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Ethics in PR

A student recently asked me two questions about PR and ethics:

1) What do you see as the biggest ethical question facing PR professionals today? And is it different from what you believe the main ethical dilemma was in the 90s, 80s, 70s, or earlier? How/why has it changed?

2) Do you have any examples/stories/case studies you would be willing to share that illustrate these ethical problems or questions?

Here is my response:

Business is simple, a business makes a promise to a customer that they will provide a service or a product to a customer, and the business provides either that product or service. Sometimes customer expectations exceed what customers or businesses are able to provide, or businesses simply do not fulfill their promises. If a company wants to be truly successful, they must understand their audience’s needs and expectations and meet them. Nordstrom is a famous example of a company that held the mantra that the customer is always right and they refunded and took back any clothing articles a customer wanted to return. If customers have expectations beyond what the business can provide, a business should disqualify those customers by setting expectations early. Fast Pizza is a great example of a business that sets expectations so that they don’t fail, when an order is received by Fast Pizza if they think they cannot meet their guaranteed time of delivery for pizza they will refuse the order.

This is the ethical dilemma for PR professionals simply telling the truth about what their company provides to their customers. If they say they deliver a certain quality of product within a certain time do they do that? Now a company might be able to get away with fooling lots of customers for some of the time, but not all customers all the time. Look at Anderson and Enron, who would have thought just a few years ago that the largest accounting company in the US would be brought down so quickly. It was a simple matter Anderson promised to audit books and once it was demonstrated, they did not do that ethically companies lost confidence in the company and left them in droves. In fact the bigger the company and the larger their profile in their industry the more that company has to guard against bad publicity. Vistaprint.com was kicked out of the better business bureau for having over 600 complaints against them and not responding. There have been no short term consequences for the company, but my gut tells me there are some critical issues with the company’s services levels that have to be addressed or their poor service levels will become a critical issue in the future.

My question to answer was directed at the ethical problems facing PR professionals today, in the 90’s, 80’s and 70’s. I don’t think the issue has changed, a PR professional is in some was a very important brand manager for a company, brand meaning in this case, a promise a company gives to a customer and keeping that promise. If a PR professional determines that a company is doing something against their promise it is their role to speak out within the company and ask the company to address that issue. It is also the PR professional’s job to craft any communications for the company in such a way that the company is not promising more than they can give or provide. Microsoft during the 80’s was famous for years in stating they were going to come out with a product, but not actually producing the product for several years, while this announcement swamped a smaller competitor, as customers would wait for the product from Microsoft rather than buy other products. The strategy worked for Microsoft, but I think at some cost to its reputation as a reliable software provider in the industry, I think one of the reasons for the success of linux and similar competitive products in their early days came from customer’s frustrations with Microsoft’s early practices. I think the court case and the security issue has changed a lot of Microsoft practices, plus now Microsoft realizes there is more importance in managing their good name rather than beating a company on a single product category. When your company is a scrappy start-up your situation is different I suppose from when your company is the 800 pound gorilla. But I do think the consequences of some decisions by Microsoft as it was in development stage still haunt some customer impressions of the company today.

That’s it really, keep your promise if you make one, to me its pretty cut and dried. Now many small companies have founders who don’t understand that a single decision about a single customer today means that customer will not rave about your company’s products and service levels. Management pressures their PR professionals into stating something that is not true. It is the PR Professionals job to advise senior management they are not keeping to their brand, if management refuses to work within their company’s promise the ethical dilemma for the professional is should they do what management asks or leave. And that’s a personal choice, as we saw with Enron many people decided to stay and live within a lie, but a few decided to leave.