Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The PR Fur Flies in Dallas, But Fur What?

A former TV anchor-turned PR executive ruffled a lot of feathers by admitting that he posted opinions on websites and blogs using a phony name while being paid by the controversial construction project company to do just that. A lot of folks, including the New York Times, have their shorts all wrinkled up about this behavior. The perpetrator resigned from his own PR firm, resigned from the account that hired him, issued a number of limited apologies, and his firm collapsed a few days after his departure.

On the one hand, we could talk about what he shouldn't have done, but even a nine-year-old gets that. Those of us with strong ethical concerns can make a case for further discussion. But before we launch forth on such a discussion we need to understand the ground rules around free-speech in America. First ground rule: Our Constitution, unique in the world, grants essentially limitless freedom of speech. With just a couple of exceptions imposed by law or legal precedent, anyone in America, even non-Americans, get to say just about anything they please. The First Amendment fails to mention limitations like truthfulness, honesty, integrity, forthrightness, and identification of speaker or writer. The second ground rule concerns Codes of Ethics, all of which put conditions on speech such as truthfulness, integrity, and the like. When it comes to freedom of speech, the PRSA Code as an example, like many other codes of conduct is essentially the voluntary self-imposed limitation of the speech rights granted in our Constitution.

When PRSA members pay their dues and sign the pledge card, their First Amendment rights are retained, but PRSA member professionals agree to a variety of rules and guidelines that limit and control behaviors, such as ethics, morality, truthfulness, honesty, integrity, forthrightness, and content source identity. None of which appear in the Constitution.

We can argue for a long time that the behaviors, rules and expectations established by the PRSA Code are in the public interest, they are; serve important public needs, which they do; and improve our profession. You also must argue is that these limitations are limited to those with PRSA membership. The individual I question here is not listed as a member of PRSA. Therefore, as much as we might detest his behavior, and his rather lame explanations for it, especially having spent such a large part of his professional life in the search for truth as a reporter, he had no obligation to do any of the remediative things he did, including apology and resignation.

It is helpful to remember that using fictitious names in public and private discussions is a tried-and-true American tradition dating back to our revolution. I need only mention the Federalist Papers, a robust series of articles and documents which discussed and debated the various drafts of our Constitution at the very beginning of our republic. It is true that very famous people, including Alexander Hamilton, used phony names on the documents that fostered a robust public debate.

Few Americans would rise to defend using a false identity. Certainly his former media friends and colleagues wasted little time in exposing, embarrassing and humiliating him into denigrating himself. BTW, the word “apology” does not appear in the first amendment, or anywhere in the Constitution, or in many if any Codes of Conduct.

We are almost ready to start the debate. But wait, one more observation. In America, we have an extraordinary cross section of views on everything, every day. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal cover most of the same stories every day. But to read their coverage, you’d think they were in different countries, from different cultures, talking about people we think we recognize. Watch coverage of very similar topics on Fox News, CNN, CNBC, and one of the legacy networks, then finally your own local news. After all that you still have to ask the question, what is the truth? Welcome to American democracy where finding the truth is really up to you, because there is precious little recognizable help, but tons of information to choose from. Heck, the SPJ Code of Conduct for Journalists authorizes them to use deception in pursuit of important stories. At least one journalism textbook spends a 30-page chapter teaching deception in the pursuit of truth.

And what do most of us in Public Relations do every day? We write for and script others who will use our words, thoughts and creativity under their own names, labels and Logos, as their own.

Codes of Conduct are only as reliable as those who profess them, perform them, practice and abide by them. Like it or not, the ‘offender’ here was behaving under a broader and more powerful Code called the Constitution of the United States.

Okay, now the debate can begin.

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA is the author of Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication, What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management, available now at Amazon.com.

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