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Write the right thing

Wright thingSay you're a speechwriter for a large animal health company and your CEO calls you into his office. He wants you to put together his remarks for an upcoming speech to the 10,000 attendees of the Future Farmers of America annual convention.

He lays out the main point he wants to make: "The world’s growing demand for meat, milk, and eggs is a more urgent priority than American consumers’ desires for food that is organic, antibiotic-free, or pasture-raised. Industrial farming is not only necessary but also a moral imperative to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. We don’t need more animals. We need productive animals.”

Corporate speechwriters are often in this position, though their clients' direction is not always as crisp and articulate. And as they leave their CEO's office, if they aren't auditioning opening lines in their head, they're probably running through the resources they can tap to flesh out the speech with gee-whiz factoids and heart-warming anecdotes. 

How many consider the ethics of what they've been asked to do?

Speechwriters often joke they make corporate policy with the words they put in their clients' mouths. In reality, few CEOs are meek enough to simply read what's put in front of them in 14-point Arial type. And once they review, edit, and approve a speech, they own it even if they didn't come up with any of the clever turns of phrase themselves.

But speechwriters should be more than wordsmiths; the good ones are also guardians of the corporate character and values. And that is a decidedly ethical responsibility.

The "client input" above is based on a BusinessWeek story about Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal health division. Except for the last two sentences about not needing more animals, he didn't say those exact words, but it's representative of his perspective. And he definitely sees his business in a moral dimension.

Meanwhile, food activists as well as some scientists and regulators oppose the use of some of the antibiotics and growth enhancers his company makes. Consumer sentiment seems to be moving away from food grown on industrial farms towards more "natural" and "organic" versions. Fast food chains like McDonalds are moving towards using largely antibiotic-free beef, chicken, and milk. 

Does that mean animal health companies need to get in line?

In some ways they have. Both Elanco and competitor Zoetis have agreed to the Federal Drug Adninistration's voluntary guidelines on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. They recognize the ethical importance of keeping human antibiotics out of the food supply to avoid the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In fact, Elanco is applying the FDA guidelines worldwide.

But the ethical implications of giving human antibiotics to animals falls into the category of settled science, meaning there's a scientific consensus that the preponderance of evidence indicates it's dangerous to human welfare.

There is no such consensus on other issues -- like the development of animal-only antibiotics and genetically modified seeds, the use of muscle growth drugs, or indeed tconsuming animal meat itself. 

As long as Elanco  doesn't fudge facts or tell lies, respects those who hold opposing views, and doesn't try to undermine people's ability to consider all sides of the issue intelligently, it is perfectly ethical to present its perspective as forcefully as it can. And that includes framing it as a moral issue.

Which is what a good speechwriter would do.



There's an app for that

Make ethical decisionThere's a phone app for practically everything these days, from buying movie tickets to hiring someone to walk your dog.

Now, thanks to Kirk Hanson at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, there's a free iPhone app to guide you through ethical decision-making. (Screenshot on the left.)

It covers all the essential considerations, from utility, rights, and justice to the common good and virtue. It doesn't make the decision for you, but it helps clarify and weigh all the issues you should consider. 

The only downside is that it assumes you know what concepts like "utility,"  "justice," "rights," "virtue," and "common good" really mean. (Of course, you can learn that by reading the new book my friend Boston University professor Don Wright and I recently wrote.)

In the Apple app store, look for "Ethical Decision Making." (Apparently, there's no Android app yet.)

For that matter, check out the Markkula Center website itself for excellent commentary and analysis of issues in business ethics. It doesn't feature public relations issues -- the closest it comes is journalism -- but the sections on business ethics, the environment, the Internet, and character development are extensive.


Dark PR or Killing by Web

UhohYesterday, I ran across a company that offers "negative public relations services" a.k.a. "dark services."

"The objective in Negative Public Relations," the company explained, "is to discredit someone else, who may pose a threat to the client's business or be a political rival. Common techniques include using dirty secrets from the target, producing misleading facts to fool a competitor."

This has to be a joke, I thought. After all, the company calls itself "Webcide," obviously a play on "homicide," "suicide," and other forms of "killing."

So I went to the website -- -- and, sure enough, it seemed to be an ordinary reputation management company. Its home page describes its services this way:

" Reputation Search Engine empowers you to find accurate, precise and relaible (sic) negative information about a person or a company.   

"Our sophisticated searching tools will show you all lawsuits, bankruptcy, legal issues, negative articles, negative comments, negative customer complaints, scam reports, fraud alerts, arrest records, negative blogs, negative forum posts, negative mentioning, negative reviews about the person or business searched. 

"Webcide is also the first and only online reputation management company that permanently removes negative information about you and your business from Google Search Results."

The ethics of all this depends to a large extent on the use to which all that negative information is put, though manipulating Google Search results sounds unethical on its face.  

But wait. There's more. Lurking in a description of the company's full range of services is dark PR itself. 

Webcide offers to "persuade the public, prospective customers, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain negative point of view about [a competitor or business enemy], its leadership, products, or of (sic) political decisions." And it promises "to execute such a campaign in the most discreet and confidential way, while using only and exclusively legal methods ."

In fact, these "top level professionals in the field of Negative PR" offer to produce "negative corporate and financial communications, negative investor relations and negative opinion research." As they point out, the mistrust this negativity produces "can take years to repair."

Among the techniques they use:

  • "Improving the tagging and search engine optimization of  negative published materials, such as  negative customer testimonials in order to push up negative content. 
  • "Publishing original, negative websites and social media profiles, with the aim of outperforming negative results in a search.
  • "Submitting online press releases to authoritative websites in order to promote negative brand presence and promote negative content. 
  • "Creating fake blogs pretending to be a different person that shares the same name in order to push up negative search results on the actual person or brand. 
  • "Using spam bots and denial-of-service attacks to force sites with positive content off the web entirely. 
  • "Creating anonymous accounts that create negative reviews or lash out against positive ones . Proactively offering free products to prominent negative reviewers."

But not to worry,  Webcide claims to "practice ethical forms of negative reputation management." Empasis added.

I'm not making this up. See for yourself at!negative-public-relations-/cp1 

Unless Webcide itself was the victim of malicous hacking of its website, this is probably the most unethical form of public relations I've seen in a long time.

And if, by chance, anyone at Webcide sees this and wants to explain how any of it could possibly be ethical, I invite them to comment.  

Or will I become a victim of Webcide myself?



Why do good people do bad things?

Right way wrong wayA friend of mine is a prominent financial columnist who has written about the misdeeds of many executives. Even when he's sure he has the goods on someone, it's tricky stuff to write.

I once asked him what ethical principle guided him in his work and he told me, "To never write anything I'd be criticized for on the front page of the New York Times." When I asked what ethical principle he thought public relations people follow, he said, "Not to get caught."

I don't think he realized the two principles are functionally equivalent.

Actually, I suspect he put his finger on the reason for current interest in public relations ethics. No one wants to get caught doing something wrong and, in recent years, the papers have been full of examples 0f just that.

But public relations practitioners should be motivated by more than the risk of being caught. Because public relations by definition involves some kind of exchange between two parties, it's an inherently ethical undertaking.  So everything we do involves some kind of ethical choice, whether being truthful, respecting the human dignity of others, or fulfilling our duties as citizens and practitioners.

Those happen to be the drivers of three major ethical theories-- considerations of virtue, consequences, and duty. Most recently, a feminist approach to ethics has put additional emphasis considerations of care.  But whatever ethical theory you follow, applying it to life in the real world is a challenge.

For example, what do you do when duties conflict, as they almost always do? Which consequences matter more, those affecting the client or those affecting customers or society as a whole? Is it better to be caring or fair? And, to quote an acient Roman, what is truth? Isn't it a public relations person's job to present the client's conception of truth?

The PRSA, IABC, and other professional associations have done a pretty good job of articulating the practical implications of those ethical theories. They all admonish practitioners to serve the public interest, for example. But practitioners are pretty much on their own to define just what the "public interest" means and what to do when client and public interests collide.  

Navigating ethical questions like those require more than memorizing codes of conduct, as thoughtful as they may be. It requires understanding the thinking behind them.

As I've discovered in ethics workshops I've conducted over the years, almost every practitioner knows it's wrong to lie, but when pressed the only reason many can offer is because that's what they were brought up to believe. Unfortunately, if you don't know why something is wrong, the chances of recognizing it when it presents itself diminish rapidly. And knowing what to do is even more problematic.

But according to a recent report on public relations education, "Overall, educators perceive ethics instruction to be very important for PR students, but few programs require an ethics course or recommend one as an elective." Instead, ethical considerations are supposedly woven into discussions of current events. That non-systematic approach is almost guaranteed to be incomplete and makes assessing students' actual knowledge of ethics quite difficult. 

That's why my friend Don Wright and I wrote Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul.  

Don is Harold Burson Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and has written broadly on the topic over his 40-year career. We both hope our book contributes to the study and practice of ethics within public relations.

Of course, no book can pretend to be the last word on the subject so we've also created a website to update the cases covered in the book and to make other observations that illustrate the concepts it covers.

Take a look for yourself at Updates.PRethics.comAnd join the conversation by commenting on the posts already on the site.



Got beef?

BeefThe meat industry has a beef with the World Health Organization, which just accused its product of causing cancer.

What is a public relations practitioner in that industry to do?

We saw how industries from tobacco to soft drinks reacted -- they did their best to cast doubt on the research. In fact, Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for Science in the Public Interest, claims, “The playbook of every industry under attack is to instill doubt in the evidence.”

So how should the meat industry respond to the World Health Organization's recent meta-study, which according to the Wall Street Journal, concluded processed meats like bacon and salami are "carcinogenic" and fresh meats like steak and pork chops "probably cause cancer." 

The ethical principle that should guide public relations people in this case is to ensure customers have all the information they need to intelligently interpret the research and guide their behavior.

Not incidentally, that means dealing with sensationalized headlines (New York Post: "OMG! Bacon causes cancer.")  that suggest eating processed meat is as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or sucking on a diesel exhaust. 

Interestingly, the New York Times'  report on the research had all the elements of an ethical response:

It put the research in context, quoting third party experts with no axe to grind, and explaining the World Health Organization's categorization system.  For example, it pointed out that although research put processed meat into the same category as smoking and air pollution, its actual risk was "relatively small." Most importantly, it said experts not involved in the report advised people to "moderate" their consumption of processed meats. 

No meat industry spokesperson is likely to suggest its customers eat less of their product. But it wouldn't be out of the question for them to advise people not to over-indulge in it. The alcohol industry has been doing that for years. 

Nor would it be unethical to refer reporters and even customers to experts who can provide context and advice. But it would be unethical to refer anyone to experts who are far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, not to mention publicizing their reports. 

And it would be perfectly ethical to highlight the benefits of eating red meat in moderation. Red meat is, after all, a good source of protein and vitamins. It might even be in the industry's own interests to conduct research into the mechanisms making processed meats a health risk -- is it the nitrates or something else?

But it would be unethical if the sole purpose of the research were to cast doubt on the consensus findings that eating large quantities of processed meat is unhealthy. 

In general, an ethical response would focus on what's best for customers and society at large. 

Not an easy task. But one that deserves great thought and attention. That's where the real beef is.




The Prize

PrizeI had the pleasure yesterday of participating in a discussion with Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize.

Her book reports on what happened in Newark, NJ, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million towards an overhaul of the city's failing school system.

The idea was to use Newark as a "national model" from which other urban school districts could learn.

Russakoff drew many lessons from her 5-year investigation, but two especially resonated with me:

  1.  A top-down effort to change an entrenched system doesn't work,  It has to be bottoms-up. The people affected need to be part of finding a solution.
  2. If you want to improve the education of students in disadvantaged areas, you have to focus on more than what goes in the classroom. You have to address their family and social environments as well.

It struck me that addressing issues like those is what the function of public relations is all about. 

Not the kind of PR that deals in schmoozing public officials, issuing news releases, or staging photo ops, though all those tactics play a role. But the kind of public relations focused on building and nurturing dialog with communities.

The Newark experiment had some notable successes, such as bringing in a number of new school principals who were able to coach and develop their teaching staffs. But it never achieved its lofty goal of serving as a model for other school districts.  And as Rustikoff vividly describes, its biggest mistake was trying to shove a pre-conceived solution down the throats of  local communities.  

A good public relations counselor would have advised against a top-down approach and would have made community outreach the engine of the process. It would have been messier and taken longer, but it would have had a better chance of working.

The Prize is a terrific book I can highly recommend to anyone concerned about America's schools or  the larger issue of social mobility.


PR is dead. Long live Public Relations.

RIP PR.001I just finished work on a book about public relations ethics. (Out next month. See left sidebar.) One of the lessons I re-learned in the process is that, whether used as a noun or a verb, the term "PR" carries so many negative connotations, it's beyond repair.  

To most people (in and out of the industry), "PR" means spinning, hyping, obfuscating, green-washing, do-gooding, word-smithing, party-planning, and otherwise distracting or misleading an unsuspecting public.  A friend who is a prominent financial columnist told me PR people adhere to an ethical principle best summarized as, "What can I get away with?"

Maybe that's why so many PR people are rebranding themselves as "Communications Officers." 

It's a fine title, with the added advantage of working well with "Chief," greasing the holder's way into the ranks of the C-suite.

But it suggests public relations is all about "communicating," defined as moving information between people, especially through the mass media. Even if the communication is two-way, that shortchanges the function's true purpose.

Real public relations encompasses all the ways an institution "relates" to its various "publics," defined as all those who contribute to its success and bear the risks of its failures.  Such "relating" depends even more on what an institution does than on what it says. 

I don't think there's any hope of resurrecting "PR."  But there is a chance we can help better define "public relations." And it has to start with what we actually do. 


Crying at the desk

Cry at deskThere used to be a saying, "Never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

One would think that old saw didn't apply in the digital age. Everyone is a publisher now, right?

Wrong.  Case in point:

About two months ago, the New York Times published a highly negative story about Amazon's work culture. Among other things, it reported it was common for Amazon employees to be so stressed out they  cried at their desks.

That prompted Jeff Bezos, the company's CEO, to tell his employees he didn't recognize the company the paper described and hoped they didn't either. And his public relations team, led by Jay Carney fresh from a stint as White House spokesman, did its best to handle the second-day stories that inevitably appeared.

Not surprisingly, a brouhaha of epic proportions ensued, with claims and counterclaims flying back and forth between Amazon supporters and critics, including its own employees.  

The story became one of the paper's most-read pieces of the year, racking up more than five million views. But the New York Times reporting for that story was criticized, praised, and mocked.  

The paper's  public editor even put her own oar into the churning waters in a column gently criticizing the paper for basing its story on largely anecdotal evidence. That column ignited an unusual public disagreement with the paper's executive editor who rejected "the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes."

And so the story lay until yesterday when Mr. Carney published a 1,300 word essay on the website Medium challenging the paper's reporting. Most damning, Carney claimed the paper's most vivid anecdote about employees crying at their desks came from an employee who "had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records." According to Carney when the employee was confronted with the evidence, "he admitted it and resigned immediately."

Within hours, the Times' executive editor Dean Baquet published his own 1,300-word rebuttal in Medium, reiterating his support for the article and saying that the employee who supposedly resigned because of misdeeds denies it ever happened. 

I hesitate to say Carney had the last word because this could go on forever. But he published a brief response to the Times' response. "The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources," he wrote in Medium. "When an anecdote or quote is too good to check, it’s usually too good to be true."

So who won?

Not Amazon. All it succeeded in doing is to call more attention to the Times' original story. I say this from experience. I once wrote a letter to the editor of BusinessWeek challenging a negative story about AT&T.  My letter was even longer than the original article. It made the company's supporters feel better, but I doubt it changed any minds. Even though the facts were on our side.

In an argument between corporations and the media, it's the rare company that can come out on top. 

In his rebuttal, the Times' executive editor acknowledged that he and Carney had been exchanging email about the story. Since it took only three hours for the Times to issue that rebuttal, it's likely Carney had already laid out his case in that email exchange, including that the employee who had made the most graphic accusations had previously been dismissed for cause and had an axe to grind.  

That the Times' rebuttal accepted the employee's word with little or no fact-checking seems to buttress Carney's principal complaint. But coming from Amazon, it rings hollow.

A smarter move for Amazon would have been to bring the complaint to a respected third party, like the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism School.  

Instead, Amazon gave the story legs. The Amazon executive suite may feel better, but it's hardly cause for high-fives. 





Myopic service

MyopiaCapitalism in America seems to be infected with a nasty case of "short-termism," a myopic focus on next quarter's results at the expense of long-term growth.

Back in 2009, a blue ribbon panel of CEOs and academics traced the roots of short-termism all the way back to the leveraged buyouts of the 1980s. They issued a clarion call for a "more responsible approach to investment and business management." Yet, just last summer, the venerable Economist magazine suggested it was now a structural problem inhibiting economic recovery.  I have no doubt that's the case.

But it would be a mistake to think short-termism shows up only in a company's financial results. It reverberates through customer service too. Consider these two examples a friend brought to my attention just this morning:

According to the Washington Post, American Airlines threw a passenger off a plane, apparently because she wasn't moving fast enough through the crowded aisle (and the plane was over-booked). The whole episode was so patently unfair, the rest of the cabin broke out in boos and shouts of "I'll never fly American again." So if the crew's motive was to accomodate a frequent flier, as some suspect, it may have had short-term benefits, but long-term costs.

According to the LA Times, an AT&T customer sent the company's CEO some service suggestions and all he got for his trouble was an officious letter from a company lawyer.  "AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property ... from members of the general public," the lawyer said.

I remember the policy well from my days at AT&T. Its intent is to avoid getting sued by people who think you've implemented one of their suggestions. In fact, in my day, most letters like that ended up in my inbox for reply. I like to think I made the point without an undertone of "get lost." I also think I could tell the difference between unpatentable, uncopyrightable suggestions and the kind that can stimulate suits (i.e. genuine intellectual property).  But then I'm not a lawyer.

Is it just coincidence that both these examples come from companies with "American" in their name?




NFL Update

Nfl dom vioAbout a year ago, in reaction to the off-field behavior of some players, the National Football League promised to do more to fight domestic violence. 

ThinkProgress recently assessed the league's efforts and found the NFL has indeed devoted a lot of money and time to the issue. But significant gaps remain.

"The local domestic violence and sexual assault centers that provide direct service work — the ones that the national groups rely on for the on-the-ground assistance — are still struggling to stay afloat," it concluded. "And while the NFL is trying to address its internal issues through training and regulations, changing the culture of the league is far easier said than done, particularly with the same leadership intact."

The NFL consulted about 150 experts and organizations. It committed $5 million a year  for five years to a national hotline for domestic abuse victims. It donated $2.5 million in cash and equiment to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and an additional $1 million to 58 local anti-rape organizations, amounting to about $20,000 each. 

To get its own house in order, league teams scheduled educational sessions on sexual violence and domestic abuse during its annual training camps. 

But the NFL's highest profile effort was a series of public service announcements to increase awareness of domestic violence. Amounting to about $40 million of airtime, it was by far the league's biggest investment in the issue. To some it seemed like a classic "PR move." 

Critics said the league needed to move beyond awareness to action. For example, despite the NFL's $1 million contribution, local organizations are still seriously under-funded and support from individual teams is uneven. There was little followup to the training sessions all players were expected to attend, beyond a 24-hour "crisis hotline." Meanwhile, while the league is gotten a bit tougher on players arrested for sexual assault, its stances have been inconsistent. 

Furthermore, in December 2014, the NFL directed every team to form a "Critical Response Team" by the end of 2015. These teams were to be trained to deal with crisis situations and work with domestic violence organizations in their communities. When ThinkProgress followed up with all 32 teams, it found very uneven progress, not only in establishing the Critical Response Teams, but also when it comes to vetting and responding to instances of domestic violence or sexual assault.  

"As Domestic Violence Awareness Month kicks off this month," ThinkProgress notes, "the NFL's initiatives to address the issue remain a work in progress."  Meanwhile, the NFL's annual breast cancer awareness campaign kicks off in a flurry of pink ribbons and pom poms on October 13.

Big Pharma's Duty

BigPharmaDeadlyRisks062314When a drug company defines its "duty" as maximizing value for its shareholders, I suspect even Milton Friedman is rolling over in his grave.

Sadly, that seems to be what drives Big Pharma these days. A Wall Street Journal study revealed that "for prescription drug makers, prices increases drive revenue" even when demand for a medication falls.

That's not how Adam Smith's invisible hand is supposed to work. It's certainly not how Big Pharma used to define its duty.

And you don't have to look far for examples. Just today, William Campbell, a researcher at Merck, was awarded a Nobel Prize for work he did back in the mid-1970s. Campbell discovered a cure for river blindness, a parasitic disease common in the developing world. 

Ironically, Merck never made a cent on the cure because it didn’t have a presence in the countries where the disease was most common.  But the company's senior executives recognized the drug's promise – one annual dose could treat the disease and prevent blindness, and if an entire community was treated for the 12 to 14 year lifecycle of the worms that caused it, the disease could be totally eliminated.

So Merck made an open-ended commitment to give the drug away until river blindness was no longer a threat to public health.  In 1988, the first year of the program, it lined up half a dozen non-profit organizations (NGOs) to distribute about 100,000 doses. 

Today, more than two-dozen NGOs help distribute 90 million doses a year.  The World Health Organization projects that Latin America could be free of the disease in a few years, and the goal even seems within reach in parts of Africa.  

All because at least one drug company defined its "duty" more broadly than making money for its shareowners.