Scott McClellan and public relations ethics

There are days when I just can’t wait to get out on the road at 5 a.m. for my five-mile run. Today was one of them. Perfect weather. And the prospect of having something interesting to think about: PRSA’s defense of professionalism in public relations.

I first noticed this when I checked my e-mail: “Urgent News From PRSA…” Sent at 10:05 Sunday night. (For my running friends, poets and most everyone else who could care less about this, PRSA stands for Public Relations Society of America.) Here’s the message: “PRSA today submitted a letter in response to a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning by legal analyst Andrew Cohen in which he challenged the integrity of the public relations profession.”

OMG. Have we really reached the point in this country where someone with a law degree is smug enough to question the integrity of anyone else? I digress. (But Cohen also has a degree in journalism; that moves him up a notch. I guess.)

Actually, this is an important issue — one that should be taken seriously. I’ve argued on this blog many times that ethics and professionalism form the foundation for public relations. And absent ethics and professionalism, public relations people end up like, well, Scott McClellan.

Here’s from Cohen’s commentary:

But in every tragic drama comes a moment of comedic Zen. And in L’Affair McClellan, that has come from the public relations community, where some now wonder whether the former flack violated the “ethics” of his craft.

Apparently, an industry the very essence of which is to try to convince people that a turkey is really an eagle has a rule that condemns lying.

The Public Relations Society of America states: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent…” This clause strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

Show me a PR person who is “accurate” and “truthful,” and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.

Ouch. I wonder if Cohen believes that all journalists are liars and plagarists in the mold of Jayson Blair? I digress again.

So I give PRSA credit for responding — although I believe that the organization should have denounced McClellan and taken a public stand on this issue — ethics and professionalism — when it first surfaced last week. Here’s from the PRSA statement by Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Julin:

Regarding your commentary on today’s CBS Sunday Morning, the Board of Directors of the Public Relations Society finds it imperative to affirm the professionalism of public relations practitioners and to take exception with what we regard as a misguided opinion. The PRSA Code of Ethics, to which all members pledge, embodies a strict set of guidelines defining ethical and professional practice in public relations. Professionals who meet the Code’s standards stand in stark contrast to the simplistic, erroneous characterization of the profession you presented.
Contrary to baseless assertions, truth and accuracy are the bread and butter of the public relations profession. In a business where success hinges on critical relationships built over many years with clients, journalists and a Web 2.0-empowered public, one’s credibility is the singular badge of viability. All professionals, including attorneys, accountants and physicians, aspire to ethical standards, and public relations professionals are no different, always striving for the ideal.
Absolutely correct. Unfortunately, though, it’s a very general statement — and like the PRSA Code of Ethics in total, really has no teeth. Instead, PRSA should have blasted away at McClellan — for being dishonest and for representing every negative stereotype of public relations professionals. I recognize that professional organizations don’t like to take positions that offend any of its members. And I’m sure that among the ranks of PRSA members there are some who still support the Bush administration. Still, when it comes to our bedrock principles — truth, honesty and acting in the public interest — couldn’t we have come up with something with a little more bite?
And consider this — because it is the issue raised last week by Gary Weiss and still being discussed in detail by Roy Peter Clark and others on Poynter.org. If McClellan were a member of PRSA, would Jeffrey Julin and others now seek sanctions against him for violating the organizaton’s Code of Ethics? Or toss him out of the organization?
Those really are the questions that PRSA should have answered. And the response would say volumes about how public relations professionals really feel about ethics and professionalism.
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8 responses to “Scott McClellan and public relations ethics

  1. I agree with your questions/statements in the second to last paragraph. This is a wake up call for all professionals to look at themselves and non-professionals to realize they are under the microscope. If this does not move along the APR designation, then what will?

  2. Thanks for your comment. And I absolutely agree with you. This is an opportunity for public relations professionals. During the three decades I’ve been working in public relations, the vast majority of PR people who I have met or been associated with are honest, hard working and intent on doing the right thing.

  3. Nicole Ingram

    I’m a new student in public relations and I have to tell you, it’s amazing to me the heat that the entire profession is getting as a result of one mans actions. In my job, if every single person were generalized around the mistakes or the bad decisions of one, I wouldn’t have a different career! I work in the medical field, and I could just imagine what would happen to the entire world of medicine if people really thought all doctors were incompetent because of one malpractice suit. Physicians, nurses, medical professionals and the like make ethical decisions everyday, probably hourly. Trust me, they’re not always the right decision, insignificant or not.
    It’s hard to argue that there aren’t “bad eggs” in every profession. I find it incredibly hypocritical for Cohen to make any generalized statements about the Public Relations profession based on one man’s actions. Perhaps his opinions are based on several experiences with PR professionals, which is unfortunate. I wonder, though, if he feels it is fair to base the field of journalism on the actions of a tabliod reporter.
    I agree that PRSA should have given McClellan a little more than a slap on the hand in their response. Surely, they can’t agree with his actions or want to associate the organization with that type of behavior. I wonder if not saying more, not taking a solid stand on this issue will only bring more public scrutiny to PRSA and the profession as a whole…

  4. I blame the PRSA for their actions of McClellan. Here stood a opportunity to stand Firm on the ethics that are held so dear to practitioners. Instead of condemning the actions of McClellan, Julin did not want to “engage in the blame game”. Does this not sound familiar? The reality is that people learn the profession from those who run the profession. The lack of recognition of the real issue by PRSA leads me to believe that they are afraid. With an opportunity to take a stance and represent those PR practitioners who still do things honestly, they abandoned those who adhere to the Code of Ethics and did not show LOYALTY and were not ADVOCATES for their clients.

  5. As an advertising student I completely understand this issue with ethics. However, here at Kent State any class in the journalism sequence has stressed the importance of being ethical and truthful. There is even a class that specifically talks about these issues. Now of course not everybody in the field is probably as truthful as they could be, but it’s completely ignorant to generalize anything, especially something as important as a population’s ethical behavior. PRSA should have done more… I think we all agree on that but what? Maybe that is all they could do, which leads me to the comment made by Thomas. People will make their outrageous accusations for whatever reason no matter what, but PR professionals need to keep acting within the guideline of the code, basically prove McClellan wrong.

  6. Nicole, David, Jackie —

    Thanks for your comments. Each of you raise excellent points — and I think that PRSA should have stood on principle here and taken a harder position about Scott McClellan.

    Clearly, every profession sets ethical standards, either formally or informally. For those of us in the communication business — advertising, public relations and journalism — we need high standards because the work we do does have an influence on the decisions that we make as consumers and citizens, just to name a few.

    I used to teach the ethics and issues in mass communication course at Kent. I can guarantee you that in that class we would be looking at many of the issues you have raised in your posts here.

    Truth, honesty and openness. All key points here. And personally I’m disappointed that PRSA didn’t use this McClellan debacle as an opportunity to really say that as a profession this is what we stand for.

    I hope you will return to my blog and comment often. And I can assure you that if you are studying public relations, advertising or journalism at Kent State you will graduate and begin your careers with a strong appreciation for ethics and professionalism.

  7. Hi Rob-

    I guess the only teeth the PRSA Code of Ethics can use is sanctions, but I don’t know if McClellan is a member. But I agree PR is taking a beating over this, and PRSA’s response was weak.

    I hate to split hairs, but I always saw a difference between traditional PR and political PR, just as I think there is a huge difference between traditional advertising and political advertising. But the public sees no difference.

    As for McClelland, Mark Brooks said it best on the Newshour. McLelland did not have the intellectual curiosity to question the adminstrations’s Iraq stance when he was press secretary, so he really doesn’t have the right now to profit from a book that now attacks it after the fact.

  8. Tim,

    Hi. Yeah, we’re taking a beating over this. And I don’t think we should be. I’m sure McClellan is not a member of PRSA. Still — PRSA should have called him out on this and stood on the principles that really form the basis of public relations: truth, honesty and openness.

    And I agree with you to the extent that most people — including myself — make a distinction between “traditional” pr and “political” pr. Yet I wonder if that is because we have accepted the fact that politicians can’t/won’t tell the truth. If so, that’s sad.

    But what really bothers me here — and I’ll credit Frank Rich in the NYT Sunday for saying the same thing — is that I don’t like our government lying to me, particularly when the lives of young men and women are involved.

    Saying all that — I hope you are doing well.

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