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White lies are black in PR ethics

White lies are unethical
White lies are unethical

Navigating through the grey area of what is right and wrong can be difficult for PR practitioners.  The CIPR’s Ethics Month activities reminded me of the challenges we face in trying to be honest and show integrity whilst at the same time maintaining confidentiality. There are lots of occasions when a white lie might seem to be the best option but that would mean breaking the CIPR’s code of conduct. So, when considering PR ethics, what is the right thing to do?
Here are some of the challenges I often face when working in media relations with thoughts on how best to act.

Telling a white lie to a client

Lies are lies whether they are used to hide our own failures or pander to a client’s ego.   A common example might be where a news release has failed to get any good pick up because the media think that it is too weak.   I’m sure that I’ve told clients that their news story had to be dropped because a  journalist didn’t have enough space to run it if the real reason was because the journalist thought it was rubbish.  But ethically this is wrong and it goes against the CIPR’s code of conduct. I’ve learnt that it’s much better to be honest from the outset by not being bullied into guaranteeing editorial.  If a story is weak, then I don’t want to waste everyone’s effort writing a press release.  I’ll try to find another way to engage people in the brand, organisation or product – using a powerful graphic, a picture or video; creating a simple A or B question/poll for Facebook or getting some good case studies instead.

Telling a white lie to a journalist

What should you do if a journalist is trying to find out if rumours of job losses, contract losses or other crisis issues are true? Do you tell the truth and admit that the rumour is true?  Or do you blatantly refute the rumour, undermine the journalist’s sources or do a deal with the journalist where you give them a positive exclusive in return for them burying the story?   The CIPR has such an example on its PR ethics e-lesson test and the advice is to be truthful yet not provide information that the journalist has not asked for, especially if the speculation is based on rumour.   A good course of action is to be transparent why you cannot share any information and to be open about why this is.  And it is beneficial refresh your media training so that you can spot tricky questions and can handle them appropriately.

How elaborate can a freebie be? 

Gifts can be seen as bribery and this goes against the CIPR code as well as National Union of Journalists (NUJ) code of practice.  The NUJ says that  “Hospitality offered or accepted should not exceed normal courtesy and any offers of gifts should be reported to your manager.”   An example of this might be if I am publicising Cinnamon Bun Week celebrations for my client Nordic Bakery.  A normal courtesy might involve me sending a box of beautifully wrapped cinnamon buns to food journalists.   But enticing journalists with the offer of a free all-expenses-paid weekend trip to Helsinki to experience cinnamon buns is a bit over the top.   The CIPR advises that free samples offered to journalists should be done so fairly and expectations made clear from the start.

Giving a journalist an off the record comment

Sometimes it might be necessary to provide off the record information or comments to provide the journalist with useful background.  But again, I’m always cautious and will only do so if I know their editor’s policy on attributing quotes and if I have established a trusting relationship with that journalist over time. The CIPR state that the expectations of both parties (PR and journalist) need to be clear from the outset by establishing how the comments will be used.

Do what it takes to win a PR contract

In the past I’ve been faced with PR tender briefs stating that the response must guarantee editorial coverage in high profile news media.    The reality is that no PR person can guarantee positive editorial coverage and to sign a contract based on this is misleading the client, nor should you accept the challenge in the hope that you can later try to educate them.  A better option is to try to educate them on what PR can achieve and pitch alternative solutions that are based on realistic targets and outcomes and only sign a contract that is based on these.

Secretly paying a blogger to endorse

Influential bloggers are fast realising their monetary value when it comes to endorsing brands and products.  But if payment has taken place then it has to be treated as an advert and you have to make that transparent. The recent guidance from ASA in 2018 helps PR’s understand the new CAP legislation especially when it comes to working with influencers such as bloggers and other affiliates.

I cover this topic in my course on Working with Journalists and Bloggers.

If you’d like to find out more about my PR training then do please get in touch.

Picture courtesy of Free Digital Photos – credit to Stuart Miles

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