Double-dipping exposes reputation risk in blurred boundaries of PR and journalism

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When it comes to reputation, there is little distinction between a real conflict and a perceived one

Op-Ed by Daniel Tisch, APR, FCPRS

As media scandals go, it was a big one for Canada: The revelation that for the past two years one of the nation’s better-known TV news anchors was a part owner of a small public relations firm. Even more unnerving was that the anchor—and, on occasion, other journalists affiliated with the TV network—interviewed his agency’s clients on show segments. Both his equity stake and regular participation in the agency, not to mention profile and participation of clients, were apparently concealed from both his employer and the viewing public.

For public relations practitioners committed to ethics and professionalism, the natural first instinct was self-righteous shock. Most codes of ethics are clear about why this is wrong. For example, the Canadian Public Relations Society’s Code of Ethics states that a PR professional “shall deal fairly and honestly with the communications media and the public” and “neither propose nor act to improperly influence the communications media.”

Yet while stakeholders from various disciplines quoted in the media were virtually unanimous in criticizing the anchor’s dual role, there was little consensus on several questions—all of which have broad relevance. For example:

  1. What was the problem: A journalist having equity in a PR firm, the lack of transparent disclosure…or both?
  2. Can journalists work in PR and still be journalists?
  3. How can journalists and PR firms avoid such conflicts in future?

(Not long after contacting the journalist, his network, the agency and some of its clients, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper reported that the network had suspended the TV anchor. A few days after that, the journalist resigned from his position. One could hypothesize questions 1 and 2 were debated at both the TV network and the newspaper.)

Transparency helps—but it’s not enough

While it’s not necessarily wrong for a journalist to invest in a private business, or even to earn money from other sources, it crosses an ethical line if such activities or relationships could influence his or her coverage.

In many sectors, there are rules about conflicts. Here is a personal example: I sit on a university board. If I have a potential conflict of interest on a matter before the board, I am required to declare the interest and recuse myself from voting on it, or trying to influence the decision.

Some have argued that the Canadian journalist should simply have declared the investment to his employer, and also avoided putting himself in the position of hosting shows featuring the PR firm’s clients.

It’s true that transparency would have taken this from a black-and-white area to a grey one; however, even if shades of grey are inevitable, they are undesirable.

When it comes to reputation, there is little distinction between a real conflict and a perceived one. And in an age when we are inundated with information and distraction, civil society desperately needs journalism to be credible as it offers curation, analysis and insight. When trust in journalism is broken, everyone loses.

Can journalists work in PR?

The boundaries between journalism and public relations are increasingly porous. Media consolidation and threats to circulation and advertising revenue models are driving more journalists than ever into public relations and other communication positions.

Journalists often have steep learning curves in PR, as most have not had to develop their skills as business counsellors. Where they excel, however, is at storytelling—and this can offer tempting opportunities as the market for corporate or brand journalism grows, thanks to the explosion of organizations using “owned media” strategies.

The other challenge is that with global publishing power in everyone’s hands, the barriers to entry in journalism are lower than ever. Another personal example: These days our firm communicates with leading bloggers almost as often as professional journalists.

When there is less clarity about who is a journalist, how can we hope to separate the spheres of PR and journalism?

While this area will become greyer and greyer, here is an axiom that may help: Transparency in self-identification is essential.

Someone who identifies her or himself only as a journalist, or as a full-time journalist, must not take on assignments that a reasonable person would see as the domain of public relations, such as corporate journalism, executive coaching or communication counsel.

Public self-identification as a journalist and consultant would logically allow a broader range of activity, provided there is disclosure of clients where necessary, and that the consultant/journalist avoids perceived conflicts in his or her journalistic work.

How can conflicts be avoided?

Public relations firms and journalistic organizations have to recognize the reputational risk that accompanies today’s blurred boundaries, and act intelligently and ethically to prevent real or perceived conflicts.

After some high-profile Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) personalities accepted lucrative speaking engagements from corporations, their employer developed a policy circumscribing this type of activity. While this was wise, it’s only a first step.

Here is a to-do list I recommend for various stakeholders:

  1. Media organizations must review their own codes of professional standards and ethics, and the individual contracts of their journalists, to identify and mitigate risks.
  2. Public relations firms and corporate PR departments must review and subscribe to codes of ethics, such as the universal Code of Ethics of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. Organizations must also provide clear policies and training for employees, to help them know how to resolve potential conflicts promptly, or, better yet, before they happen.
  3. Because public relations and communication management practice is hard to regulate (beyond the organizational level), there will always be ethical and unethical PR practitioners. For clients, the best advice is caveat emptor: Be careful to retain agencies that operate within established professional associations and codes of practice. Otherwise, the client’s reputation is as threatened as that of the agency partner.

Blurred boundaries offer a new environment of risk—but they are part of our new realities in both public relations and journalism.

By navigating this new environment with both transparency and ethics, public relations and journalistic organizations can retain the trust that is essential to their reputations—and, even more important, to their “licence to operate” in the public’s interest.

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Daniel Tisch, APR, FCPRS, is immediate past chair (2011-2013) of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society and CEO of Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s largest independent PR firms. He has lectured on public relations at Queen’s University since 1996. Dan led the GA to unprecedented growth, co-chaired the Melbourne Mandate process and the 2012 and 2014 World Public Relations Forums, launched the GA COMM PRIX Awards and represented the profession with the International Integrated Reporting Council. Follow Dan on Twitter or read his corporate blog, Reputation and Reality.

Previous contributions include an interview Catherine Arrow conducted with Dan Tisch and Jean Valin, followed by a joint post by Dan and Jean, The Melbourne Mandate: A professional beacon for PR and most recently, Holmes Truths: Repositioning PR or getting back to where we once belonged?

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Thanks to Heather Yaxley for creating the image that accompanies this Op-Ed.

36 COMMENTS

  1. Solid advice here, Dan.

    As a sidebar, I personally find it hard to swallow the notion that “there will always be unethical PR practitioners.” I understand that it is currently necessary to apply tests of ethics when hiring a PR practitioner or a PR firm but I am uncomfortable appearing to set such low expectations.

    If all PR practitioners and society as a whole were to truly believe that PR will always suffer fools and hacks then perhaps we need to be building steam toward regulating the practice?

    • Dear Natalie,

      Thanks for your (always!) thoughtful comments. I didn’t intend to be defeatist or to set low expectations in saying there would always be both ethical and unethical practitioners.

      The reality, however, is that while it may be possible to regulate who can call themselves a public relations practitioner, it would be exceptionally difficult in a democratic society to regulate the practice of communication – which is available to anyone – unless the communicator is breaking a law and/or causing provable damage. Some will use communication to achieve mutual understanding; others will use it distort, exaggerate or omit key information, or to evade accountability.

      The debate about regulation remains one worth having, and perhaps the regulation of the title could advance the reputation of PR if accompanied by a robust investment in public, professional and client education. I would need to be persuaded that it can be effective in actually regulating the practice, too.

      Regards
      Dan

  2. For many years I have argued that, as public relations impacts the public interest, the public needs to be safeguarded by do’s and don’ts similarly to other professions that bear impacts on others.

    On March 12 in midtown New York in the Museum of Public Relations, now finally housed in the Newman library near Baruch College, Stuart Ewen, the author of SPIN the social history of PR (in my view the best book ever written on public relations), will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the death of Edward Bernays and will certainly also dwell on Bernays’ lost battle for the regulation of the profession.

    As much as trust in regulation is at its lowest ever (see Edelman Trust Barometer release yesterday) it is certainly more reassuring and rational than the dismal failure of professional associations (with the only and partial exception of Germany) in enforcing their self made do’s and don’ts mostly directed to protect their own members and not their publics.

    Having said this, Dan Tisch’s post is very well thought out, clearly expressed and highly reasonable. Specifically, the dynamics of the relationships between journalists and public relators is one of the most researched aspects of our profession in many countries and it is very clear that in recent years the acceleration of the disintermediation processs of both the media relations and reporting practices has been dramatic.

    While blatant conflicts of interest like the recent Canadian case can hardly be justified from any perspective, the roles are quickly changing as journalists struggle to make a living.

    In fact, recent research from the UK and Australia indicate that the encroachment is much more visible from journalists finding new revenue sources from organizations who have become media themselves while public relators focus on other more managerial and complex practices such as developing and implementing stakeholder relationship policies.

    • Thank you, Toni, for your always erudite comments. The research you cite from the UK and Australia is certainly consistent with my anecdotal experience. The regulation debate remains very much worth having. Because regulation of communication is difficult, to be effective it would require not just the ‘stick’ of regulation but also an environment of understanding — which would require a massive investment by regulatory bodies and other stakeholders.

      With warm regards
      Dan

  3. Please gawd not more regulation and licensing. And who would we regulate? A journalist with a full time job as a news reporter? A blogger with a good revenue stream who write 3/4 time but isn’t a full time journalist? A freelance PR consultant? A blogger who writes full time about communications, PR, or marketing? The hacks who generate a lot of traffic and will be a journalist when it suits them and the rest of the time simply claim to be expressing an opinion. Then of course we have the rotten apples in all the professions to contend with and who will be investigating these miscreants? The newly formed Department of Media Licencing? Consumer Affairs? Industry Canada? No wait, let’s let the CRTC handle it.

    No regulation please and thank you, but how about a corporate culture of responsibility on the part of employers, agency bosses, editors, and producers who should know when to think about the story and the audience. As a former Executive Producer and Program Manager at CBC I knew the guidelines and I had a sense of responsibility to the audience that made me ask questions and imparted that right down the line so that even the reporters on the front line were asking disclosure questions of interview subjects.

    How about boycotting those bloggers who have no editors, no responsibility to the public, and with no code of conduct get away with egregious statements under the guise of the public good. Maybe a blogger should post their own code of conduct and be expected to stick with it.

    PR or communications practitioners who have their own website or bios on a corporate site should disclose who they are, not just how wonderful they are and that they will turn your watery message into vintage wine. While we don’t need to know the brand of beer you drink, if you have an Alberta liquor store chain as a client you better let everyone know about it before you turn the mic on to do an interview about loosening up the liquor sales rules in Ontario.

    It also raises the questions of stock portfolios. When I produced a business show on CBC we could see the ‘Business Network Effect’ when we did a story and there was a blip in a stock price. But we could not hold stock directly in that company. Which business bloggers out there right now has a similar rule or posts their portfolio?

    The ethical dilemmas go on and on if you really want to get sensitive about it and you’ll drive yourself mad trying to sort it out. But as little Yoda would probably have said – sort it you must.

    So here Yoda sort this one out.
    Shawn Randolph, aka @ShawnaCTV, aka http://www.randolphcommunications.com/ .

    If you have a clear answer that you can live with by day and still sleep at night, you’re a better Yoda than me.

    • Mike,

      It would be useful if you imagined that other professions like legal, medical, accounting, journalism were entirely wiith no regulation but market forces.

      Leaving philosophy and politics aside, how would you go about trying to ensure that plaintiffs, patients, shareholders and readers would not be taken for a ride, exploited and basically robbed?

      Try and sort this one out…thank you for reacting and thank you for not invoking the First Amendment, like most of my colleagues do when the issue is raised.

      • That’s because Mike Spear is Canadian, not American, Toni….

        Although we do have our (beloved) Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including Section Two on “fundamental freedoms.” Per Wikipedia (first in search, which is why I am citing):

        “The fundamental freedoms are freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.”

      • Been there done that, too, Mike Spear! You can’t regulate, or legislate, integrity.

        I hopped the fence from journalism some 30 years ago. In Montréal I knew several “journalists,” who played both sides of the fence, in the dailies. Everyone knew. You’d think this would NOT be acceptable there, then, much less here in Toronto the good, now.

        Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  4. PR is changing a lot these days and it is breaking up into smaller, more focused roles and specialties. There seems to be a subtext in this article that PR is unethical and that a journalist working in PR is tainted in a big way. I’ve helped PR firms and corporation launch publications and I’ve taught them the best principles of journalism and ethics and accuracy while doing that.

    Ethics is ethics no matter the profession.

    And yes, all conflicts of interest should be disclosed and your example of the Canadian TV news anchor is cut and dried, there’s no ambiguity in calling it corrupt. There are other examples where the lines are not so clearly drawn and that’s what deserves examination in the emergent forms of new media.

    • It is definitely a subject that needs discussion across many of the related disciplines and distribution channels.

      I’ll set up a floating pirate media / PR / Comms business if we get regulated!

    • Thank you for the comments Tom (plus Mike & Deb, above and below). Please know that of course I do not believe PR is unethical, and don’t understand how you can read that from the article. Nor do I believe that there is anything wrong with a journalist working in PR provided that there is transparency about their consulting. Without that transparency, the journalist’s credibility will be in question whenever he/she has to cover a story featuring one of their current or former clients. You are correct that the boundaries lines are not clearly drawn – which is one of my key observations. Thanks again.

      Regards
      Dan

  5. Tisch lays out remarkably sound and insightful advice here. I hope that this standard is one that all PR pros would follow; and yes, journalists should know better, as well. I like your use of “porous” to describe the convergence in the field around digital content and the confusing gray areas in between the many forms of media we face. We have to encourage insights such as those in this article – as well as self-reflection and assessment of our core principles as a profession.

    I’m going to take the “radical” Kantian perspective here and say that no amount of policing, codes, or regulations will stop those who simply want to exploit a situation. Ethics has to stem from core values and good intention.

    Thanks for this work. I am going to have my PR Ethics class read your article tomorrow!

    • Thank you, Shannon. Kant would agree that ‘pure reason’ alone won’t resolve our profession’s dilemmas! I’m honoured to have produced something worthy of classroom debate, and look forward to your students’ comments.

      With best wishes,
      Dan

  6. I wish to clarify, to ensure not being seen as Panglossian, that I am sure that no regulation of (any) profession will make the many and increasing public relators who lie, cheat., steal and harm others or society behave any better.

    And that, in the many countries where some sort of regulation of the profession as such has been enacted (from Brazil to Nigeria, from Panama to Puerto Rico etc…), the situation has since time improved in any significant way.

    By the way, if you read this post from 2007 you can read about the German experience.

    The current chair of the inter-associative body mentioned in the post is the highly respected author and scholar, Gunter Bentele, and the last time I saw him some months ago he confirmed that my interpretation is still valid.

    Also I am fully aware that, even related to this 2007 description of the German case, our working environment has greatly changed and that the blurring, encroachment and dissolution of barriers between all traditional professions has exploded.

    The issue however is: so what?

    If you agree that consumers and voters should be ensured (by someone: hard law, soft law. self law…) that their ideas, opinions and behaviours be not continuosly manipulated by the ever-increasing avalanche of digital/real organizational and individual ‘selfs’ through a wild use of this always-on global connectivity, then it is not so much ethics but simple responsibility (see second part of 2012 Melbourne mandate) that should induce those of us who have some concern to stop just saying regulation is harmful and impossible and stop.

    The Canadian case commented on by Dan Tisch is one very tiny tip of the iceberg and, but I say this only at the end, is it too much to say that much of our fantastic professional reputation as a profession comes from our proven inability to cope with this issue?

  7. Good point Dan. A declaration of a conflict of interest does not necessarily make the conflict go away. Boundaries must still be observed. Paying lip service isn’t enough.

  8. With a background in print journalism, I have always doutbted the ethical depth of so-called TV news anchors or stars. During my time in journalism we just called them news readers. Someone else wrote the news, they just read it.

    Somewhere along the line in the US, and riding on the credibilty of the really good ones like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Barbara Walters, to name but a few, these mortal news readers became superstars.

    Unfortunately, a majority of these folks around the world, had neither the intellectual depth nor ethical standards to judge conflict of interest issues.

    Their only claim to fame was their voice (diction) and TV-looks (also called screen presence). It is therefore no wonder that confronted with the possibility of making money despite a clear conflict of interest, the hack without an ethical spine dashes for the cash.

        • Perhaps we need to be careful not to cast stones when examples of PR institutions/firms/independents behaving badly can also be found?

          As Dan suggests in this article, the main lesson in recent events is that individual/organizational reputations are in serious peril when communications practice is not grounded in ethics.

        • It hasn’t exactly taken 78 years. When I was there (up to 2005) you could not accept paid speaking gig that encroached on any aspect of your work at the corp. it wasn’t covered in such specific wording as now but it fell clearly under outside activity and it came down to enforcement by Executive Producers or Program Managers. ( I was both at one time or another)

          • Thanks for the clarification, Mike. I just calculatetd from the founding of CBC in 1936. From the link to the story that Judy shared it seemed that CBC had just come up with the restrictions after the scandal. Now, there should be excuse for the violators of the code of conduct. And by extension they deserved what they got.

          • Don, this paragraph (above) does point to some links (one to the CBC site, the other to a politics website), demonstrating that it is not so much that the policy is new, but it has now been refined (and made more explicit):

            “After some high-profile Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) personalities accepted lucrative speaking engagements from corporations, their employer developed a policy circumscribing this type of activity. While this was wise, it’s only a first step.”

            Addendum: Much (although not all) of the pressure for the CBC to change the policy came from Jesse Brown and his Canadaland podcast/website: http://canadalandshow.com/

  9. On another note, I’ve been pointing some people who propose “regulation” of public relations practitioners to my December 2007 post (here), “Industry, trade or profession…” In particular this passage:

    Chitra Reddin’s Four Pillars of Professionalism:

    1. [Acceptance in an association dependent upon] the mastery of a recognized body of knowledge, (i.e., research, best practices and training/education).

    2. A focus on the public interest (e.g., similar to law, accounting, medicine or education). In our “profession” I would see it as a principled balance of organizational and public interests, as in corporate social responsibility. (A very critical current and future focus.)

    3. A globally harmonized and enforceable code of conduct and ethics.

    4. Global standards-setting body and regulator. I’m not sure a license to practise is absolutely necessary—trying to work it through a gazillion global government jurisdictions would be a bureaucratic nightmare and take several centuries to achieve—but perhaps a meaningful professional designation, granted by the standard-setting body and its partner associations, might be useful, practical and achieveable.

  10. Further to Toni’s comment far, far above this: “It would be useful if you imagined that other professions like legal, medical, accounting, journalism were entirely with no regulation but market forces.”

    Even with regulation, the law business is still confused. In Ontario we have a classification called a paralegal. These people have two years education, and are regulated by the same organization that regulates real lawyers. Paralegals can handle some matters, but not others — no family law, but yes to speeding tickets and small claims court, for instance.

    And some lawyers can work in all or several or many provinces, and others only in one province, depending on the kind of law and the provincial regulator.

    Engineers fit into at least four categories: at the top are university graduates who have taken post graduate courses and passed a society’s tests, and they are Professional Engineers, and wear iron rings. They can sign drawings. Then there are engineers, who graduated from the same university courses, but did not get accredited. Then there are engineering technologists, who went to a different kind of school. And finally, engineering technicians, who went to the lowest level schools.

    Accountants? Judy’s an expert here. Not withstanding that any book keeper could called him or herself an accountant, we had three serious organizations. Chartered Accountants, Certified Management Accountants, and Certified General Accountant. These totalled 40 organizations in Canada. They are now is the process of getting unified and sharing regulation, under the Chartered Professional Accountant designation, but they are supposed to still use their old designation, too.

    So in the PR business, I wonder if Canada would follow the provincial designation model, or national? What about the USA? State by state, or just one? And does financial PR require different qualifications from entertainment publicity.

    Having looked at the legal, engineering and accounting designation / regulation worlds, I certainly would vote for leaving PR like it is.

    • Brian, I do not think we wil ever vote on this issue, but of your remarks are relevant and similar situations as those you describe in canada exist in most countries. This however does not and should not refrain us from aspiring and operating for a solution the safeguards the integrity of how professionals who are paid to orient and modify the public discourse, the opinions and behaviours of individuals in every aspect of their day to day life, should be exempted by regulators from any compliance as such. Of course I am also fully aware that our activites are flooded by regulations in the context of many economic, social and political segnents of society. Back in 2002 the global alliance published a report investigating laws and regulations indirectly related to pr activities in the uk, italy and south africa and, 12 years ago, there were about 200 of these.

  11. Years ago, when I was President of CPRS Quebec there was much discussion (initiated by the Quebec government), about establishing PR as a “profession”, which in Quebec, would have meant government supervision or regulation.

    My position then–and unchanged today–is that a “profession” in the formal sense, means that there is some action or set of actions which can only be carried out by certified members of the group. For doctors it is prescribing, or doing surgery, for lawyers, it is certifying documents, appearing in court, etc. The key is that these restrictions are legislated for the protection of the public.

    What actions could or should be reserved only to certified “professional” public relations people? Advising institutional management about public values and expectations? Preparing public communications materials? That senior strategic public relations practice is a subset of strategic institutional management quickly becomes evident–as does the impractability of the proposal to formalize “professional” status.

    “Professionalism” in the practice, however, is an entirely different proposition, and a proper expectation.

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