A version of this article first appeared in PR Conversations, one of the public relations profession’s premier collaborative blogs.
When it comes to reputation, there is little distinction between a real conflict and a perceived one
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 PR firm. Even more unnerving was that the anchor — and, on occasion, other journalists affiliated with the 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:
- What was the problem: A journalist having equity in a PR firm, the lack of transparent disclosure… or both?
- Can journalists work in PR and still be journalists?
- How can journalists and PR firms avoid such conflicts in future?
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:
- Media organizations must review their own codes of professional standards and ethics, and the individual contracts of their journalists, to identify and mitigate risks.
- 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.
- 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.
About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.