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Does PRSA’s Ethical Reproach Cross Partisan Lines? A Discussion with Mary Beth West, APR & Heather Beck, APR

Disclaimer: The views discussed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of PRSA, the Volunteer Chapter of PRSA or any other PRSA chapter or sub-group. This discussion is provided as commentary on recent events in the public relations field, in order to facilitate ongoing conversation among PRSA members on the topics of advocacy, nonpartisanship and PRSA’s role.

On January 24, 2017, PRSA released a statement on the comments of Kellyanne Conway, White House senior adviser, when she claimed a communication from the White House included “alternative facts.” PRSA’s statement called for communications professionals to communicate with honesty and accuracy and to abide by PRSA’s Code of Ethics.

Let’s talk about honesty in communications. What did PRSA do right in issuing an ethics statement in this situation, and where might it have gone wrong?

MBW: Over the years, I’ve closely followed what subjects PRSA chooses to speak out on and in what manner, as I chaired PRSA’s National Advocacy Advisory Board in 2007 – a year in which we were very active in speaking up on a host of national-level issues and incidents, including quite a few in federal government and the corporate sector.

Most of us in PRSA absolutely want the Society to represent our entire profession in a vocal way and to speak clearly, actively – but also consistently – about communications ethics as well as best-practice issues. In fact, I would like to see PRSA do far more, as resources will allow.

As an example where PRSA has performed well in this area, I’ve appreciated PRSA’s leadership voice on the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics’ (JCOPE) advisory opinion, wherein the NY Governor’s office pushed for a requirement to have public relations professionals in New York State to register with the state as lobbyists (regardless of whether they ever performed lobbying functions). PRSA has performed well in opposing this proposal, which could easily hamstring First Amendment rights and our profession’s ability to lend our expertise in the marketplace on clients’ behalf.

However, advocacy work for our profession is tricky business, as I learned some years ago.

There are many pitfalls and complex implications of PRSA interjecting its voice – because when it does so, it must take great care that it’s speaking on behalf of our entire membership and even our entire profession, comprised of diverse people of diverse backgrounds as well as various political ideologies. All deserve respect.

Therefore, I had great concern about PRSA’s January 24 statement because it was issued in criticism to a new presidential administration of one specific political party, after what had been a prior eight-year vacuum of PRSA not speaking out on similar communications mistakes or perceived ethical missteps during the previous presidential administration of the opposite political party. In light of that silence, PRSA had built up something of a member expectation that the Society didn’t comment about national presidential campaigns or presidential administration missteps on communications / ethics.

Also, being issued with no precursor to explain or pave the way for us to understand PRSA’s new-found advocacy voice in the political sphere, the January 24 statement created a situation where PRSA appeared to step out of bounds in upholding its apolitical, nonpartisan profile – which I think is absolutely essential for our organization.  I thought some damage was done in that regard.

HB: I think PRSA did the correct thing here to comment on a communications error (and ethical misstep) that received a lot of traction in the mass media. “Alternative facts” was trending, and I think it probably would have been odd if PRSA hadn’t commented. What makes public relations a vital communications field is that it’s built on honesty and accuracy — that’s how you build relationships with others and build the foundation upon which we all communicate with each other. That’s what I value about public relations, and I believe that’s what makes PR valuable, in turn, to society.

But I appreciate Mary Beth’s historical perspective here. As someone who’s relatively new to PRSA, I don’t have a feel for what the Society typically comments on and what it doesn’t. Truth be told, PRSA could likely comment on a communications blunder every single day, and probably (sadly) wouldn’t have trouble finding one that is considered out-of-bounds of PRSA’s Member Code of Ethics.

I think it’s likely that PRSA commented on the “alternative facts” situation because it was already getting so much attention. That type of attention gave PRSA the opportunity to draw attention to the fact that the great majority of responsible public relations professionals do, in fact, uphold themselves to a Code of Ethics. Most of us aren’t using terms like “alternative facts.”

Would it be helpful for PRSA to comment on more communications blunders? It would seem a good idea for PRSA to be selective about what it comments on, but being selective may also open up the concerns Mary Beth has about perceived partisanship. On the other hand, commenting on even a fraction of the communications errors made each day would take a phenomenal amount of time and energy. And PRSA might inadvertently brand itself as the guilt-tripper of the communications world.

What might PRSA have done better in this situation? Could PRSA make its nonpartisanship more evident?

MBW:  Heather makes a very valid point about the sheer volume of daily communications-misstep issues or incidents upon which PRSA could potentially comment. PRSA hasn’t the staff time, volunteer time or budget resources to assume the enormity of that task. Let’s face it: none of us do.

Like every other organization, we have to make strategic decisions with our resources. The first step is strategy development itself. In this situation, I believe PRSA called into question its overarching strategy or whether it had one here, beyond a desire to jump on a bandwagon.

Looking ahead to the very near future, I think it would be ideal if PRSA National took the following steps:

  • Establish a solid advocacy strategy and commit it to paper, supported by a procedural framework that vets issues through the lens of any range of implications, if and when PRSA chooses to comment and how it chooses to comment.
  • Ensure that the strategy is supported and aligned with adequate resources (including a budget and personnel and/or a committee that takes into account diverse points of view) to execute the strategy well and in keeping with the profession’s needs for a strong advocacy voice, as well as member expectations.
  • Communicate the strategy to the membership and to the larger profession, member and non-member.
  • Exercise care that PRSA remains nonpartisan and apolitical, operating and communicating as such so that this stance is clear to all stakeholders, at all times. If PRSA’s leadership feels compelled to comment on a politically-tinged issue, it could mention examples of the issue at hand from both sides of the aisle (such as comparative instances when both political parties have erred in a similar circumstance). Balance is key.

PRSA’s advocacy function is most effective when it’s not playing a blame game or making hay out of someone else’s misstep. Rather, we achieve far more traction at far less risk when we push proactive messages and lift up examples of great judgment and decision-making in our field.

There are ways to do that while remaining relevant to a certain day’s news cycle, but it requires a sophisticated approach that balances the need for expediency with thoughtful analysis and an awareness of PRSA’s own relationships that can be impacted for better or worse.

HB:  Certainly, PRSA would have been better served by communicating its intentions to its membership in a clearer way. As the cobbler’s children have no shoes, sometimes communications professionals forget to communicate with each other. We assume that our intent is clear, and that no perceptions or subtext could confuse the issue. Of course, that’s almost never true.

While PRSA understandably would not have wanted to say in a press release that it was inserting itself into a political arena because it felt that such a thing would be advantageous to the organization (in terms of attention drawn to the Code of Ethics and to the behavior of responsible PR pros) or because it felt that getting political was worth correcting ethical missteps it believed to be particularly flagrant or egregious — it still could have communicated such notions to members. That would have helped us all understand why PRSA feels this situation, above any others, is worth commenting on.

If PRSA does want to continue the practice of commenting on communications blunders, perhaps it should be made clearer that as PR practitioners, we’re all responsible for errors — whether we say them, or whether the organization we represent says them. Errors happen; stupid things get said for all kinds of reasons. It happens every day. And it might have been better if PRSA had called out the “alternative facts” statement as a learning example. Maybe how to handle a confrontational interview (and what not to do). Or how to do damage control when you do slip up, make an error, or regrettably choose to lie in an attempt to save face or cover up. Perhaps PRSA could start a positive practice of honoring ethical communicators through its various channels and holding up those people as examples of responsible and great PR in action.

Public relations already suffers from the perception of being all about spin. This could have been an incredible opportunity to not only say that PRSA stands for accuracy, but to give all communications practitioners concrete, real guidance on how to avoid situations like this.

Mary Beth West, APR, began her PRSA affiliation as a PRSSA student, having served as public relations director on PRSSA’s national committee from 1993-94. A co-founder of PRSA’s New Professionals Section, she has served over the past two decades in a range of leadership positions for PRSA, during which time she founded and has managed her own firm for nearly 14 years, based in the Greater Knoxville area. She can be reached at mb@marybethwest.com or on Twitter: @marybethwest.

Heather Beck, APR, is relatively new to the public relations profession. Previously, she’s worked as a journalist, technical editor and freelance writer. She has served on a number of PRSA committees, including the planning committee for the 2016 Southeast District Conference, and is the 2017 president of the Volunteer Chapter. She can be reached at hnbeck@pstcc.edu or on Twitter: @hbeck490.

2 thoughts on “Does PRSA’s Ethical Reproach Cross Partisan Lines? A Discussion with Mary Beth West, APR & Heather Beck, APR”

  1. Great points of view on both hemispheres. I will say that when I was Chair and CEO of PRSA in 2012, at least 40% of my time was spent advocating for the profession from “fake product reviews” and “CEO behavior” to “mentorship” and “internships.” It takes time and resources, but it is the right thing to do and it must be done early, often and with great care.

  2. Respectfully, I disagree.

    Although the execution of the statement’s release could have possibly been handled differently, the issuance and timing of the statement was both necessary and appropriate. MBW states that “the January 24 statement created a situation where PRSA appeared to step out of bounds in upholding its apolitical, nonpartisan profile – which I think is absolutely essential for our organization. I thought some damage was done in that regard.”

    I contend that staying silent in the face of such an egregious, high profile violation of ethics – NOT denouncing it – causes far greater damage to the reputation of our field than the potential harm of appearing political. Remaining silent is the equivalent of saying “no comment.” We all know that in crisis communication, the absence of a statement leaves the public to draw its own conclusions and make assumptions. In this case, people will assume the accepted use of “alternative facts” is one more proof-point that PR folks are spin doctors.

    It’s not a fair comparison to say that, because PRSA didn’t comment on missteps during the previous administration, they shouldn’t do it now. The situations we’re dealing with are not an apples-to-apples comparison. The breadth and depth of damage being inflicted now is vastly magnified and much higher-profile than anything in recent memory. It hasn’t been all that long since PR finally began to be widely embraced as meriting a seat at the executive table. Now there’s a situation where we will need to PR the PR profession – create a campaign to rehab our image as professional, ethical, valuable contributors who are worth what we charge.

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