Ethics in PR: Learning from Burson-Marsteller and Ketchum

 In 2011, Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to recreate Google’s reputation in the media. The firm, one of the largest public relations organizations in the world, “attempted to get USA Today, the Washington Post and other high profile US news outlets write scaremongering stories about Google’s privacy policies.”

           headlinesThe news was only brought to light after emails were leaked and Facebook and Burson-Marsteller were forced to admit that they had engaged in behavior considered unethical for PR organizations to conduct. The campaign was terminated and Burson-Marsteller’s reputation, as well as Facebook’s, was irrevocably tarnished.

Paul Cordasco, a spokesman for Burson-Marsteller, did not condone the behavior and said the work should have been declined by the firm: “Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of those principles.”

emailThe firm announced that the pair involved in the scandal were new to the company and had just transferred to the firm from journalism jobs. They had never been trained in public relations or ethics. The firm announced they would receive ethics training, and the company’s code of ethics would be redistributed to its employees.

Why is PR a dog-smear-dog world?

The infamous incident begs the questions, however: How can the public relations industry prevent these incidents from occurring in the future?

At the PRSA’s ethics month roundtable in September of 2011, Pat McLaughlin, APR said, “This cautionary tale is an effective lesson about why knowledge of the PRSA member code of ethics is essential. It not only gives PR practitioners solid footing to provide valuable counsel, it can also save the client from an embarrassing and potentially costly hit on their reputation.

Each organization should have its own code of ethics that employees can refer to, but the PRSA’s guidelines are always available online for all PR professionals to consult when questions arise.

Dave Senay, president of Fleishman Hillard, suggested at the 2013 Grunig Lecture at the University of Maryland that although we can’t create rules for each potential situation, we can create universal principles to apply. Fleishman Hillard has created its own PR campaign to support ethics in the industry, and has named the initiative “Ethics as Culture.” The program suggests that if none exists, appoint an ethics manager at your firm to oversee all processes and ensure campaign execution adheres to ethical principles. Each firm should follow the PRSA code, but should also implement its own code of ethics and conduct training for the company’s employees. Most importantly, the program emphasizes that if the strategy or tactic is questionably ethical, it should probably be eliminated. In the PR industry, the motto “better safe than sorry” is always a useful mantra to remember when professionals plan campaign strategies.

Similarly, Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, emphasized at the PRSA annual ethics roundtable in 2011 that ethics should be promoted to the forefront of PR discussions, and new initiatives and events should portray the importance of ethical PR behavior:

“Join with industry leaders like PRSA to create special initiatives on ethical practice, ensuring the public knows that the agency takes this seriously and wants to help others avoid the same mistake.”

Ketchum’s PR fiasco

Perhaps if these strategies had been implemented at Ketchum, the firm would not have found itself scrambling to recover from an ethics breach in 2005.

After a high profile scandal, the public discovered that Ketchum, a global PR firm, paid Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator and columnist, $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on behalf of the Education Department.

williamsThe campaign required Williams to “regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots during the show in 2004.

When the news broke, PRSA spokeswoman Judith Phair announced that the tactic was a violation of the PRSA’s code of ethics because it presented paid media as objective news coverage, violating the principle that “public relations professionals engage in open, honest communications and fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities.”

Aside from being unethical, the contract may have been illegal, said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Congress prohibits propaganda and lobbying efforts funded by the government, and the Bush Administration violated that policy by promoting its agenda through independent “news coverage.”

Implementing ethics-prevention strategies doesn’t have to be difficult

Two primary issues emerge in light of the Burson-Marsteller and Ketchum scandals: conducting ethics training and informing PR practitioners of ethics guidelines is of utmost importance, and referring to ethics codes can clarify questions and prevent future unethical behavior.

When evaluating public relations ethics, it may appear superficially that ethics guidelines are not followed and PR professionals blatantly disregard their integrity at work. Certainly the term “spin doctors” does not help the public’s perception of PR practitioners, who generally do their best to communicate openly and honestly and to adhere to ethics guidelines. Because the field is so broad and each campaign is so nuanced, it is impossible to set forth clear ethics guidelines detailing instructions for each type of campaign. However, it is possible, as Dave Senay suggested at the Grunig Lecture, to reinforce principles that can be universally applied to PR situations. Those principles currently exist in the PRSA’s code of ethics, and they should exist in each PR firm’s ethics code. If the firm does not have a tailored ethics code, it should defer to the PRSA’s or create its own.

Secondly, each public relations firm should enact an ethics program to inform, educate and engage its employees. Ethics breaches are rampant today, and the damage they cause is not worth the media’s destruction of the firm and its client. Fleishman Hillard provides templates online for organizations to fill in their ethics codes and to present content for ethics training to their employees. Ethics guidelines are available online for distribution, and Fleishman Hillard always has two representatives available to discuss ethics strategies and answer questions.

Finally, as Senay said, PR practitioners should always ask themselves if their behavior is ethical. If the behavior seems questionable, it should be carefully reevaluated, and likely not implemented. If actions are questionably ethical, it is always better to avoid them than to implement them and potentially cause irrevocable damage to one’s organization and client.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

If Burson-Marsteller had deferred to its own or the PRSA’s ethics codes when Facebook came to them, the whole mess could have been avoided. Additionally, because the executives in question had just come from journalism careers, they were likely uninformed about ethics principles. Some basic training from their employer could have gone a long way in preventing a disaster that was obtained national coverage.

Similarly, at Ketchum, executives could have referred to the PRSA’s ethics code and seen that professionals must “fully disclose sponsors or financial interests involved in any paid communications activities,” and the crisis could have been averted and never seen the light of day. However, when employees are unaware that ethics breaches may exist, it is impossible to avert behavior before it arises. Therefore, the following steps are essential to preventing ethics dilemmas:

  • Informing and training employees about past ethical breaches and teaching basic ethical guidelines is of utmost importance in the PR industry. Providing resources for questions and showing PR practitioners where to access help when needed can show employees that the organization is serious about its ethical behavior.
  • Secondly, teaching employees that they should defer to the organization’s or the PRSA’s code of ethics will help them navigate the playing field if they foresee a potential dilemma.

Most of the time, crises can be averted. Public relations professionals should be fire preventers, not firefighters, and implementing ethics training and teaching employees to refer to ethics codes will help prevent crises before they arise. More training may have the potential to eliminate ethics crises, and it is worth time and expense of preparation to help employees understand ethics dilemmas and how to confront them. We only have to look to past PR ethics breaches to see they have become commonplace, and we must watch and learn to ensure that our own organizations and clients do not fall prey to the same behavior and potential destruction.



Elliott, Stuart. “A Paid Endorsement Ignites a Debate in the Public Relations Industry.” The New York Times. N.p., 12 Jan. 2005. Web.

Halliday, Josh. “Facebook Paid PR Firm to Smear Google.” The Guardian. N.p., 12 May 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

Senay, Dave. “Ethics as Culture.” Grunig Lecture. 30 Oct. 2013.

Staff. “Issues in Ethics: Rescuing Reputations at Risk.” PRSA. N.p., 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

Toppo, Greg. “ – Education Dept. Paid Commentator to Promote Law.” – Education Dept. Paid Commentator to Promote Law. USA Today, 07 Jan. 2005. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.