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Top Public Relations Professionals Should Face Charges in Corporate Misconduct Cases

Posted Sep 15 2009 2:41am
Public relations professionals are paid to build and protect reputation ... so in cases where reputation collapses and there is evidence of management misbehaviour, should the police or public prosecutors be investigating what the PR boss said and did? I certainly think they should. Public relations professionals should have nothing to fear through being accountable. Only those less competent should be worried. If we faced legal investigation when a disaster strikes the organisations we advise, maybe those weak and ineffective people in public relations would take their responsibilities more seriously? We all know who they are, for any journalist will tell you who shrinks back into the woodwork when trouble strikes.

And if one or two of our timid, lightweight or downright useless brethren found themselves facing a spell in jail, it might be the single most important motivator for us to improve our standards. It would also show what we should be doing - checking, monitoring and advising on what the organisation DOES, not just what it says. A jail sentence for a top PR adviser would also remind business mangers that we are (or should be) responsible and vital to corporate credibility.

Where were the public relations people and what were they saying or doing in major corporate scandals? Remember when Ford fought Firestone over the Explorer accidents, or when Nike was charged with using illegal child labour, when Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing and others folded amidst accusations of gross corporate misconduct, theft and fraud?

Incidentally, why do our professional bodies not seem keen to take any action in such cases? Could it be that our business is considered to be so unprofessional that an estimated 86% of practitioners are not members of any professional body? Should a commentator like myself risk corporate action for raising a few simple and obvious questions? For the truth is that corporate standards across too many organisations are not high enough ... and, shockingly, the rate paid to the PR chief is no indicator of the standards applied.

Consider a more recent example. Global pharmacy company, GlaxoSmithKline, stands accused of 'economy with the truth' that they alone knew, in a current high profile case in Europe. Their bizarre 'leaves on the line' delays in accepting their responsibility, yet again raise questions over the role and the authority of public relations professionals; many claim 'director' or similar in their titles - and are supposed to be confidantes at board level - yet too often do not seem to know what is going on under their noses. Ignorance of malpractice is no defence for company directors and other senior executives. And, of course, neither is it for us in public relations. How can we take the money and not the responsibility? Take the money and you should carry the can if it goes wrong.

Legislation in the US, UK, Europe and other parts of the world will put a fiercer spotlight on the top person in the PR job. According to a BBC report in the UK, British government Ministers have promised to tighten laws requiring drug firms to disclose data from clinical trials. It comes after the drugs regulator announced GlaxoSmithKline would not face criminal proceedings over claims it withheld information on their drug Seroxat. But they warned GSK should have been quicker to raise the alarm on the risk of suicidal behaviour associated with the antidepressant in the under-18s.

One question not yet asked, let alone answered, must be what did GSK public relations professionals know about what was going on? The story suggest that trials had indicated the drug had potential dangers with young people but, many journalists claim, the company hid behind a defence, legal but rejected by the regulators, that the drug was not approved for prescription to young people.

A tough new UK law on coronate manslaughter becomes effective in April this year and will allow, for the first time, indivudal managers to be prosecuted for deaths that occur in their companies or through their company policies, products or activities.

The power of public relations is undoubted in projecting the messages it wants to put over, but what about when the news may be bad - or corporate activity may prove unacceptable if exposed?

Following recent criticisms of public relations integrity, UK newspaper Guardian columnist Peter Wilby took his own swipe at public relations by claiming that the craft ... "at best aspires to a partial truth and, at worse, to outright fabrication. PR far more than journalism shapes the news agenda…At least half the news in papers is generated not by journalist, but by PRs or spin doctors.”

But with this power comes responsibility.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Top organisations with major public relations resources that have managed to get themselves into areas of serious public misdemeanour read like a roll call of some of the greatest organisations in the world. In recent years alone, organisations that have been challenged for practices that could never match any ethical code - knowingly or not - have included the BBC, BP, British Airways, Coca-Cola, the European Union, Firestone, Ford, MacDonald's, Nike, Shell, Starbucks and Wal-Mart amongst many others.

The problems are not limited to in-house professionals. Some analysts have claimed that more than half the top public relations consultancies have been linked to public relations disasters, including fake lobby groups, fabricated evidence, misleading information and conspiracy to keep issues quiet.

Some years ago in my best seller, Manage your reputation, I wanted to use, as an example, a solid company name with a brand you could trust for its values of honesty, integrity, reliability, safety and performance. To illustrate that a brand makes promises that means it is much more than just a product, I commented that you would not expect Ford to make cars that could kill you. In the next edition, I had to remove those words following the human death toll, of around 100, through the problems with its Explorer vehicle. Questions still remain over who knew what and when -rather like the current GSK product that may have harmed innocent people.

Reputation depends on what the company does, not just says

According to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK, which has many but not all of the top UK advisers in membership, their members are the corporate custodians of reputation; few would argue with this theoretical definition of the job.

But to accept that role and to do the job, they must know what the company is doing. If they do not, then they are not really carrying out a public relations job - it might more accurately be called media relations, information, communications, publicity or even a propaganda function. It would certainly not be about 'relations' so cannot be public relations. If practitioners do know what the company is doing and it is pursuing shortcuts or even following outright dodgy practices, then they must be complicit in this deception of the publics with whom they are supposed to building both reputation and relations on behalf of their organisations.

Surely the public relations person, above all, should carry not just some responsibility but a primary responsibility? After all, their job is not to make sure the organisation says nor does anything that would harm its reputation or be any disadvantage to the publics it serves.

The top public relations professionals in every disaster should be challenged both by the media and, if relevant, by the law. Did these professionals know about the practices that were taking place? If not, why not? If they did, did they judge them to be unacceptable? If so what did they do about them? What advice did they offer management? How forcefully did they present this?

PR professionals cannot allow malpractice

The rule must be simple. If any organisation is following practices that would damage its reputation if these were discovered or disclosed, the public relations professionals must know about them if they are doing the job. Their only duty must be to stop these. If they do not know, they are incompetent. If they fail to take decisive action, they are ineffective.

Whilst some public relations people may have taken the silver shilling and others may simply be timid, good public relations people are an example to us all and have great influence internally and externally on policy, backed by impeccable integrity. Look at the public relations performance and recognition, for example, of Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, FedEx, GE, Johnson& Johnson, Marks & Spencer, Toyota, Virgin and Vodafone.

We need to condemn poor performance ... and not leave that just to journalists. And, equally, we must praise the outstanding. And if future legislation puts our work in the area of corporate responsibility into sharper focus, that must be good for our business. Even if it means a few of the poor performers suffer along the way.

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