Signing off

“The time to do right is always right”
                                      -Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the semester draws to a close, I am ending Everyday Ethics. I started blogging for an Online Public Relations class and unfortunately, I will be lacking the time this summer to keep up this blog as I would like to.

I want to thank all of you who have stumbled across this blog and for all of you who routinely read it. I would especially like to thank my professors and fellow students for thier support and understanding during my blogging experience. A big thank you goes to Rob Jewell, my ethics professor, for never running out of ethical dilemmas for me to ponder.

I’ve grown up observing my dad, who has the strongest work ethic I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned by example and by inner drive to do what’s best. I believe the up-and-coming young professionals can work to improve the reputation of public relations. By making good ethical decisions, we can begin to erase the stigma of the ‘spin’ that stinks up public relations’ name.

“Spykes” stirs things up

I’m beginning to wonder what the burnout rate is for PR professionals who work for alcohol and tobacco corporations. I’m betting it is pretty high. I read an article in USA Today about Anheuser Busch’s new product, Spykes. The Anheuser Busch site describes Spykes as:  spykes.jpg
” a malt-based beverage with caffeine, ginseng and guarana. Spykes mixes well with beer to add alcohol, caffeine and unique flavor and can also be chilled and consumed as a shooter”

Now certain groups are in an uproar about the drink, claiming it is being marketed to teens. The drink is in bright colored, smaller bottles, it’s extremely sweet, it can be mixed with beer or other drinks, it’s cheap, etc. etc. There are so many reasons consumer groups are bashing Spykes, I can’t even list them all here. Consumer groups are calling for a total recall of the product and an investigation.

When is it a PR professional’s job to step in here? Anheuser Busch claims it is marketing to the 21-27 year age bracket. Which is completely understandable. I’m a member of this demographic and I know the majority of my friends would buy Spykes because it’s fun-looking and cheap. What is seperating me from teens (besides a horizontal driver’s license)? Is it really Anheuser Busch’s responsibility to stop teen drinking? I don’t believe Spykes is being marketed to teens but if I was the PR prof. in charge, what would I do? I’d keep promoting the product. Young adults are a big audience for Anheuser Busch. They need to be reached somehow.

The consumers groups are causing quite a stir and Anheuser Busch isn’t pulling the product. I think this is a strong stand from the PR and marketing department. Sometimes, market distinctions will blur. What college students like is going to be what high school students like. That will not change. As far as my viewpoint as a PR student: if you didn’t do something wrong, don’t apologize. And Anheuser Busch isn’t.

Crisis communications and politics

Politics and crisis communications go hand in hand. Think back to the Bill Clinton scandal, the Dick Cheney shooting, the Nixon mess and most recently, the Edwards cancer announcement.

I watched the interview between Katie Couric and presidential candidate John Edwards and wife, Elizabeth, on CBS NewJohn and Elizabeth Edwards with Katie Courics. While Katie tried her hardest to prove she was a “real” journalist with harsh questions and even harsher comments regarding the situation, I was thinking about crisis communication in politics and what the public has a right to know.

I’m not sure what I would do if I were Edward’s PR consultant. I don’t really feel the public had a right to know about Elizabeth’s terminal cancer but if the information was not released, Edwards would look deceitful. As public figures, politicians have an obligation to disclose information to the audience.

Political crises are different than corporate because there are no traditional stockholders. A politician’s stakeholders are the die-hard supporters, staff members and family members. They have a public and vested interest in a politician’s well-being and should be informed of any crisis.

I think the best advice for ethical crisis communications is to be up-front and honest with the information you can release. It took courage for Elizabeth and John Edwards to come forward with thier news and in the long run, may increase his following. I think he did a good job handling the interview by sticking to key messages. They are coming off as a united force and appear strong and confident in thier decision to release the news.

The political playground

It’s no secret that politics can be dirty. I hate watching TV in October because all I see is negative campaign ads. In some eyes, it’s totally ethical. If you have skeletons in your closet, don’t run for public office. But in others, it’s mudslinging and considered distasteful. November 2008 is a long way off but smear campaigns have already started.obama.jpg

There was a negative ad on YouTube against Sen. Hillary Clinton. The ad is a twist on Apple’s 1984 Superbowl ad and it portrays Clinton as a “Big Brother” on a theater screen. A woman athlete comes along and smashes the screen, shocking the zombie-like audience. Then the words “On January 14, the Democratic party will begin and you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like 1984″ which then fades into “www.barackobama.com.

The big discussion with this ad is the producer. Until hillary-ew.jpgWednesday night, nobody knew who produced the video and Obama says he had nothing to do with it. According to NBC News, the producer was Philip de Vellis, a strategist with Blue State Digital ( a digital consulting firm). Ready for the big twist? The firm has ties to Obama! gasp. Oh my.  Big whoop.

I think the big issue here is the fact that it was aired on YouTube. Online communication is going to play a major factor in ’08 politics. The fact that regular citizens can create political messages like this one and cause such a stir is great in my opinion. I don’t see an ethical issue with it, although the media is making a huge fuss over the whole deal. Negative political ads are never going to go away. I’m sure this is just the first in a string of many. Obama and his staff claim to be major opponents of dirty politics and protest against negative ads such as this one. So somebody else did it for him. Nothing like taking one for the team.

The ethics of PR professionals in politics is probably scoffed at even more than PR professionals in agency or corporate settings. It’s all part of the game. And as De Vellis says in a blog he wrote after being ‘outed’ – “This ad was not the first citizen ad and it won’t be the last. The game has changed.”
PR professionals are going to have to keep up with the online communication world and be prepared for issues like this one.

For even more online campaigning, check out MySpace’s new political arena. I think it’s great candidates are effectively starting to reach out to the younger demographic.

“Money Honey” in sticky situation

In a recent blog entry, I discussed PR professionals and unethical relationships with reporters. I came across a prime example of this in CNBC’s financial reporter Maria Maria BartiromoBartiromo and her relationship with a Citigroup executive. Bartiromo anchors “Closing Bell” and “Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo” on CNBC. According to Ethics Newsline, Todd Thomson, Citigroup exec in charge of brokerage, was recently fired for lavish spending. A major part of this spending was a $5 million sponsorship of a show to be hosted by Bartiromo. No big deal, right? Well when you add in private jet flights Bartiromo has enjoyed on Citigroup’s tab, as well as continued coverage of Citigroup on Bartiromo’s news reports, you get an ethical issue on both sides of the fence.  

CNBC has backed Bartiromo, saying that the flights were business travel and were approved by management. I hope I can find a job where my business travel includes globetrotting in a private jet on someone else’s dime. CNBC claims it reimbursed Citigroup for the flight.

“The New York Post reported last week that flying Bartiromo in the Gulfstream likely cost Citigroup $2,300 to $4,000 an hour, or $40,000-plus for a trip that CNBC reimbursed at the commercial rate of $3,000 to $4,000 total. The $40,000 expense to Citigroup does not include the commercial airfare that the three bumped executives paid to get home from Beijing.” – USA Today

What’s that part in the Journalist’s Code of Ethics? Oh yeah, no gifts.

Journalists, PR professionals and business managers should all be concerned with behavior. The relationship between reporter and source (be it PR professional or executive) should be managed with respect and intense care. There is a fine line between friendly and friendlier. In my opinion, Bartiromo and Thomson crossed that line. Private jet flights, sponsorship and continuous coverage are too much to ignore.

Video News Releases

We see them everyday. On your local news at 6, your morning “feel-good” news program and even on CNN and MSNBC. They are video news releases (VNRs) and they are coming directly from PR firms. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. VNRs have been around for a long time. But recently, a PR watchdog organization known as the Center for Media and Democracy, has been causing quite a stir among the general public about VNRs. The Center released two studies revealing stations that were airing VNRs and misleading the public into believing the station had actually produced the segment. The Center likes to refer to VNRs as “fake news”. Here is the deal with VNRs. A PR firm can make one and make it look newsy but the broadcast station cannot pass it off as one of thier own. It’s a tricky situation. And as for the Center…why is the PR industry only to blame? The Center claims it “strengthens participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism, media “of, by and for the people.” But why are the broadcast stations not to blame? They are the ones taking the release and airing it as thier own. The responsibility lays on broadcast’s shoulders on this issue.

The Federal Communications Commission has put numerous limits on VNRs and among them, includes that stations must divulge who the producer of the segment is. PR professionals, broadcasters and news directors are rallying together and claiming these regulations are violations of the First Amendment freedom of speech.

 I think VNRs are definetly useful for both PR firms and broadcast stations. I do not think that a VNR should include a “reporter”, as in the Bush administration’s Medicare VNR mess. The trend of transparency will carry over into the world of VNRs.

Working with the media or for the media?

I began my college career as a journalist and I am graduating on what some news majors call “the dark side.” When I made my switch from magazine journalism to PR, I thought over exactly what a job in public relations would entail and realized PR has a great deal to do with the media. My question today revolves around this idea of media relations…do PR professionals work with the media, work for the media or work around the media?

I was reading a PR ethics blog, Truth in PR, and I came across a metaphoric post relating PR professionals to dogs. PR Dogs and the Reporters who Love’ Em discusses three elements of doggie-like behavior that PR professionals sometimes exude to the media, including two of the biggest ethical issues in media relations: “Slobbering” and “making messes”.

slobber.jpgBlogger Positive O describes slobbering as basically “schmoozing” a journalist for follow-up coverage. Journalists can detect the drool factor and will ignore you. In my opinion, slobbering is related to working for the media. Ethically speaking, a journalist has been taught to never accept any form of gift from a PR professional. Some journalists operate on an ethical sliding scale and accept lunches or other tokens. I’ve seen it in action. The ethical issue with PR professionals comes with ‘buying’ media coverage. This would come with a journalist refusing a story unless you do something for them. This could include lunch at a four-star restaurant, offering multiples of your client’s products or disclosing private information. Advocacy for your client is more important than media coverage and you should not cave to the pressure of a journalist for confidential information.

The bigger ethical problem in this post is the issue of leaving the reporter a big, steaming pile of you-know-what. According to Truth in PR, this occurs when a PR professional provides  a false response to reporters. In my opinion, saying “no comment” is almost as bad. This is what I call working around the media. You leave the reporter with no information. This will not boost your reputation within the media community. If you lie or accidentally give false information, you should always come forward and clean up after yourself. This way, both you and the reporter can save some face.

PR professionals must work with the media to ensure coverage and to build strong working relationships. When you find yourself in a ‘slobbery’ situation, you should remember that you are working for your client, not the media. Never disclose confidential information and never buy media coverage. And if a situation arises and you do leave a mess with a reporter, grab that plastic bag and clean it up yourself. Apologize for not only your sake but also the reporter’s and your client’s. Our job is to work with the media to ensure maximum positive coverage and to create strong working relationships with the media.



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