What defines the ethical organization?

October 26, 2008

I’ve been studying public relations ethics for more than 20 years and leading seminars on the topic for 15.

My favorite seminar exercise asks participants to identify organizations they consider “ethical” and those they consider — well — less than ethical. I won’t be naming the bad guys in this post, but I’ll describe the exercise and some of the conclusions I’ve drawn since 1993.

I call this exercise the “Ethical Organization.” Participants break into teams of 5-6 and spend 20 minutes identifying organizations the consider “ethical” and those they consider “unethical.” Teams establish their own criteria for labeling the organizations. We don’t define ethics in advance.

Each group nominates an organization in each category, “ethical” and “unethical,” and they list reasons to support their nominations. A spokesperson from each group then presents its nominees. As moderator, I post the names and the reasons on the whiteboard.

Over the years, the Ethical Organization exercise has produced a list of “usual suspects” on both sides of the discussion. Read the rest of this entry »


Reputation grows from behavior, not PR campaigns

October 22, 2008

Surprise Update 10/27/08: Stevens Found Guilty (Duh!)


What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While reading this AP account of the Ted Stevens trial, I was reminded again that actions speak louder than words. The 84-year-old Stevens, longtime U.S. Senator from Alaska, is accused of accepting gifts from those who reaped the government contracts he engineered. Stevens said they weren’t gifts at all, and that the prosecutor has it all wrong.

From the AP:

But prosecutors say he had a history of accepting gifts — including an expensive massage chair in his Washington, D.C., home — and omitting them from financial disclosure forms. Stevens has insisted repeatedly that the chair was a loan from a friend, although it has been in his house for seven years.

”How is that not a gift?” Prosecutor Brenda Morris asked.

”He bought that chair as a gift, but I refused it as a gift,” Stevens said. ”He put it there and said it was my chair. I told him I would not accept it as a gift. We have lots of things in our house that don’t belong to us.”

Yikes! Is it possible that an elected official can be this arrogant? OK, dumb question. But really, has Stevens maybe been growing and consuming some of that wacky weed allowable under Alaskan law? Read the rest of this entry »

Symmetrical PR meets the ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’

September 25, 2008

Every serious student of social media must read the Cluetrain Manifesto. If you haven’t, it’s available free online. Many consider Cluetrain the seminal work about social media as they relate to business.

For a good many 30something PR and marketing bloggers, Cluetrain was the great “aha!” It described a new open system of communication that shifts the locus of commerce from persuasion and selling to relationships and conversations.

True believers in social media have worshiped at the Cluetrain altar for almost a decade now. Most books on SM marketing and PR that followed  took their direction from Cluetrain authors Weinberger, Searles, Locke and Levine. The book has stood the test of time, whether or not you agree with its premise.

Have social media altered the communication landscape? Of course. But while Cluetrain broke new ground in describing business-consumer relationships in a digital world, it wasn’t all that “new” — at least not for the more serious students of public relations. (I won’t speak for the marketing types, as PR and marketing are distinct disciplines.)

If you’ve kicked around the PR world as long as I have — as practitioner and educator — the central concepts of the Cluetrian Manifesto don’t surprise you. Fact is, PR began focusing on a “two-way symmetrical model” (2WS) more than 50 years ago — long before scholars Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt defined 2WS in 1983, and way, way before the Cluetrain arrived. Read the rest of this entry »

The ‘4 Models’ of public relations practice: How far have you evolved?

August 10, 2008

While preparing to teach my first PR class back in ’85, I happened upon “Managing Public Relations,” by Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt. Though I lost track of my copy long ago (never loan textbooks to students — never), one element of that book influenced how I taught and practiced PR for the past 23 years.

Grunig & Hunt’s “4 Models” of public relations practice went on to became the most talked-about theory in the discipline. The “4 Models” describe distinct approaches to public relations in the context of a 130-year timeline that shows how public relations has evolved. In the process, Grunig & Hunt identify an “ideal” approach to public relations — something they call the 2-way symmetrical model — and place it at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.

For me, the 4 Models became more than a teaching tool. When Grunig & Hunt published their theory, I was a full-time PR practitioner working for marketers who saw PR as promotion and publicity, period, and with no ethics component. The 4 Models helped me see the potential of public relations and, in part, inspired me to open my own shop so I could get beyond marketing and do some serious PR.

Here’s a summary of the models. If you’re like most of us, you’ve spent a little time in each of them. Read the rest of this entry »

A sort-of-unified definition of public relations — without a single mention of ‘marketing’

July 20, 2008

When I took my first PR class in ’74 — one of only two offered at my alma mater then — I didn’t know a damn thing about the field. By the end of Week #1, I’d had memorized Cutlip & Center’s definition — one that’s as relevant today as it was then. More on that later.

Search the literature and you find about 500 definitions for the term “public relations,” which may explain why this field is so misunderstood. Ironic, isn’t it? The very people charged with shaping the organization’s reputation can’t project a unified picture of themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

The ethics of persuasion: What public relations can learn from two old sociologists and a PR prophet

June 26, 2008

During a long bike ride yesterday, I got to thinking about the late Pat Jackson. I invoke Pat’s name a lot on this site, since he is the “prophet” most responsible for my world-view in public relations. If you don’t know of Pat’s contributions, read about them here.

Pat understood that to gain the respect of top management, public relations must move behavior. CEOs care about action, not awareness. PR’s mission, said Pat, was to change the human outcomes. Behavior is the ultimate measure of our success — and in the end, it’s the only one that matters. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding wisdom in your blog vacation? Me neither!

May 3, 2008

The blog vacation has a week to go, and I have a stack of projects to grade — like right now. But the vacation also has allowed me a bit more time to read the news and ponder the nonsense around me.

Today, I found two items you absolutely must see if truth and intelligence in government mean a thing to you (oxymoron intended).

In yesterday’s New York Times, Tom Friedman comments on the proposal by two of our three candidates to suspend the federal gasoline tax for the summer driving season. Under the headline, “Dumb as We Wanna Be,” Friedman calls out McCain and Clinton for their shameless pandering to Americans suffering from gasoline sticker shock. Yesterday I experienced my first $50 fill-up with the old Subaru. I’m not happy about it, but I’m not stupid as a result. Read the rest of this entry »