By unpopular opinion: Why Sam Biddle is wrong about Justine Sacco

Sam Biddle, formerly of Valleywag, broke the Internet this week.  His article on the unfortunate fate of Justine Sacco, who you no doubt remember from last year as the former head of corporate communications for IAC, was all over my Twitter feed, the junky infotainment sites I get my news from and was the talk of our office.

If you don’t remember, last December Justine Sacco tweeted a life altering tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She tweeted that right before her 17 hour flight to South Africa, and the tweet gained traction and spiraled out of control among the interwebs and led to the trending Twitter hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.

Sam Biddle wrote that he couldn’t understand how Sacco, as the global head of communications, could have tweeted such a crude and vile message. As a communications director, she no doubt understood the value of social media and its far reaching influence; you have to look no further than the Spaghetti Oh’s tweet, the Red Cross tweet or the Domino’s tweet.

Biddle writes that he met with Sacco before, and she told him that her tweet was actually intended to mock and mimic the things racist people would have said.

Uh huh.

They stayed in touch, but he never understood Sacco’s tweet and her mindset until he made a stupid mistake this past October that cost him his job:

And then, this past October, while sitting distracted and tired at my desk, riffing on the twisted online movement against “social justice warriors” in video games, I wrote a tweet of my own: “Ultimately #GamerGate is reaffirming what we’ve known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission.”

Impulsively, and sort of laughing to myself, I added another, saying that we should “Bring Back Bullying” to counter this rising tide of web militancy. It was insincere and over in an instant, to me at least.

But within a few hours, thanks in part to my similarly trigger-happy and trolly editor Max Read,I watched a whirlpool of spleen and choler swelling till it had sucked in most of my energy and attention, along with that of many of my coworkers. Hundreds of people tweeted or emailed me or my editors; blogs and minor internet personalities sprang into action to challenge me. Their demands started with my firing and escalated from there.

After #GamerGate, Biddle felt like he could relate to Sacco’s demise; his own careless tweet had landed him in the eye of the social media storm amongst demands for his job and career. He says he can now understand her plight, and recaps the following from their communications:

Justine Sacco has a PR job she enjoys now, but she deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be. Give it all to her. In the depths of the Gamergate blues, Sacco IMed me to ask how it was all going, and offered one piece of advice: “Just don’t engage.” Without any discussion, she knew the only divine truth of the internet: Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.

I want to make a few points here:

  • Why do people not learn their lesson for engaging online? Time and time again, people are fired from their jobs for making stupid and insensitive mistakes online, and media are not exempt.
    • Man, I love his account, because it’s freaking hilarious, but Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times tows the line every day. He’s aware, though, and has publicly noted that people get fired for their mistakes online. If NYT journalists, who uphold the cornerstone of democracy, are at risk for their social activity, then so are you if you have a pulse.
  • I’m not sure why Sacco deserves the “best and biggest PR job.” Sure, she may be talented, but what does her epic blunder have to do with her being deserving of the best career?
  • Last but not least, I can’t imagine a more stupid thing to do than not apologize when you’ve publicly offended an entire group of people. Don’t engage, don’t let it get to you — I agree. But not apologize? Stupidity.

And I think that’s where Sacco went wrong. She was ghostly silent while the Internet tore at her like a wild animal. She didn’t make a peep. She should have issued some statement, something to note that she realized she made a mistake; that she was sorry. It’s PR 101, and that was (is?) her forte. She’s now the stuff of textbooks, of online articles…of legend. But the reason she’s generated such a bad reputation and her name lives on in infamy is in large part because she let the world chime in and declare her fate. She’s had chances to redeem herself, as much as one can, but if you let everyone around you publicly put words in your mouth and in your intentions, it’s impossible to shape and publicly declare your own opinions and notions.

Defense can be a risky game, but she failed to even try, and she let the world weigh in. Weigh in it has.

You can follow me on Twitter at @abigailjaffe.


#IceBucketChallenge: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The #icebucketchallenge. That wonderful game I stumbled across on my Facebook feed where we dump ice water all over ourselves to evade charity and subsequently loosely associate ourselves with charitable human beings. It’s a weird kind of catch-22.

Amazing that, given a choice between donating $100 and being dumped with ice water, the people who choose the latter and upload the videos instead of donating consider themselves activists for the charity. Slacktivists, really. Or even clicktivists.

Credit: The Daily Mail

Credit: The Daily Mail

But before I get all cynical (I suppose it’s too late?) it looks like the campaign has raised nearly $30 million, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. They jumped out of nowhere, activated Twitter and a funny concept, took it to the next level and onboarded several million dollars to boot. Not bad for a few days’ work. Naturally, the fun won’t last, and this is the ALSA’s lucky 15 minutes of fame, just like its ancestors the Harlem Shake and KONY 2012 before it.

What I Like

I can’t tell you why the program went viral. There’s no science to predict campaign or Internet virality, despite significant research to nail down some indicators. I’m surprised the ALSA made it this far, but they had one thing going for them: celebrity endorsement. Now, I’m not always a fan of celebrity endorsement, but if you have famous people pulling stupid shtick all for a good cause, it’s bound to get some media attention. And where there is media attention, there is buzz and money. Hence the millions in donations.

What I Don’t Like

There is no connection in my mind between ice and ALS. Now, I’ve been trying to use my imagination, but either its powers are limited or the campaign simply assumes an improbable and random connection between two elements of a vastly disjointed universe.

Photo Credit: Forbes

Photo Credit: Forbes

The best campaigns are the ones that let the audience forge the connection in their brain without having to Google what the campaign is trying to achieve. That’s where ALSA failed a little bit. Case in point: we were sitting in a bar last week and my friend saw some celebrity dumping ice over someone else on TV, and she wondered out loud why she had seen a lot of that recently. I’d never heard of it.

Yeah, ALSA. #confusion…

Case in point #2: I’d seen a lot of random ice dumping videos in my Facebook feed. Being the impatient person I am, I didn’t feel like watching the videos until someone explicitly mentioned them to me, at which point the concept rose from the murky depths of my brain to somewhere just below my consciousness and I put 2 and 2 together and wondered what that ice water was all about, anyway.

You’ve gotta make it easy for people. And this sure as hell wasn’t easy.

ALSA wasn’t the first organization to activate this ice dumping concept, and only rumor knows where the idea originated, but it didn’t begin with ALSA. It wasn’t even coined by ALSA for its purposes – the movement began organically and swept the organization by storm. And that’s okay – you don’t have to be the first in a category; you have to own it first. Think Facebook vs. MySpace. And the examples are endless.

Now for the Shocker…

The tables will turn and my seemingly endless cynical diatribe will climax with a staggering announcement: I think ALSA did the best it could, where it was, with what it had. The program wasn’t the result of endless corporate brainstorming sessions, tweaked PR plans and agendas. From the coverage, it seems like they capitalized on an opportunity. A good opportunity. A really good one. And they did a phenomenal job with it.

Ironically, the organization is getting whole lot of coverage. Some of it neutral, a bit of it positive, but largely negative. Which is unfortunate for them, because, sure they have problems, but ultimately the intention is good. That doesn’t indicate the ends justify the means, but still, it’s not like they’re doing something really, immensely, terribly BAD.

If you work in PR, you better believe we know how to roll with the punches, newsjack and squeeze the juice out of every opportunity. While ALSA could have adjusted elements of its approach in hindsight, the campaign did one thing, and it did it really well: it elevated the organization and brought it to the forefront. Sure, they got got a decent bang for their buck, and that’s important. But all over my Facebook feed, and all over Google news, and all over the hybrid news sites, I’m seeing the ice bucket challenge. And I may not know what it is, but even my friends are talking about it. So I’m going to look it up, because I want to stay in the loop. And that’s pretty much exactly what happened.


As Mashable points out, the giving won’t last. Totally true. But better to light one candle than curse the darkness. Plus, the ALSA is now $30 million richer. Not bad for a week’s work. The question is whether they can hold on to the momentum – entirely unlikely – and what they can do differently than all the social marketing campaigns of the days of yore.


Review: Coca Cola’s marketing campaign

So there I was, walking into Duane Reade, when I saw the Coke bottles.

That’s how all good stories begin, right?

I wasn’t sure why there were names on them – and then I put 2 and 2 together. There were rows and rows of Coke bottles in the store, and each bottle had a different name on it.

photo (1)

The initiative is a marketing campaign to elevate Coke’s brand and position it as a global leader in happiness. Go to Twitter and search #ShareACoke.

The campaign is f—ing BRILLIANT. Because when I saw the names on those bottles, and then realized MY name could be on one, I started pawing through all the bottles trying to find my name. I couldn’t find it, but think about it. If people can find their own names on Coke bottles, that means the bottles were custom made for them.

With love,

from Coke.

And if something is custom made especially for you, and it’s sitting on a shelf in a grocery store, you don’t just leave it sitting there. You walk it up to the cash register and you buy it. Because it was made for you. And maybe you even continue returning to your local grocery store to buy those drinks that were made especially for you. It makes you feel loved; like a huge conglomerate brand is looking out for you. Yes, you.

Sharing is caring

Plus, Coke wants you to share. We learned how to do that in kindergarten, right? And because Coke shares itself with everyone, including underprivileged folks in far flung countries, they’re doing a good thing. And we like to support good things. This campaign perfectly aligns itself with Coke’s mission to spread happiness everywhere. (Watch this video on the happiness machine.) Each personalized bottle instructs me to share. I’m not supposed to buy the bottle for myself; I’m ideally supposed to buy it for a friend. Not only am I doing a nice thing by buying my friend a personalized Coke, but I’m helping the world by doing good things and spreading the love. This is beyond Coke. It’s about me. It’s about my friends. It’s about the world.

Not only do these bottles call your name and beckon to you in Duane Reade, they promote a positive social movement amongst the bloody headlines and weary citizens of the globe.

Props, Coke. Absolutely genius.

Newspapers won’t disappear, at least not yet

I entered my freshman year at Maryland with the intent to declare a journalism major. I interned at newspaper during high school, and while it was a great experience, it didn’t leave enough of an impression to drive me to enter the field.

During the orientation before school started, I went with the potential journalism students, and we were all asked to introduce ourselves and our intended majors. Most of them wanted to be broadcast journalists, and I stood up and said I was considering both journalism and PR. Dead silence fell over the room. The professor told me that I better choose—the two are not compatible. (Because journalism students are taught that PR people suck but we’re a necessary evil. We actually love journalists. It’s a mutual relationship.)

And being in PR I’m familiar with more trade, national and local publications than most people are. And I recognize the names of the journalists who work at these outlets.


I eventually chose the PR major, because I wanted to have a job 20 years down the road, and I wanted to make more than 20K a year. Don’t get me wrong. Journalists are great, and I believe that honest and accurate reporting is truly a cornerstone of democracy. If you can make it out there, props. We really need you guys.

This post is a response to the post I reblogged below from @iamavig, which focuses on the non-utility of newspapers in today’s digital era. So go ahead and read it, then continue reading my post.






Oh come on. Seriously go read it.


















Did you read it?








You can only continue reading here if you read his post. That’s the rules.




I’m not really sure what the post is trying to say, exactly, but he does say that most people don’t read newspapers. That’s true. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a hard copy newspaper. Here are a few things I think they are useful for:

  • Shabbat reading, like he says,
  • Sitting in Starbucks and chilling, and
  • Local news.

My family gets the Gazette, which is a local newspaper distributed to the residents of our county. Much of the content doesn’t really get posted online, because it’s hyper local.

Also, I’m sitting in Starbucks as I write this, and there is a guy the table over reading some print publication. I see this a lot in Starbucks, so print isn’t defunct just yet.

I think what he’s really trying to get at in the post (and I could be wrong) is the future of newspapers. No one can deny the trend toward digital news, and the closing of newspapers all around the country every year only emphasize this trend.

My prediction is that newspapers will still be around for a while, because older people like hard copies. My grandmother moved to New Jersey from Portland about five years ago and she loves reading the New York Times every day.

But as millennials age and replace these people, I think hard copy papers will increasingly become a relic of the past. I did some research for my journalism classes last year on the effects of youth being raised with digital devices, and have come to a couple conclusions:

  • Their attention spans shorten, and the brain’s circuits for close reading literally disintegrate, making reading texts more difficult. (This may apply to digital texts too; it’s unclear.)
  • Screen time is addicting, because it forms synapses in the brain that need those connections in the future. Put simply, no screen time = withdrawal.

Once these kids become contributors to society, they will be conditioned so that reading print texts will be really difficult for them. This could spell doom for the print industry, but we could also see a counter cultural dystopic backlash toward digital. With the pace things happen today, it really is anyone’s guess.


It’s hard to say whether newspapers will totally disappear, but we all know the industry is shrinking with the trend toward digital. This study, whether credible or not, notes that in North America and Europe, print viewership dropped 5.3 percent in 2013 and 10.3 percent over the last five years. TV news viewership has radically decreased in recent years, and is, interestingly, mostly watched by older people now.

I think this was a heavier response than he probably bargained for, but hey. Something to think about. I welcome all comments.



I’ll make a brand new start of it…New York, New York

Hello dear blog followers!

LaunchSquadI know I haven’t updated in a little while, so I thought I would share some updates on my life. So, I just finished the last of my finals today. The last final EVER! I will never, ever have to study again for a test in my life. And that’s pretty awesome.

I’ll be graduating this Friday from the University of Maryland with a degree in communication and a concentration in public relations. Next Sunday, I’m headed off to New York City to start as an account associate at LaunchSquad, a tech PR agency. They’re an up and coming firm and work with many different tech startups to help create buzz and to “disrupt”. And I’m THRILLED about it! They seem like a great agency to work with, and everyone seems to genuinely enjoy working there.

Here’s some of what I’ll be doing:

Associates work on three to four client accounts and learn from LaunchSquad’s senior staff who teach and train Associates through day-to-day execution of client work. From the start, Associates work closely with clients on a daily basis and contribute to PR programs in significant ways, including media and analyst relations, research, writing, managing speaking and awards programs, and tracking and reporting client results for teams. 

Over the course of year one at LaunchSquad, an Associate can expect the following from the experience:

  • Position with increasing responsibilities and learning opportunities;
  • Growth opportunities within each team role, including transitions and shifts in responsibilities;
  • Regular performance acknowledgement, feedback and merit increases for outstanding work;
  • Ability to develop skills and knowledge that will accelerate career advancement and future professional growth opportunities.

I’ll update in a few more days with graduation pictures. Stay tuned! And follow me on Twitter at @abigailjaffe to stay updated on my adventures in the Big Apple.

Smile! It’s a Kodak Campaign

Kodak, a central player in photography and imaging, found in 2009 that despite the proliferation of image sharing, technology and constant connectedness that Americans possess, personal relationships have “been declining.” The company worked with Ketchum on a program that would counter this trend and better the interpersonal relationships among their consumers.

While the campaign was incredibly creative and clever in its execution, it fell short of making connections among its research, identifying target publics and conducting the program implementation. Messaging was also inconsistent, and these critical but neglected elements created a campaign that was exceptionally popular among its publics, but that didn’t fully succeed in accomplishing what the company really set out to do.

Kodak's website

Kodak’s website

Kodak identified strengths and opportunities it could pursue for a public relations program. Kodak’s strengths include its longevity of 125 years and it being a trusted name in imaging, and the fact that its brand is inherently associated with camaraderie and happy times. People take photos during events they want to remember, and therefore people have positive associations and connections with the brand. With these strengths in mind, the company built on its slogan “It’s time to smile,” and identified a strategy for a program that would link to its brand: the team decided it would attempt to boost public happiness in select settings, thus increasing camaraderie and boosting the quality of personal relationships, which it noted have been declining since the proliferation of technological tools has risen. Opportunities the company utilized included the Compliment Guys they found at Purdue University, as well as the Brightsiding movement, because they could both be associated with the central messaging and themes of Kodak.

To determine the best ways to approach the campaign, Kodak conducted both formal and informal, as well as primary and secondary research about its brand and photo trends. Its primary research showed a link between photography and relationships, which Kodak didn’t specify, in addition to insights about personal relationships in the U.S.:

  • 67 percent of Americans say there is more loneliness in today’s society than there was previously
  • Facebook members report having an average of 136 friends but only 6 committed confidants
  • 98 percent of those surveyed believe sharing photos makes them feel closer to family and friends

Secondary research used included data from the 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which guided the target markets, and the 2009 Cassandra Report  that identified the human warming trend, which showed that performing acts of random kindness is a growing movement. Advertising partner Ogilvy also showed that while technology expands creativity, it limits relationships. Finally, a six month media analysis, included meme tracking, uncovered the Brightsiding movement and showed that Brightsiders identify with the Kodak brand. Kenneth Hein also writes in Ad Week that Kodak used a report issued by the Eastman Kodak Company that looked at the role digital imaging played across five countries. It found that people share a common desire to connect with loved ones in tough times, partly by sharing photos.


Planning the program

Kodak organized its goals by the objectives it wished to accomplish:

  • Awareness goals: Generate 30 million media impressions, reinforcing Kodak’s smile campaign and the brand’s emotional connection to consumers
  • Behavioral goals: Drive 10,000 visitors to the blog; Attract 500 Twitter followers to the Compliment Guys feed; Secure positive conversation about Kodak through social media channels
  • Brand goals: Increase positive brand perception of Kodak; Reach more than 100,000 consumers directly with the “It’s time to smile” campaign

The target audience of the program included women ages 20-45 with children who enjoy capturing images and sharing with family and friends, and tech-savvy customers who spend time online sharing photos. The publics were good target choices because obviously Internet users will better locate Kodak’s social media presence, and women tend to appreciate tearjerker moments such as those Kodak tried to elicit and demonstrate from the Compliment Guys. In this aspect, Kodak was successful in tying the publics to messaging and goals. It’s unclear how the publics were chosen, based on primary and secondary research, and it’s also unclear how the implementation of the program itself, and not just resulting media impressions, related to the publics.



Ketchum designed an online and grassroots campaign to emphasize the Kodak brand in the dialogue on relationships. The team discovered the concept of Brightsiding, a rising trend that focused on emphasizing the positive and staying happy. The team found that Brightsiders identified with the Kodak brand.

The Compliment Guys' Twitter Account

The Compliment Guys’ Twitter Account

It also found the Compliment Guys, two students from Purdue, who had a reputation for improving the happiness of and good cheer of fellow university students. Kodak recruited the Compliment Guys to conduct a 10-city Brightside tour to renew personal relationships among Americans. In each city, the Guys were positioned in high-traffic locations to deliver compliments and the “It’s time to smile” message. Kodak mastered planning events: the team integrated the Guys into events to drive visibility, such as at a Nationals baseball game, engaged local influencers such as the mayor of Birmingham to increase credibility, parked a Kodak Brightside tour mobile home and distributed “It’s time to smile” stickers. To maximize the impact of media relations, the team used a visual backdrop for interviews and arranged interviews with local broadcast and print outlets in each city. Finally, the campaign’s social media presence was very strong: it used a Brightside tour blog, the Compliment Guys twitter feed, YouTube channel to post videos developed in each city, as well as Kodak’s corporate social media channels.


How Kodak measured up

The campaign surpassed all its awareness, behavior and brand goals in its implementation. To assess its behavior goals, Kodak analyzed media impressions and placements. It secured nearly 140 million media impressions and landed coverage in The Today Show, Fox and Friends and It also generated many local placements, such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution, ESPN (as a result of the Nationals game appearance) as well as other segments that featured the Compliment Guys and encouraged the audience to visit locations the Guys had frequented. The results of the campaign’s behavior goals showed it attracted more than 12,000 visitors to, received more than 700 Twitter followers and garnered more than 75 comments on the YouTube channel and the blog.


Did it work?

What made this case so spectacular, and the reason it won a Silver Anvil, was the execution of the campaign and its creativity, and its use of pop culture and trends to draw in larger crowds of cross traffic. The team took advantage of the Brightsiding campaign, which had already gained traction in certain crowds and the media, and tied the message to its campaign to attract a larger audience. They company consistently utilized the theme of bring happy moments to people’s lives and tied it to Kodak’s slogan, “It’s time to smile,” which resulted in positive emotions and associations with the brand. The Compliment Guys were a fun twist, and because Kodak used relatively well known college students, the word about their new roles rapidly spread. The many events going on increased the potential reach of the campaign, and the general message was lighthearted, fun and sought to make a difference in everyday lives.

compliment guys

The Compliment Guys complimenting people.

Essentially, the primary issue with the campaign was that its relevance to the brand was unclear. While the idea was connected to the brand and possessed a lot of potential to utilize Brightsiding, Kodak failed the make the explicit connection between Brightsiding and the brand. Audiences need that connection to be made for them; everyone is so busy, and overwhelmed by technology overload, and a brand has to make explicit and simple connections to its products and programs. The company simply didn’t make the message simple enough for the consumers. The program was memorable and ownable, but it wasn’t simple. Consistent messaging geared at changing or adjusting behavior is extremely important in a PR program, and Kodak used too many new slogans and terms that their publics had to keep track of. It appears the goal for the messaging was to convey the idea that the quality of personal relationships are declining due to technology, and Kodak wants to better these relationships by increasing the number of smiles every day, just like the brand is known for eliciting smiles. If this wasn’t the goal of the messaging, it should have been.

Other research shows that Kodak released a photo sharing app, and they should have utilized this tool when trying to reach tech-savvy customers and moms who like to share photos. Encouraging these audiences to take photos during happy moments, perhaps during a time they engaged in Brightsiding, would have been a good way to actively involve these audiences in the campaign itself and strengthen the connection of the messaging.


2 years later…

Interestingly, Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January 2012, and stayed financially swamped for 20 months. Much of the reason for this financial state of the company was due to the fact that Kodak stayed mired in the past for too long; it didn’t adopt to the digital world quick enough to keep up with the competition. The company recognized this in the mid-2000s and sought to catch up to its competitors and new industry leaders, but it should have positioned Kodak as a top tier digital imaging company in the campaign. The company was trying to portray this image and reputation anyway, and using the app to help with the Brightside tour and program would have added to its reputation as a technological imaging company and involved its publics more in the campaign.

Kodak did a great job in identifying strengths and opportunities, and excelled in its creative implementation, but it fell short in conveying consistent messaging and setting behavioral goals. In a future campaign, consolidating messaging and really attempting to show that the program changed the behavior or attitude of its publics, and not just increased media impressions, will create a solid campaign that ties a social movement to a strong brand positioned on the forefront of high tech imaging.

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.