Today, PR Pros work closely with sales, marketing, finance and HR teams to coordinate messaging. This means that they are sometimes privy to sensitive or private information. It also means they are equally responsible for the ethical use of this data.
Below are some examples of everyday unethical actions:
Sharing contact details
“Hey, can I have the contact details of your spokesperson?” This is a common ask by journalists. But it is the job of the PR Pro to ensure the spokesperson has consented use of that email address and mobile phone number for business use.
Why? Email addresses and mobile phones are considered personally identifiable information (PII) in many countries. Banks, healthcare companies and governments all use mobile phones for verification. So, we need to be extra vigilant when sharing such information in the event of doxing, fraud or stolen identity.
Sharing details can go both ways. In the case of Bayer, which acquired Monsanto, the company created a list of 200 journalists, politicians, business and NGO leaders. The French newspaper Le Monde triggered an investigation when it saw one of its reporters on the list. Bayer apologized. The PR company involved said it compiled data from another PR company. While the blame game goes on, the damage is done.
For PR Pros, they need to be very clear if they are sharing data to ensure they have proper consent. Anything less, and they are playing with fire.
Divulging competitive information
Unethical PR practices do not stop at sharing PII. “Can you let me know their current customers,” asks a journalist. “Sure, their main customers are Company A and Company B, but we have no permission to publish their names,” replies the PR Pro, who then gets into trouble.
The problem here is that you are sharing competitive information. A savvy rival can use this information to target Company A and B with a campaign that offers incentives to switch. Or conversely, the competition can use it to damage reputation. An investigative journalist may just name the companies (or indirectly point to them) to elicit a reply.
So, unless you are confident that this is public information, it’s best you don’t share.
Using dark social media
Everyone is guilty of this. A journalist asks over WhatsApp for some information that can be sensitive, PII-based or competitive as part of a scoop or cover story. The PR Pro shares.
Here’s the challenge: you cannot easily trace WhatsApp conversations unless you save the screen. If anything goes wrong or there is a legal challenge, the court will only hear that the PR Pro gave the information. In what context is more challenging to determine.
By all means, have the conversation. But when sharing critical information, avoid sending it over dark social media. Besides, nothing stops the journalist (or a second person using the phone) from forwarding this message for nefarious reasons.
Driving Dark PR
This is where ethical lines blur. You may have a PR campaign that specifically discredits someone or some brand using negative information.
Dark PR’s problem is that it is all too common, especially in competitive business landscapes and political circles. But that does not mean it is ethical.
As a PR Pro, you have the choice to participate. If you do, you can keep questionable ethical practices to a minimum. However, this requires transparency between you and the company/client that you are working with. They need to know when you are crossing ethical boundaries.
The reverse is also applicable. Your company/client can be a victim of Dark PR. In this case, you need a crisis management plan. Not for when the attack occurs, it should be in place way beforehand.
Leaving out context
Every PR Pro knows that providing the right lens matters when you are messaging. Laying out the facts is only half a story. You need to provide context, and not providing is unethical.
This is especially important if your company/client is dealing with a recall or defective products. Then you need to offer the why, along with the what and how. Many times, legal will insist on leaving out the context to reduce any liability. But it is PR’s job to make it clear in order to reinforce the trust.
In today’s social media world, having contextual gaps in your messaging can allow your competitors and naysayers to warp your original message out of context by filling in the blanks and potentially make the situation worse.
Don’t fudge PR metrics
It is strange that we still use advertising value efficiency (AVE) to measure PR, but yet we do. It could be customer familiarity or that it’s a well-understood metric. Often your PR budget is tied to AVE performance. And AVE figures often make PR Pros look good.
The problem with AVE is that it is tough to use for complex PR campaigns. It also does not say much about social media. How do you compare a high number of retweets of your message with a piece of New York Times coverage? This is just one reason why chief financial officers (CFOs) loathe AVEs.
Sadly, the alternatives are few. A PRWeek article proposes reach, opportunities to see (OTS) and frequency as some alternative measurements.
Whatever the measure, PR Pros need to know that they are indirectly talking to the CFOs. Having a more precise measurement that links to ROI is always the best bet. Using measures like AVE to hide a PR campaign’s true success can be unethical, especially for CFOs. And many are now taking over the marketing and PR budgets.
The above are just some areas where unethical PR exists. A lot of times, it comes down to personal integrity. Integrity is the actual currency of PR; don’t waste it on risky, unethical practices.