Paul Holmes 05 Dec 2010 // 9:05AM GMT
I’ve never liked the idea of licensing for public relations professionals—I believe this business ought to be able to attract the best and the brightest from a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds and I see no benefit to placing obstacles in the paths of those people. But one advantage licensing would surely bring is the industry-wide adoption of a strict—and more importantly enforceable—code of ethics. I mention this because of two separate stories that developed over the past week. The first involves a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace against Dow Chemical, Sasol North America, and two public relations firms: Ketchum and Dezenhall, accusing them of a two-year campaign of illegal corporate espionage to gather information on opponents of the chemical industry. The second involves a clash between Edelman chief executive Richard Edelman and former insurance industry public relations exec Wendell Potter, who has written a book exposing some of the less wholesome aspects of that industry’s efforts to influence the debate over healthcare reform—and questionable PR tactics more broadly. Let’s take the Ketchum case first, and let’s start by acknowledging that the facts are not yet clear. Much of the suit is based on a story first reported in Mother Jones magazine two years ago. That story details reports delivered to Ketchum by private security firm Beckett Brown, many of which appear to have been based on techniques such as garbage analysis (“dumpster diving”) and infiltrating local environmental groups by having operatives pose as activists. There’s nothing wrong with opposition research. Most companies do it; they would be irresponsible not to. I’m pretty sure Greenpeace does it too. Nor is there anything illegal or inherently unethical about hiring a private detective to do background research. But this story involves activities that are at the very least ethically grey: dumpster diving may or may not be legal, but it’s clearly a pretty sleazy way to gather information; the infiltration techniques described in the Mother Jones story are deceitful and dishonest. It’s not clear from any of the published reports whether the PR firms involved knew of the tactics employed. Greenpeace has published some correspondence between Ketchum and Beckett Brown; there’s nothing particularly incriminating in there, at least on a first look through. Having said that, lack of written direction or even specific knowledge does not absolve a company of blame for the activities of agents in its employ. I’m not sure what the legal standards are here. I am prepared to accept that reasonable people could disagree about the ethical standards. So I’d make my case based on basic public relations principles: PR people should not undertake any activity that has the potential to damage a client’s reputation (or its own) if that activity makes its way into the pages of the Washington Post. And it should conduct business as if everything it does will one day be published and subject to public scrutiny. The Edelman story is not as potentially damaging. Potter’s book is highly critical of the PR business; Edelman responded (pretty thoughtfully, in my opinion) on his blog, suggesting that Potter had done “the public a great disservice in distorting the PR field” and argued that “PR firms and their clients are dedicated to the long-term success of their business which is only achieved by honest and accurate communications.” Potter in turn pointed to Edelman’s work for Wal-Mart and for the tobacco industry (work the firm discontinued some time ago). At PR Watch (offline as I blogged this), there was a call for Edelman to repudiate its tobacco work. Potter’s Huffington Post also column ended with a challenge, asking whether Edelman felt PR people who behave unethically should have their “license revoked.” The first proposal is mere grandstanding; Edelman has effectively repudiated it work by issues strong internal policies against tobacco work and it’s hard to see what this formal repudiation would accomplish beyond stroking the ego of the author. The latter suggestion requires a more robust response. The idea of licensing PR practitioners is problematic to me for first amendment reasons, but I do believe the industry needs to address a host of ethical issues raised by these two stories, from intelligence gathering techniques to the use of “front groups” and other deceptive practices. It’s time for industry leaders to come together—as they did recently on measurement issues—to define more clearly what’s ethical. And then it is time for the industry to speak out forcefully against unethical activity and to “name and shame” firms that cross the line.