I was reminded recently that there’s a reason that PR people (and I count myself as one) are sometimes lumped with manipulators of the truth. That’s because a few misguided players can confuse the role of PR.A few recent cases in point: Food and mom bloggers recently got the wool pulled over their eyes by ConAgra and its PR agency, Ketchum, when they were invited to sample “one-of-a-kind Italian fare” by a famous chef, only to be unwittingly served up ConAgra’s frozen food. And another PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, this one hired by Facebook, in May pitched anti-Google stories to the media without identifying that its client was Facebook–even after directly confronted by a blogger.The Facebook example was the more egregious. It smacked of political dirty tricks and reminds me of an unidentified third party secretly hired by a political party to spread rumors about the other party’s candidate. At least in ConAgra’s case, the company came clean at the end of the meal. That, however, doesn’t justify the initial duplicity.Both stunts set off a firestorm in the blogosphere and in some mainstream media, but what has been lost sight of in the commentary on ConAgra in particular is that the company’s PR problem goes beyond bloggers to impact the very role of PR.Those grousing about ConAgra, for example, suggested that ConAgra and Ketchum didn’t understand that bloggers needed to be treated differently than other media. I beg to disagree. Call it all in good fun, but in the end, I don’t believe it’s OK to bamboozle any media person–traditional or blogger–into doing something they might otherwise not do in the expectation they will tout your product. It’s downright manipulative and implies that somehow writers require trickery to be unbiased. PR used correctly, is rooted in transparency, not duplicity. PRSA, the largest US public relations professional organization, has a code of ethics for PR professionals that speaks to the heart of it:• Be honest and accurate in all communications.• Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.• Act in the best interest of clients or employers.• Disclose financial interests in a client’s organization.• Safeguard the confidences and privacy rights of clients and employees.• Follow ethical hiring practices to respect free and open competition.• Avoid conflicts between personal and professional interests.• Decline representation of clients requiring actions contrary to the Code.• Accurately define what public relations activities can accomplish.• Report all ethical violations to the appropriate authority.As a sideline to this story, PRSA Ethics Board Member Deborah A. Silverman cut Ketchum some slack in her comments on the incident as quoted in a New York Times article about the stunt, saying that the “social media realm (incluidng bloggers) is new territory for public relations practioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.” For another take on this, see Jack O’Dwyer’s recent post on Ketchum and its relationship to PRSA.Personally, I feel sorry for any PR pros where social media is new territory. My agency has been handling social media for our clients for the last two years and I know we’re not the exception. Certainly, any PR firm worth its salt should be more than newbies to social media. What do you think?Author Wendy Marx is a B2B PR and marketing specialist for Marx Communciations[Image: Flickr user MyTangerineDreams]
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