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.