A longtime friend from my college days, Barry Zusman, graduated Clarkson College (now University) a year ahead of me. We stayed in touch as he was continuing for his MBA in Public Relations at Pace University. While finishing my senior year at Clarkson, Barry and I talked and he told me what he was learning about PR. It sounded interesting so I followed his footsteps, went to Pace and earned my MBA in Public Relations.
Like me, Barry spent many years working at PR agencies in New York. Unlike me, though, Barry began teaching a PR course several years ago at LIM College here, where he's now beginning another semester.
He's been recognized by O'Dwyer's PR News columnist Fraser Seitel as one of several distinguished PR professors around the country.
Barry sent me a recent column by Seitel and it has some good pointers worth sharing with any young people considering or now studying public relations. I think these same pointers could be useful for many people already in the PR field, especially these days as we are hearing and seeing so-called "spin doctors" working for presidential candidates sometimes stretching the truth or outright lying to the media and the public.
The article cites one of Barry's fellow PR professors, Jeff Morosoff at Hofstra. Each year, Prof. Morosoff assigns students to seek out PR professionals to answer relevant questions on ethics. Here’s how one practitioner answered this year’s batch of PR ethics questions.
Why is it important to always tell the truth in PR?
All one has in public relations is his or her reputation -- credibility. Once you lie and you’re found out — and you will be found out — you lose that. And no one with whom you do business — reporter, client, potential employer, etc. — will look at you the same way after you’re caught in a lie. Truth, therefore, is paramount in public relations.
Why do some communications practitioners spin the truth instead of coming clean with the actual information?
They’re probably reluctant to reveal unpleasant or bad news about a client or the client doesn’t want them saying anything troubling. But it’s eminently preferable to say nothing than to lie. Again, once caught, no one will ever trust you or the client.
What values are the most important to do the public relations job?
A bias toward disclosing rather than withholding information.
An advocacy or belief in your employer.
A compelling desire to advise/counsel senior managers in proper action and communications.
An absolute commitment that the counsel you deliver is always ethical.
A willingness to take risks, to stick your neck out.
An always logical, but also positive, predilection.
How much of a role does PR ethics play in daily work?
Ethics, or stated another way, “doing the right thing,” must be the anchor of every decision you make in public relations.
Why are PR practitioners referred to as “spin doctors?”
They are referred to as “spin doctors” because they appear to have a mentality — or do have a mentality — of doing whatever the client tells them to do; whether right or wrong, fair or unfair, honest or dishonest. That’s a recipe not only for professional disaster but also for an unhappy practitioner.
Why does the good work of PR people often go unnoticed?
Public relations work is not as noticed because the work of PR professionals should be anonymous. If you write the CEO’s speech, and it’s a winner, it’s the CEO, correctly, who should get the credit, not you. Public relations people generally toil in anonymity. But as long as the client appreciates — and pays for — your contribution, that’s what counts.
These ethics for PR people, based around truthfulness, should really be key ethics for anyone in business, not just the PR folks. But we in PR should be the ones who try to keep the rest of the business world honest. It's a tough and often thankless task, but a good PR person will keep trying.