to their drive-alone vehicle, rush hour traffic delays would increase 30 to 60 minutes along Los Angeles freeways," said Hidalgo. "We are literally converting people to leaving their cars."
Andy Weisser, spokesperson for the American Lung Association of Los Angeles County, has recently been busy battling tobacco. He was pleased with the national attention garnered by an anti-smoking billboard put up by his chapter which shows a young guy smoking with vultures perched behind his back. Weisser is now involved in an ongoing campaign to publicize air quality issues and help Angelenos understand the direct connection between air quality and public health.
Weisser cut his PR teeth working at AIDS Project Los Angeles. "It's important for me to help the public understand difficult issues and how their personal and direct involvement can effect positive change," he said.
He was impressed with the conference, and found the workshops helpful. "Directly addressing ethical issues was great. There is never enough discussion about ethics," said Weisser.
He expressed concern, however, at the trend among non-profit health associations to jump into "cause-related marketing without fully exploring the impact that implied endorsements can have on consumers."
The growing PR field of cause-related marketing, which seeks to link corporate goals with social responsibility, is currently epitomized in the American Express credit card ads that feature photographs of poor people against a soundtrack of John Lennon singing "imagine no possessions." The AmEx ads promise a sort of "two-for-one" deal--for every purchase you make on plastic, the company promises to set aside funds for fighting hunger.
Cause-related marketing was also the subject of a PRSA workshop titled: "Dow and Habitat: Build great things . . . together." According to the conference program, the session explored how "Dow Chemical consolidated charitable donations while gaining visibility by working with Habitat for Humanity, International."
Imagine No Intellectual Property
Ethical questions were also on the mind of two latecomers to the Environment Section dinner, a couple of public relations professors upset about PRSA's theft of their intellectual property rights.
The professors, who had spent the earlier part of the evening working with the Public Relations Student Society of America, were full of news about a simmering scandal within PRSA, and glad to talk to someone from PR Watch.
It seems the national organization was photocopying articles written by PR academics and then selling them through the mail for hefty fees--without permission. Copyright law was clearly violated. But PRSA management, rather than owning up to their mistake and making the best of a bad situation, as an ethical PR pro would do, denied any wrongdoing and hired a lawyer who flew in for the conference.
Dan Lattimore, chair of the University of Memphis Journalism Department, stopped by to join the conversation. He had discovered that PRSA had copied and sold two chapters of his book, Public Relations Writing. "If they had come and apologized at the beginning I would have probably said, 'just forget it,' " said Lattimore. "But they keep saying they were in the right."
Lynne Sallot, a PR professor at the University of Georgia, speculated that it must have cost PRSA at least $5,000 to fly the lawyer into St. Louis. Adding insult to injury, PRSA's leadership refused to allow the matter to be brought to the floor of the PRSA Assembly, the meeting of the group's governing body that preceded the conference. "We may press the issue, whether we press it in the media or whether we do it in court," said Sallot.