The Public Relations Society of America issued the following statement:

Over the last few months, there have been several news accounts of promotional tactics that signal a common thread of malpractice under the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics and PRSA Professional Standards Advisories (PSA). While each tactic varies in method and medium, PRSA states categorically that misrepresenting the nature of editorial content or intentionally failing to clearly reveal the source of message contents is unethical. 

Recent reports have included:

  • A public relations firm allegedly engaging its interns to write wholesale positive product reviews for online message boards.
  • A lobbying firm sending letters on other organizations’ letterhead.
  • Bloggers posting positive reviews of products and services while receiving products for free, as well as being paid by the sponsor for such positive reviews. (Proposed new Federal Trade Commission rules deem this practice to be false advertising.)
  • A marketing firm creating a program to match clients with tweeters for positive mentions.
  • Special interests setting up and/or funding organizations whose only constituent is the organizer or funder, and that take active positions purporting to represent larger constituencies in the current national health care reform debate.

While they vary in method and execution, each scenario shares a common thread of potential malpractice because they fail to conform to fundamental obligations of the professional communicator to protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information and foster informed decision making in a democratic society. 

 

Deceptive Online Practices
Under the PRSA Code of Ethics, the source of editorial material must be clearly identified. Any attempts to mislead or deceive an uninformed audience are considered malpractice. The PRSA code calls for truth and transparency and full disclosure of the causes and interests represented. The goal should be responsible advocacy on behalf of clients, sustaining credibility with all audiences, and strengthening the public’s trust in the information they receive and the profession that provides that information. Deceptive practices produce unethical advocacy. The code also specifically targets deceptive online practices by individuals or organizations using blogs, viral marketing and anonymous Internet posting in Professional Standards Advisory PS-8.

Front Groups
One frequently used vehicle that fosters misrepresentation and unethical advocacy is a third-party organization, known as a “front group,” established specifically to deceive or mislead an audience about the position presented and its source. In Professional Standards Advisory PS-7, the PRSA Code of Ethics spells out the unethical nature of engaging in or assisting such groups’ deceptive descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors, intentions or participants. The ethical communicator is obligated to reveal all information needed for informed decision making, thereby maintaining the public trust. Withholding or deceptively concealing sources or sponsors of information or their intentions or motivations fails to satisfy the principles of truth in advancing the interest of clients and of serving the public interest as responsible advocates.

Pay for Play
Providing payment to generate or influence editorial coverage, regardless of medium, is unethical and constitutes malpractice under the PRSA code because such exchanges of value are hidden from the reader, viewer or listener. The PRSA code clearly champions the values of honesty, fairness, transparency and objective counsel to clients. “Pay-for-Play” also runs counter to the code’s warning to avoid any conflict of interest that impedes the trust of clients, employers or the public. Under Professional Standards Advisory PS-9, professionals are told to disclose any exchange of value so the reader, viewer or listener has the opportunity to make up their own minds about the value, bias, accuracy and usefulness of information provided by others.