Ethics Emphasized but Rarely Formalized at Midsize Firms
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Ethics Emphasized but Rarely Formalized at Midsize Firms

With ethical issues attracting more media attention, most principals of midsize public relations firms say ethical standards are important, but few have formal ethics policies beyond adherence to the PRSA code.

Paul Holmes

With ethical issues attracting more media attention, most principals of midsize public relations firms say ethical standards are important, but relatively few have formal ethics policies beyond adherence to the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Professional Standards and even fewer offer formal ethics training to employees as part of their professional development curricula.
 
Overall, midsize agencies do less than their larger counterparts (which were surveyed earlier this year by this newsletter) to formalize ethical standards, preferring to rely on a combination of leadership by example and an approach that handles individual ethical questions on a case-by-case basis.
 
Typical is the approach taken by DeVries Public Relations, a New York firm specializing in consumer marketing and brand building. Says president Madeline de Vries, “We approach ethical issues as they come up, with the management group of six participating in the discussion. We have extremely high ethical standards, though we have not seen the need to create a formal policy document.”
 
Statements on equal opportunity, confidentiality, discrimination and harassment are contained in the agency’s Employee Handbook, de Vries says.
 
A similar approach is taken by Chicago-based Dragonette. Says president Rita Hoey, “Given our size, we handle this on a practical day-to-day basis by example and discussion about ethical issues as they arise in our industry so employees understand appropriate behavior and practice.”
 
Says Ken Makovsky, president of New York’s Makovsky & Co., “Though we currently have no formal written policy, the spirit of business ethics has always been woven into our policies. Our Credo pledges a client ‘partnership based on good communications and a shared commitment to the highest ethical standards.’ Our confidentiality agreement, which all employees are required to sign, prohibits disclosure of confidential information to outside sources.”
 
Adds Kerry Tucker, president of San Diego’s Nuffer Smith Tucker, “We don’t have a formal ethics policy but rely heavily on the core values we’ve spent a lot of time making explicit and operable. Doing what’s right for all parties affected—at least what's right in our hearts—is our version of the golden rule.”
 
Rick French, president of North Carolina’s Richard French & Associates, takes formal commitment a step further. “Our agency policy manual, which all associates receive upon acceptance of a job offer from us, holds associates to certain ethical standards and always asks them, when in doubt, to consult their supervisor. While we don’t attempt to address every conceivable ethical dilemma they may encounter, we do ask them to always err on the side of caution.”
 
All employees must acknowledge they have received and read the policy manual.
 
Sitrick & Company, a Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in crisis situations, is one of the few that has a formal ethics statement and that asks employees to acknowledge that ethics policy in writing.
 
The centerpiece of the ethics policy at Chicago-based Public Communications is also the PRSA Code of Professional Standards. Says agency president Richard Barry, “We write adherence to the Code into all of our contracts and advise our employees of its premises.” Later this month, for example, PCI principal Dorothy Pirovano will lead an employee workshop on the importance of the Code and its day to day application, one of the few example of midsize agencies offering employees ethics lessons as part of a formal professional development program.
 
While Lobsenz-Stevens, a midsize agency in New York, has no written ethics policy, it does conduct internal workshops that focus on ethics. Says president Art Stevens, “We conduct role-playing scenarios during which we pose various ethical dilemmas that could come up: client directives, dealings with media, accuracy of information, and others.” 
 
Imada Wong Communications, which is based in Los Angeles and specializes in programming that targets the Asian-American community, has no formal ethics policy but has plans to create one by the end of the year, in part because president Bill Imada is helping create a code of ethics for the Asian American Advertising and Public Relations Alliance.
 
Several firms do have policies—often unwritten—concerning the kinds of business they will take on. Patrice Tanaka & Co. has an informal agreement against working for tobacco companies “and other controversial clients that might be divisive within our agency,” says agency president Patrice Tanaka. DeVries Public Relations also eschews tobacco clients, and “anything else the majority of us would feel uncomfortable with.”
 
PCI, meanwhile, because of its healthcare practice, elects not to represent alcohol and tobacco industry clients, although Barry says the agency views this is a business decision rather than an ethical one. And The Bohle Company won’t work for religious organizations or “any client with discriminatory practices.”
 
Says Stevens, “We don’t accept assignments from cigaratte companies, terrorist or repressive countries or any causes or situations that make our employees uncomfortable. While we respect the right for any one to have public relations representation, we also respect our right to deny our services where we question the ethics of products of a prospect.”
 
Other firms, such as Sitrick & Co., take the position that clients should be accepted or rejected based not on the products they manufacture but on whether their communications approach is honest and ethical. Several firms say they have rejected clients not because they disapproved of the company, but because they disapproved of the communications strategy.
 
Nuffer Smith Tucker, for example, turned its back on a major new business opportunity—a reputation management assignment for an industry group—because it felt the approach was flawed. Says Tucker, “They’re beginning to get hammered on some critical issues and they’re taking some heat from their industry so their answer is a publicity campaign. They’re beginning to get hammered because the issues they face are genuine and the industry is in need of substantial operational adjustments. Not only will they fail but they're putting their industry at even greater risk than if they were doing nothing at all.”
 
As for conflicts, few agencies have formal policies, preferring to handle problems as they arise, usually in consultation with the affected clients. When policies do exist, they tend to put the interests of existing clients ahead of prospects.
 
Says Tanaka, “We haven’t felt the need to because we are fairly clear in our own minds as to what a conflict of interest might be. We vet prospective clients pretty thoroughly to determine any potential conflicts with existing clients. If we feel that there might be a conflict we will clear it with our client. Usually, even if a client gives us the ‘go-ahead’ to proceed, we will decline if we sense our client feels even the slightest discomfort about the potential for conflict. Such situations give us the opportunity to demonstrate our loyalty and commitment to clients.”
 
“We deal with potential conflicts on a case-by-case basis,” says Bill Imada. “We have a number of conflicting accounts.  Our normal procedure is to assign different work teams to handle each account and/or project. It is our normal practice to inform all parties of potential conflicts before any assignments are accepted. In the area of ethnic public relations and marketing, there aren't very many choices. With so few choices, many companies find it difficult to shop around and ultimately agree to let us work on an assignment—even if we are also working for a competitor.”
 
Makovsky & Co. is one of several agencies that specifically prohibit employees owning stock in investor relations client companies.
 
All in all, most PR agency principals believe that the agency culture is more important than any formal policy.
 
 Says David Paine, president of California’s Paine & Associates, “Ethics start with a company culture that doesn't place undo pressure on its people to perform at all costs and to meet certain billing quotas. When too much bottom line pressure is placed on staff, regardless of the existence or not of an ethics policy, it creates a culture that tacitly encourages (or at least doesn't discourage) people from engaging in behavior that may be unethical.”
 
“A formal ethics policy has great value,” says Tanaka. “However, what’s more important is to demonstrate ethical behavior on a daily basis with all stakeholder audiences from employees to clients to vendors to the media to the community-at-large.  We look for opportunities to demonstrate, by example, to our employees, the kind of ethical behavior we expect from them.”
 
“I have a great deal of faith in the integrity and decision making ability of our associates and believe that if you give them the latitude to use their best discretion, that 99 times out of 100 they will do the right thing,” says Rick French “I would say the same for the overwhelming majority of my colleagues in the industry.”
 
There is some support for stronger ethical leadership from industry groups, however. PCI’s Dorothy Pirovano says that public relations professional organizations should consider creating an internal review board, similar to those operated by several medical associations and by the Society of Professional Journalists. Says Pirovano, “Such a board would be empowered by the group’s members to impose sanctions for ethical lapses: veiled grassroots campaigns, hidden sponsors. Of course there are limits to the power of a professional association, but that does not mean it should not have a venue for defending its code of ethics.”
 
“One way to reflect true professionalism is to beef up our ethics,” says Stevens. “I agree with the efforts being made by PRSA to rewrite the code of ethics and put some teeth into its enforcement. Our reputation as an industry will be based on ethical conduct as well as our communications skills. We can’t and shouldn't bend  for any client.”
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