Ethics

What Brian should have said

130212-Williams-Brian-2010-teaseNot to pile on, but you'd think with five months to think about it, Brian Williams would have been better prepared for his inevitable apology tour. Based on his interview with Matt Lauer, it will probably be a one-stop event.

The New York Times was just one among a host of the un-impressed, noting the verbal gymnastics Williams used to avoid uttering the "L word" -- I lied.  Instead, he repeatedlty admitted, "I didn't tell the truth" as if his transgression was one of ommission, withholding facts rather than saying falsehoods.

I understand. For a journalist to admit he lied is second in seriousness only to plagiarism (another form of lying). But as my colleague and friend Mike Paul noted, "“There are no ifs or buts in a true apology.” What Williams attempted was a "non-apology apology.”

So should he admit he lied? Yes, but he should put it in context.

"Yes, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I lied. The helicopter story started with small exaggerations that grew larger in repeated telling until I reached the point that I actually believed what I was saying. So in that sense I wasn't trying to mislead people; I was trying to entertain them and, deep down, trying to make myself look more heroic. But what I said wasn't true.  It was a lie.

"If anything good can come of this, it's that I now understand myself better, I know I've lost the trust of many colleagues, I've embarrassed a news organization I love, as well as my family, and I've given the public another reason not to trust the media.  For all that, I'm deeply sorry and I sincerely appreciate the opportunity I've been given to regain the public's trust."

That, I think, would have been a real apology. And from all that I have read and seen, is much closer to the real truth. 

 

 


The Pope & Adam Smith

Pope2650Some are interpreting Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment as an attack on capitalism, prompting one presidential candidate to say he'll look elsewhere for economic advice. 

Senior public relations counselors can't be as dismissive of the pope's message, which goes to the very purpose of a corporation.

If one believes that a corporation's only purpose is to create wealth (value) for its shareowners, then its environmental impact is simply an "externality" that need only be addressed to the extent required by law and regulation. And it's perfectly free to do anything legal to shape those laws and regulations to its advantage. 

If on the other hand one believes a corporation's purpose is to create wealth (value) for everyone who contributes to its success and bears the cost of its failures, those "externalities" have moral significance. Corporations need first to ask themselves what they can do to minimize the environmental impact of their operations. And then they need to ask what they can do within their areas of competence to deal with the broader impacts on their stakeholders. 

Public relations counselors should recognize that a significant portion of the public are embracing the pope's message. That's not a call for more green-washing. But for a thoughtful discussion of the underlying question: what is the purpose of the corporation?

Adam Smith, the guy who essentially invented capitalism, was first a moral philosopher. He wouldn't have been so quick to suggest the pope should stick to his rosary. In fact, he would have seen the pope's encyclical as the continuation of a discussion Smith himself started. 

 

 


How to wreck a reputation

Broken-telephoneThe Federal Communications Commission said it plans to fine AT&T $100 million for capping the speed on data plans it advertised as "unlimited." 

I have no insight into how AT&T is managed these days, But when I ran public relations for the company, we had constant battles with line management about the announcement of price increases and other customer-affecting moves.

We in public relations wanted to issue a news release explaining any increase; line management thought it was sufficient to mention it in mice-type legal ads. 

Luckily, for most of my tenure at AT&T, there was another player in this mix -- the company's CEO, who could see further than the next quarter's earnings report.  Unfortunately, times -- and CEOs -- change. One incident late in my career points this up.

AT&T's most profitable business -- consumer long distance service -- was in steep decline, thanks to increases in wireless usage, the dot.com bust, and a major competitor cooking its books to price below cost. The guys running the business were under incredible pressure.

So I was surprised when they reported a profit spike in one of their monthly reports halfway through the year, especially since it seemed to stem from a significant increase in operator-assisted calls.  I asked what accounted for it and was told they had started charging an extra $10 if customers asked an operator to complete a call. 

I said I was amazed that, in this day and age, so many people needed an operator to help to make a long distance call.  Well, sometimes people's calls don't go through because they misdial to a non-existent number, I was told.  If they call the operator for help, she connects the call but adds $9.99 to whatever the final bill is. (In those days, nearly all operators were women.)

“But surely she tells the customer there’s an extra fee involved,” I said.  The guy at the overhead projector grew Little Orphan Annie eyes.  “Well, yes,” he said.  “But she doesn’t say how much unless asked.” 

Our new CEO -- brought in from outside the industry -- sat quietly through the ensuing argument until someone mentioned that the revenue from the extra charge was baked into the unit’s profit forecast.  “In that case,” he said, “change the policy on January 1.  Next subject.”  

Fifteen years and three CEOs later, the subject is data throttling, and the object under discussion is a $100 million fine.  That's a lot of money, even for AT&T. But even if the company successfully challenges the fine, it will pale in comparison to the billions it saved by slowing down data usage on its "unlimited" plans. So in dollars and cents terms, this is probably a no-brainer for today's modern manager.

But in the long-run, it could be a disaster for the company's reputation. 

 


Department of what to do with lemons

LemondaeRudy Giuliani may have hijacked Scott Walker's fundraiser with his reflections on President Obama's love life (at least as it applies to the country and its occupants), but the governor's staff has found a way to use it as a springboard for what really matters to them. Here's an email they sent to potential supporters:

"Governor Scott Walker ... refuses to be distracted by the small, petty, and pale ideas that the 'gotcha' headline writers for the Liberal Media want to talk about. ... Now is the time to stand up against the publicity hounds and the journalistic pack, and help Governor Walker fight back with a 'Friends of Scott Walker' contribution ... Your support will show the clueless and mindless journalistic herd that you know what matters most and that it is not the pointless minutiae that they are pushing.”

They may be making fund-raising lemonade out of lemons, but they also have a valid point. From the Sunday talk shows to the evening news campaign coverage and the left- and right-wing blather on MSNBC and Fox, political reporting seems fixated on what historian Daniel Boorstin called pseudo-events.  

Boorstin coined the term to describe events like photo-ops that exist only to generate publicity. Candidates created such events to further their own purposes without the distraction and risk of discussing actual issues. TV journalists went along because it played to their bias for pictures and the illusion of drama.

Now it seems all the media have so thoroughly embraced the concept they are creating their own pseudo-events, posing questions designed to create headlines rather than understanding, fanning controversy when it fails to ignite, and focusing on the embarrassing more than on the enlightening. Online and off, click-bait rules. 

The ethical question for media and PR people alike: do this pseudo-communication respect the electorate's right to make rational choices? Or does it lead to pseudo-candidates and, worse, decisions based on pseudo-qualifications? Are we condemned to live in a social and political hyperreality?

 


You know you're in trouble when...

Post cover williams

You kind of apologize that you "mis-remembered" what happened, sending thousands to their dictionaries.

The New York Post's cover shows you with a Pinnochio nose and capitalizes on your name's alliteration with "lyin'."

The New York Times puts its Day Two story about your problems on its front page, above the fold, with nearly a full-page after the jump.  Then it produces a video detailing exactly how your "story has changed."

Rumors force your predecessor in the job to issue a statement that he has not called for you to be fired.

A PR trade publication starts an online survey asking if your apology worked. (The answer is two-to one that it didn't.) Uninvited PR advice is sure to follow.  See below.

Your employer leaks word that it has started "an investigation," practically guaranteeing there will be Day Three and Four stories.

At this point, all you need to do to tighten the lid on your coffin is hire some high-priced PR counsel. Sadly, the best advice you'll get is the hardest to follow because it doesn't guarantee a soft landing and it may even be too late -- tell the truth, apologize, and give something back to demonstrate your contrition.  

You can try something like: "I exaggerated what happened to make it sound more exciting and myself more brave. I'm sorry. I'm making a sizable donation to Wounded Warrior Family Support. It serves the men and women who really faced the kinds of dangers I lied about.  It won't change or excuse what I did, but it's the least I can do to express my profound regret."

 


Oppo research

OppoWriting a book on PR ethics means I've been posting far less regularly and spending lots more time reading the trade press in search of illustrations of ethical dilemmas in the practice of public relations.

Today, I ran across two, which prompts this posting.  

Edelman is accused of using opposition research in promoting the interests of its TransCanada client, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

It seems TransCanada not only faces opposition from American environmentalists who don't want the pipeline going south from Alberta through the U.S. to refineries in Louisiana, but also from Canadians who don't want the pipeline heading east to refineries in Eastern Canada.

Based on documents released by Greenpeace, Edelman proposed to conduct "detailed background research on key opposition groups," a step the New York Times characterized as part of an effort "to spread any unflattering findings about the opposition."  The plan documents also propose enlisting third party allies to "put pressure" on the pipeline's opponents "when TransCanada can't." 

On the other hand, one of the Edelman documents suggested, “To make an informed decision on this project, Canadians need to have a true picture of the motivations not only of the project proponents, but of its opponents as well.”  

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed reported that an Uber executive suggested digging up dirt on journalists, "specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist" who had recently accused the company of “sexism and misogyny.” The executive who made the suggesttion later explained he thought he was speaking "off the record" at an industry dinner. He said he "regretted [the remarks] and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views."

In my three decade career, I can only remember one time when a senior executive asked me to gather information we could use to discredit a reporter who has become a thorn in our side.  I told him it was a stupid idea and that was it. I should have also told him it was unethical.

Some background research on journalists is perfectly ethical. There's nothing wrong with collecting and analyzing what reporters have previously written to better understand their point of view of your company and the industry. At minimum, that could enable you to anticipate their interests and questions.

There's also nothing wrong with tracking public details about a reporter's private life or information he or she is willing to share, such as a spouse's name, children, alma mater,  hobbies, etc. Such information can help build a stronger personal relationship with the reporter. But digging for embarrassing or unseemly information is clearly unethical on just about any ground I can think of.

It's a violation of the reporter's privacy. It's clearly dishonest. Why else would the Uber executive blow off an objection on the grounds that “Nobody would know it was us”? But perhaps most importantly, it muddies the waters of public discussion and deprives people of information about the company by casting irrelevant aspersions on the reporter whose bringing it to them. It's not responsible advocacy by any measure.

The key word here is "irrelevant" and that could be the safe harbor for Edelman. If its background research is intended to reveal relevant information about the pipeline's opponents, such as conflicts of interest or extreme positions they have taken in the past on similar projects, it could be ethical.

But if the agency's oppo research team is seeking irrelevant information it can spread around to -- as one document says, “Add layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources,” they should join the Uber executive mentioned above in the ethical penalty box.

 

 


Media relations ethics

KeepCalmStudio.com-Crown-Keep-Calm-And-Manage-The-Media-240x240The New York Times' Public Editor doesn't have an explicit mandate to comment on ethics, except in the broadest sense.

But sometimes she does so by implication. And often the ethics in question are not those of the papers' reporters, but of the PR people they deal with.

Take today's column which questions the ethics of a source setting the ground rules under which it will give reporters access to news.

The particular news in question was not exactly earth-shaking or even market-moving: it concerned the federal Food and Drug Administration’s new guidelines for e-cigarettes. But the F.D.A. would only give reporters an advance outline of the new rules if they agreed not talk about them with industry or public health groups until they were released a day later.

It's not hard to understand the various parties' motivations here. The reporters wanted a day to prepare their initial news story so they could put it on their paper's web site as soon as the FDA issued their news release.

The FDA didn't want the initial news stories to include any potential criticism from those industry or public health groups.

Thus, the ground rules under which it gave some reporters early access to the guidelines. Reporters were happy; the FDA was happy. The only people not well served by this deal were the public they were both supposedly serving.

I won't speak to the ethics of journalists accepting such ground rules. People like the Times' Public Editor are in a far better position to do that. But I think PR people should re-consider the ethics of this practice.

It's one thing to hold a background briefing or to issue a news release on embargo. I did that often enough myself in my days at AT&T when the news was complicated and required careful study.

But it's another matter entirely to try to manipulate the very process by which a journalist covers and reports the news. The only possible justification for that is that a PR person's duty to a client surpasses any duty to the public.

The ethics codes of the various PR professional associations dance around this issue. It's time to measure our policies and practices against a clearer standard. Any PR person's first duty is to the public if only because that's our clients' first duty as well.

Any ground rule that ignores that fact slips from PR into propaganda.

 

 


Ethics in your pocket

Ethics appPity the beleagued engineers at GM back in 2005.

The company was circling the toilet having just recorded what was then the largest financial loss in its history. And its engineers were trying to figure out what to do about an apparently faulty ignition.

They made what professional ethicists would term a teleological or consequentialist decision, i.e., one that produced more good than bad. They decided the cost of recalling thousands of cars to replace a faulty ignition would be more expensive than simply replacing them under warranty when they failed. 

Actually, if they had been good consequentialists, they would have included the effect on customers in their analysis. But in a competitive business obsessed with costs that's not always easy.

Now there's an app for that.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has developed an iPad app "for thinking through tough choices." It leads users through a balanced framework of ethical reasoning, identifying all the parties potentially affected and considering five concerns: utility (more good, more bad), rights (more rights, fewer rights), justice, common good, and virtue.  

It's like having Aristotle, Kant, and Mill on your cellphone's speedial.

 


Burson on PR Ethics

BursonMy current long-term project is a book on public relations ethics. (Yes, I know it's an oxymoron in some minds, but still...)

I'm not sure how this will turn out or even if it ever will. But in the course of my research, I ran across something Harold Burson said in an interview with the Page Center at Penn State University.

It deals with the issue of PR practitioners' ethical responsibilities towards their clients and I'm reprinting it here, with slight edits because it's based on a video that isn't always clear:

"I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public relations representation. I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that counsel representation.

"On the other hand I think that [in regards to] unpopular causes which are legitimate [and with] which I may not agree, I do not think it’s unethical for me to represent that client as long as I can do so in a way that my client is not compromised by ... disagreement.

"I think  ... that I am engaged to motivate individuals or groups to take a position or take an action that my client seeks to have taken. I think I should however as a public relations professional make the judgment on whether I represent such a client by asking myself the question, 'is what this client wants to do in the public interest?'

"And I think that is a factor that is very important [and] sometimes overlooked. The fact is I believe that no action can be sustained or successful if, in the long run, it is not in the public interest." 

While existing codes of conduct published by the various professional associations dance around the issue, Burson puts the public interest at the center of ethical decisions in the practice of PR. 

I could devote this entire blog to Harold Burson and never run out of material. Maybe I should.

 

 


The ethics of advertising drugs

DtcaIn the world of communications ethics, most discussions focus on lying in its multifarious forms -- spinning, obfuscating, deflecting, etc. 

But totally truthful communications can also raise ethical questions.

For example, here's an issue I've been pondering lately: do the risks of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers outweigh the benefits?

On the one hand, direct to consumer advertising helps educate patients and makes them more likely to take the drugs a doctor prescribes.  But since pharmaceutical companies advertise only their newest and most expensive drugs, it contributes to the rising cost of drugs.

Furthermore, many physicians complain that patients pressure them to prescribe advertised drugs even though they don't understand the potential risks. In fact, physicians are far more skeptical about direct to consumer advertising than patients.

And there are other questions:

  • To what extent has direct to consumer advertising promoted an attitude that good health is the product of drug consumption rather than healthy habits?
  • Has direct to consumer advertising made the consumption of presecription drugs seem "normal," rather than an extraordinary intervention to cure an abnormal condition? 
  • Are recent increases in direct to consumer drug advertising, prescription drug abuse, and heroin usage simply coincidental or correlated?

DTC-Advertising-ENIndustry spending on direct-to-consumer advertising rose tenfold in the last five years. Prescriptions written for opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin rose more than 500 percent in the same period. There's no question that a lot of those drugs are eventually used for non-medical reasons. As a result, more than 100 Americans die of a drug overdose every day, more than twice the number ten years ago. 

And as prescription drugs become more expensive, harder to get, or simply less effective, they have become a new pathway to heroin addiction. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years. 

Drug overdoses and heroin addiction in suburban New Jersey have increased so dramtically the state issued a stark warning last year:

"We now live in a state where abuse of prescription pills serves increasingly as a primary route to the unlawful world of heroin, an intersection of the legitimate and the illicit that constitutes a crisis whose devastating consequences are plain for all to see."

Pharmaceutical companies -- many of which make their headquarters in New Jersey -- need to get ahead of this developing crisis. Part of their agenda should include studying the societal effects of direct to consumer advertising. We know that when characters smoke in movies and on TV the rate of smoking among teens increases. Might the same thing be happening here?

Big Pharma may be on the slippery slope Big Tobacco plowed a few decades ago. 

 

 


Theater Review: GM on Capitol Hill

Capitol Marquee.001The curtain rose on the congressional hearings into General Motor's ignition problems yesterday. Another performance has been scheduled for today, but with luck the show will then close.

As usual, these hearings followed a familiar plot line in the repertory of these predominantly old war horses. But a visiting cast member, new to this stage, gave a promising performance.

As is well known, Members of Congress treat these hearings as political theater in which they are the stars. There's more posturing at these events than on Fashion Week runways. 

Almost everything knowable by the time the hearing starts has already been summarized in a lengthy memo prepared by the Committee's staff. The real goal of the hearing is to show the members staring down a CEO when they're not raking her over the coals. 

But in yesterday's performance, GM's CEO played her part with exceptional sensitivity and control:

  • She sat alone at the witness table and didn't hide behind lawyers.
  • She didn't succumb to the members' baiting and remained calm and cool.
  • She repeatedly expressed regret and sympathy for the people hurt by the company's long delay in replacing faulty ignitions.
  • She didn't make execuses and explained what she is doing to answer questions like why it took so long to recall the switch, who was accountable for failing to do so earlier, and how it can be avoided in the future.
  • She announced that, in addition to hiring lawyers to find answers to those questions, she has also retained Kenneth Feinberg to address the ethical issues involved, suggesting the company won't hide behind bankruptcy protection.

This last plot point -- a novel twist in a hackneyed plot -- may lift the performance into award territory.

It indicates that GM sees this not an engineering, marketing, or financial problem, but as an ethical issue. That puts the company on the right flight path to restoring its reputation. And it suggests a storyline other companies might consider if cast in the same role.

 

  


Aristotle was a PR guy

Aristotle.001

Aristotle would have put public relations squarely at the intersection of rhetoric, politics, and ethics.

Most practitioners would readily agree with the first two. But even though PR thought leaders since Arthur W. Page have said "PR is 90% doing and 10% talking about it," most practitioners interpret that in defensive terms as in, "don't do something you'd be embarrassed to see in the newspapers."

Several stories in today's Wall Street Journal suggest PR counsel has a more fundamental role -- helping CEOs sort out the difference between what a company has a right to do and what's the right thing to do.

To wit:

How the invansion and takeover of Crimea should affect General Electric's investments in Russia, considering that its German competitor, Siemens, has pledged to move forward despite EU sanctions. And should Siemens have done that?

Whether activist investors should leak their plans to potential allies, even though it appears to be legal.

Whether drug companies like Merck and Glaxco should suspend a program to help patients with copays on expensive drugs even though the terms of the Affordable Care Act are ambiguous.

Whether GM's CEO should issue a video telling customers the cars it recalled for ignition problems are safe to drive even if they haven't been fixed yet.

None of those questions are easy to answer. I suspect each company's lawyers were all over them. Probably the finance people as well. Maybe even marketing. All looking at the issues from their functional perspective.

I'd like to suggest the chief PR counselor should also be involved. Not to speculate on the potential public and media reaction. Not to answer the question, "Will it work?" But to offer an principle-based opinion on "Is it right?"

The Big Question: are PR people equipped to tackle those ethical questions?

 

 


Pay for play

Pay for playI ran an ethics workshop yesterday for a group of PR people from around the world.

It was an interesting and fun session designed to encourage the participants to think more deeply about their ethical principles by confronting them with no-win situations and dilemmas.

They seemed to take it all with good humor. But at the end one of the participants described a situation he apparently faces all the time in his home country -- the "brown envelope" of money reporters there expect in return for running a news release.

It came up at the very end of a two-hour session, three minutes before a hard stop so everyone could get on a bus for a trip to the New York Times. So I don't think my answer was all that satisfying.

I told him I thought it was unethical to make the payment.

One of the other participants countered that he didn't consider it very different from tipping a waiter. "Reporters in some countries don't make much money," he said. "These payments are considered part of their compensation."

That may be true, as far as the bribe-taking reporters are concerned. But I stand by my answer with an explanation I didn't offer yesterday. It seems to me that paying reporters to run a news release violates a number of ethical principles.

In terms of consequences, it harms the reporter's readers. When they read a newspaper, they expect articles free from outside influences. Even on the assumption that the news release contained no misleading information, its very appearance in the paper gave it news value it might not otherwise have, which is in itself misleading.

It also violates a PR person's duty to engage in fair and open communications. Hiding the payment deprives readers of information that would almost certainly influence their opinion of the resulting story. PR people are supposed to contribute to the free flow of information. This behavior corrupts one of any democracy's key instutions -- a free press.

And on the level of virtue, it's clearly dishonest; otherwise, why the brown envelope? Tipping a waiter is done in the open for everyone, including the waiter's employer (and the IRS) to see. But the waiter's employer would likely frown on a gratuity quietly slipped to a server prior to the meal to ensure priority service. Such behavior would put other diners at a disadvantage and endanger the employer's reputation. I think that's more analagous to the situation at hand.

I admit cultural differences complicate the situation. It's true that pay-for-play is condoned in some countries. But I'll bet that even in those countries, newspaper readers would consider it corrupt and unethical. Why else would it be kept secret?

At minimum, an ethical PR person would insist on disclosure of the payment so readers can draw their own conclusion about the resulting article's newsworthiness and read it with full knowledge of its sourcing.

I don't think the practice of pay-for-play is really an accommodation to cultural differences; it's capitulation to a dishonest practice no culture should accept. What do you think?


Ethical PR questions

Soap with vitaminsToday's papers include two "news you can use" stories: experts say people should avoid (1) multivitamins and (2) anti-bacterial hand soap.

Not using either, I was less interested in the specifics of these stories than in the ethical implications for PR people who labor in the vineyards of the companies involved.

What is a PR person's ethical obligation when issues of safety are raised by credible experts?

Clearly, the first obligation is tell the truth. To me, that means to give customers substantially all the information they need to make an intelligent decision. And not wait to be asked.

It appears that none of the companies manufacturing anti-bacterial hand soap wanted to comment on concerns raised by the Food and Drug Administration about antibacterial hand soaps.

But as luck would have it, two trade associations were a bit more forthcoming. The American Cleaning Institute  and the Personal Care Products Council issued a joint statement that essentially said:

  • We're perplexed the FDA is raising these concerns because we've given it plenty of  data showing that anti-bacterial soap kills more germs than simple hand-washing.
  • Furthermore, we plan to give them even more data showing that anti-bacterial soap is safe and doesn't contribute to antibiotic or antibacterial resistance.
  • Having said all that, we applaud the FDA for moving their review forward and we expect eventual approval of these products.

Not surprisingly, no multivitamin manufacturer cared to respond to a medical journal editorial questioning the safety and usefulness of mutivitamins. But as luck would have it again, another trade association was available. The Natural Products Association issued a statement that essentially said:

  • This editorial is "overblown." We never said multi-vitamins cure chronic disease or death. They're intended to address nutrient deficiencies.
  • The studies cited in the editorial itself attest to the safety of muli-vitamins and some even demonstrated health benefits.
  • We're baffled.

Now, none of this amounted to outright lying. After all, the jury is still out on the safety and efficacy of using anti-bacterial soap or swallowing multi-vitamins. And just because some experts raise questions, we should not presume guilt.

However, it does raise a couple of questions:

  • Should companies delegate their response to a third party? I don' think that constitutes giving consumers the information they need to make an intelligent decision. I recognize that no company wants its name associated with questions like these. But consumers deserve to hear directly from the companies in which they have placed their trust, especially on questions of safety.
  • At what point are questions so serious that a company should stop selling a product? I don't think either product category has reached that point yet. But effective PR counsel should have a clear idea of the "red line" a company can't ethically cross.

For example, putting antibiotics in animal feed to spur growth has been suspected of contributing to anti-bacterial drug resistance in humans for more than 40 years. But the Food and Drug Administration didn't issue voluntary guidelines until this year.

The Chicken Council and the Meat Institute applauded the voluntary nature of the guidelines. But as far as I know only one actual manufacturer had anything to say about them. Zoetis issued a news release supporting the guidelines and pledging its compliance.

I'm not an epidemiologist so I don't know when -- or even if -- the red line on animal feed antibiotics was crossed . But by any measure, Zoetis' forthright adoption of the standards was an ethically correct decision.

 


Spinning and PhotoShopping

Santalist'Tis the season when jolly Saint Nick compiles a list of who's been naughty and who's been nice.

So a word or two about communication ethics might be in order.

At the top of the naughtiness list is lying.

Sadly, it's such a common offense it has been given its own euphemistic sobriquet -- "spinning." One online political publication even sponsors a weekly contest to see who can best exticate the horribleness from a horrible story, e.g., "How to handle a Congressman's coke bust" or "How to say 'sorry' to Sarah Palin."

But there's another kind of lying that is even more insidious. It distorts how people see reality, including themselves. And it's even more prevalent than political spinning. 

I'm talking about the surgical use of PhotoShop to create a standard of beauty that could never exist in the real world. 

Tumblr_mgy8i33akg1s405ijo1_250For example, the editors of Canada's Flare magazine don't think Jennifer Lawrence is pretty enough for their cover. Her hairline is too high. Her neck is too short. Her hips are too wide. And she has fat arms.

Really?

Ms. Lawrence -- whose beauty doesn't need PhotoShop enhancement -- should be offended. Sadly, she is not the real victim. Nor are the countless other celebrities whose photos are manipulated to meet some editor's unrealistic standards.

GQ magazine's editors incurred Kate Winslet's wrath when it plastered a super-slimmed-down version of her on its cover –  “I don’t look like that,” she said, “and I don’t desire to look like that.” 

 

More recently, one of the young stars of ABC Family’s hit show "Pretty Little Liars" took to Twitter to bash her own network for using a heavily Photoshopped image of her and her co-stars. 

 

But the real victims are the millions of young people who unconsciously adopt such an unattainable standard of beauty. 

PR people should ask themselves whether or not they have been collaborators in the construction of this fantasy world.

 

 


OtherWise Follow-up

Moral tribes

For your weekend reading: more on being "OtherWise."

From the Wall Street Journal, a review of Moral Tribes by psychologist Joshua Greene explains how we use different parts of our brain when dealing with people  like ourselves than with strangers. As the reviewer points out, "Our modern world is full of 'thems'—some passing us on the street, others on the far side of a negotiating table, shouting about their rights and sacred values. In that case, beware the rapid gut intuition: 'I can't quite say why, but it's plain wrong that they do that.' Instead, as Dr. Greene emphasizes, breathe slowly. And think slowly, too.

From the "Huffington Post," a posting about recent research about the role emotional intelligence plays in decision-making. The gist of the studies: emotions influence decision-making even if they're totally unrelated to the matter at hand. People with high emotional intelligence can block the influence of unrelated emotions and make better decisions.

Also a posting by Linda Tirado that graphically explains why poor people's seemingly bad decisions actually make sense when you understand their day-to-day lives. Tirado describes herself as "kind of poor" and holds down two full-time jobs to help support her kids. If you find this posting insightful, you may be interested in her blog, "Killer Martinis."

 


Stupid is as stupid does

Capitol DunceIt's enough to make Forrest Gump blush. 

Everyone from the Senate chaplain to sitting federal judges, not to mention 89% of voters, is fed up with Congress.

Yet our elected representatives seem incapable of extricating themselves from the mess they've created. 

I only wish Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economics at Berkeley had lived to see it.

Cipolla is famous for developing the basic laws of human stupidity

In philosophical terms, Cipolla was a utilitarian. He analyzed human behavior in terms of gains and losses. He defined a stupid person as someone who "causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

It seems to me that Congress comes very close to proving Cipolla's theory.

Now, to be perfectly fair to Prof. Cipolla, although he thought the proportion of stupid people was far greater than widely believed, he did allow for at least three other possibilities. He said that people could also be:

  • Bandits, who cause losses to another to benefit themselves, 
  • Hapless souls, who cause losses to themselves as well as to others, or 
  • Intelligent people who create gains for both themselves and others.

All four cases are illustratred below.

Stupidity3
The horizontal “X” axis measures the advantage gained from one’s actions. The vertical “Y” axis measures the advantage gained by others.

I leave it to you to decide whether our elected representatives deserve to be in one of those other categories. Bandit maybe? Hapless?

Of course, Cipolla also suggested that the most dangerous people of all are those who are so stupid they don't know they're stupid.  

That category looks most likely to me all the time.

 

 


A new Corporate Garbo

Garbo, Greta_NRFPT_07AT&T apparently has a new slogan. It doesn't appear at the end of its ads, but it's the gist of a recent letter my former AT&T colleague Jim Cicconi sent to Senator Dick Durbin.

To wit, "I want to be left alone." 

Durbin had asked AT&T if it agreed with “stand your ground” legislation a company-funded organization was recommending as a national model.

The organization in question is the  American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

ALEC is a nominally non-partisan organization that produces "model legislation" to promote "free markets" and "limited government" at the state level. About 200 of it's "model policies" become law every year. It is funded largely by companies that benefit from said "free markets" and limited "government," i.e., regulation.

CicconiMr. Cicconi is the man with the company checkbook for ALEC's purposes. He also commands an army of state and federal lobbyists. When I worked with him, Cicconi had a war chest in excess of $60 million. It's probably more now, and he knows how to spend it to get what he wants. 

One way he spends it is on organizations like ALEC that give him a voice in the drafting of legislation.  One thing he wants is to be left alone as he goes about this task.

That was the point of the letter he sent to Senator Durbin. Cicconi said he considered the senator's question an attack on AT&T's rights to free speech. "Any response to your request," he wrote, "will be used by those interests whose purpose is to pressure corporations to de-fund organizations and political speech with which they disagree."

In other words, Cicconi suggested the real issue at stake is defending a company's right to free speech, not changes to self-defense laws that give people immunity for using deadly force.  

The Wall Street Journal, which ran extensive quotes from Cicconi's letter and praised him for refusing to be "blackmailed" or "bullied," wholeheartedly agreed.

As it happens, when the Trayvon Martin case stirred up public concern about stand your ground laws, AT&T quietly told ALEC to cool its jets or, as the Journal put it, to shut down "noneconomic advocacy" that "detracts from the group's core mission."

Frankly, that core mission deserves a long, hard look, especially since the Wall Street Journal and companies like AT&T seem so sensitive about it. 

Do we want anonymous corporations paying for "model laws" in such areas as civil justice, commerce, insurance, communications technology, education, energy, the environment, agriculture, health, human aervices, international relations and tax and fiscal policy?  

That's what ALEC -- which started life as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators -- considers its core mission. According to Common Cause, 98% of ALEC's funding comes from the very corporations most affected by laws in those areas. And, according to an ALEC executive quoted in an NPR report, company lobbyists and lawyers work side by side with state legislators in crafting the "model laws." 

Companies certainly have the right to fund such activity. According to the Supreme Court, it's a matter of free speech.

And  Mr. Ciconni is probably right -- revealing AT&T's funding of such organizations might subject it to criticism or at least uncomfortable questions. But isn't that the price of free speech? 

The Wall Street Journal won't print op eds without identifying the economic entanglements of the people who write them. Is it too much to ask that state legislatures do the same for the so-called "model legislation" they're considering?

 


Babies, chocolate, and PR

Baby with chocolateP&G is downsizing Pampers.

No, not because babies are getting smaller. But because the company's costs are getting bigger. P&G will be putting fewer diapers in every package of Pampers without changing the sticker price, resulting in a roughly 6% increase per diaper. They call it "resheeting."

I'm not shocked and you shouldn't be either. Companies raise prices now and then. Pampers' price hasn't changed since 2011.

What is surprising is the forthrightness with which P&G handled this.

I don't think the company issued a news release announcing the desheeting. At least, I couldn't find one.  But when a Wall Street Journal reporter asked about the backdoor price increase, the company's media relations people didn't try to change the subject.

They pointed out that the price increase reflected improvements that make the diapers more absorbent and soak up more leaks, making them more expensive to make. They also described the R&D investment behind those improvements.

Contrast that with the New York Times' experience when it asked the makers of Baker's chocolate about a change in package size that resulted in a 47% price increase. 

The company spokesperson explained that bakers prefer the smaller package because most of their recipes require less chocolate than in the larger package. The smaller package ensures the chocolate is fresher. 

Fair enough, the Times' intrepid reporter said. But why the price increase?

"Our packaging change was driven by consumer research," the flack replied. And I use the term "flack" advisedly.

"Ooo-kay," the reporter pressed on, "but did your customers tell you to raise the price?"

Cornered, the spokesperson confessed: "“Our new four-ounce size of Baker’s Chocolate is competitively priced with other brands.”

That's amusing enough, but what the Times reporter wrote in response should be read by every corporate PR department in flackdom.

"The reality is that that for many items, production costs have been rising. Given these circumstances, a price increase is perfectly understandable and arguably inevitable. What’s odd is that few manufacturers, it seems, ever level with consumers about what might be valid reasons for higher prices.”

In other words, the truth shouldn't be self-serving, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore your perspective. In fact, it’s part of telling the truth. Trying to hide a price increase isn’t. 

Unfortunately, the flacks of the world approach media relations like the politician who started a news conference by asking, "Does anyone have any questions for my answers?"

That's just infantile.


Where I've Been

EthicsI took an unexpected exit out of the blogosphere a couple of months ago.  

I agreed to teach an ethics course as part of Rutgers Unviversity's new certificate program in public relations.

I know, I know, "ethical public relations" sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of "jumbo shrimp." And Rutgers itself has had more than it share of ethical challenges recently. Plus, much of the course will be taught online which is the subject of some controversy. 

So here's why I agreed to do it.

First, if Rutger's experience over the last few months teaches anything it's that large institutions can easily lose any meaningful connection with the ethical principles they espouse. Companies are just as vulnerable.

But ethics can't be taught to institutions or companies. It has to start with individuals.  Most PR people I know strive to be ethical. But in the workshops I've given over the years I've discovered that, while they know that something like lying is unethical, they have great difficulty explaining why with any precision. 

If you can't explain why something is wrong, the liklihood that you will recognize it -- much less avoid it -- declines precipitously.

Which brings me to my second reason: it seems to me that every major PR crisis of recent years was rooted in an ethical lapse. Sometimes, it started as an Act of God, but it really became a crisis because someone didn't act ethically.

Take Carnival Crusie Line, the subject of my last posting. An engine fire is an accident. But when it happens three times, you have to wonder if the company isn't acting imprudently. Well, prudence is one of Plato's four cardinal virtues. 

Finally, I have been curious about this relatively new phenomenon of online education. I have never taken an online course, much less given one. I saw the Rutgers gig as an opportunity to learn more about it.

My Rutgers course will not be a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). In fact, I expect to have only a handful of students. And I have tried to structure the course to maximize interaction with each of them through discussion boards and individal email exchanges. My goal is to help each student develop their own framework for ethical reasoning.

Now that the heavy lifting in the course's development in over, I plan to report on what I learned in my research over the last few months and on what I will learn when I begin interacting with students in September. 

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, I'd welcome them.

 

 


Holy Week

Washing-feetMillions of Christians are celebrating Holy Week, remembering a man whose singular message was one of love. So it's a little disconcerting to see how some of his nominal followers are interpreting his message.

The Wall Street Journal today carried a lovely little story about Pope Francis' decision to wash the feet of 12 prison inmates in the traditional Holy Thursday ceremony. All of the inmates were young immigrants in an Italian detention center. Some were Muslim and a couple were women.

Traditionally, the pope washed the feet of retired priests in some Roman basillica. But Pope Francis has been going out of his way to show that he intends to focus the church on the poor and the downtrodden. I think he means it.

His plan to live a simpler life by moving into a Vatican guest house may be no more successful in reforming the people who report to him than Jimmy Carter's decision to carry his own luggage. But I think his heart's in the right place.

Sadly, the online comments to the Journal story suggest that it will be hard to get everyone on the same page.

The very first comment criticized the pope for washing the feet of a woman. "Many of us are shocked and appalled," Joe O'Leary tutted. "Many of us hope the pope sees the error of his un-biblical ways and issues an apology."

Another commenter wrote: "Thank God the Pope is not a Nazi anymore."

Still another accused the pope of naivete. "The obviously well-intentioned [and staged?] gesture of a pope washing the feet of a Muslim will backfire.... with very nasty and crude remarks from mainstream Muslims, who wouldn't ordinarily acknowledge an ecumenical outreach, and couldn't tell the difference from that and one of their scimitars."

To be sure, several readers took these folks to task.

But I've noticed the same pattern in the comments section of both the Journal and the New York Times -- a knee-jerk reaction to fill the slightest partisan opening. 

The same issue of the Journal carried a story that the Obama administration may include entitlement reform in its upcoming budget. That stimulated dozens of comments. The very first one was typical: "And Lucy is holding the football," wrote Jonathan Rourke, suggesting it's all a devious trick. To which one reader replied, "Bingo!"

If Obama walked across the waters of the Potomac River, some people would say it only shows he can't swim. To be fair, some people would say the same thing of George W. Bush in similar circumstances. 

We're all entitled to our opinions, of course. There's even such a thing as justifiable anger. But those opinions and anger shouldn't become the very lens through which we see the world or they become biases and bigotry. 

As Pope Francis put it in explaining why he washed the inmates feet, "So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…Sometimes I would get angry with someone. But we must let it go and if they ask a favor, do it."




Ethics in flight

BoeingLMy editor once told me that anything with "ethics" in the title was destined for the remainder pile.

So I write this with some trepidation.

But reading the newspaper these days reminds me that, despite the backlash in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, common ethics doesn't seem to be that common in many companies.

Instead of asking "is this right or wrong," some companies seem to be asking "will this work?"

Example: following highly publicized battery problems in its 787 Dreamliner, Boeing seems to have moved into a "limit the damage" phase of its crisis management plan.

When lithium batteries burst into flame on several flights, Boeing was quick to halt deliveries of the new airplanes, saying any fire on an aircraft is a serious issue.

The company cooperated with invesitigations into the causes of the battery malfunctions and ultimately won approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on a plan to test and certify improvements to the 787’s battery system.

Meanwhile, the planes remain grounded and the company is subtly changing its public stance.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, in two recent press briefings senior Boeing managers downplatyed the battery problems.

The 787's chief engineer told reporters that "in the last 10 years, there have been thousands upon thousands" of battery malfunctions on commercial planes, making such events a reality of airline operations, adding that "many of them have resulted in smoke and fire."

Another veteran 787 engineer said fallout from battery failures "happens on our airplanes week in and week out."

In other words, batteries bursting into flame are no big deal. Get over it.

Apparently, the new tack stems from company research into peoples' attitudes toward the Dreamliner following heavy coverage of the battery fires.

Some industry experts warn that the strategy is dangerous, especially if another fire breaks out. Others say that the public has a short memory and this too shall pass.

But the real question Boeing should be asking isn't whether or not this Redemption Startegy will work.  The real question is whether or not it's right.

Is it designed to give people the information they need to make an intelligent decision about flying on a Dreamliner?  Or is it designed to minimize the chance that they'll even ask the question?

 

 


Lies, damn lies, and PR

Pontius-pilatewithwordsforbanner2-e1330069378675Faced with a tricky judicial question, a first century Roman governor named Pontius Pilate was quoted somewhere skeptically asking "What is truth?"

It's a question public relations people face nearly every day.

They're seldom -- if ever -- asked to lie. But they seldom -- if ever -- know all the truth.

And even when they do, they have to figure out how much to tell.

Apparently, when Robert Gibbs was President Obama's press secretary, he was told to not even admit the U.S. was conducting drone strikes in foreign countries.

Curiously, as far as I can tell, no one in the news media has taken him to task for it, other than fake newsman Jon Stewart and Gibbs' fellow MSNBC colleague, Rachel Maddow. (But Maddow's heart didn't seem to be in it, while Stewart held nothing back.) 

Technically, Gibbs didn't lie. He simply refused to respond to certain questions. Or is that a kind of lying?

In today's Wall Street Journal, the Chairman of RSA Security described the criteria a company should use in deciding whether or not to disclose cyber attacks it suffered. 

"If an attack on you has the potential to hurt somebody else, then you likely have an obligation to disclose it," he says. "And for your shareholders, you have a responsibility to disclose if you suffered an economic loss."  Then he continues, "If an attack on you might be a source of embarrassment, but nothing is lost then perhaps you don't need to disclose it."

We'll never know how much Gibbs was arguing behind the scenes for greater transparency. But on the face of it, it seems that RSA's chairman has a better grasp of what should be revealed (though he leaves himself a loophole big enough for a few whoppers to pass through).

The rule of thumb I tried to follow in my career is relatively straightforward: people deserve to be told everything they need to know to make an informed decision, whether it's buying the company's stock, working there, doing business with it, or letting it operate in their community.

I can't say I followed that rule flawlessly. So I'm willing to cut Mr. Gibbs some slack. 

But unlike Governor Pilate, PR people can't wash their hands of their obligation to the truth, even if it's uncomfortable.



The biggest cliff

CliffIt's ironic that, with all the talk about fiscal cliffs, little attention is being paid to the ultimate cliff we all must face.  

Government budgets and our own end-of-life discussions are more closely related than many people are willing to acknowledge.

I'm sure there's a flaw in my thinking on this. And I'd be grateful if someone would point it out to me. So here goes:

Healthcare costs are the biggest budget driver.

  • Healthcare costs are the biggest and fastest-growing part of the federal budget. Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP account for 21% of the federal budget. And that doesn't count healthcare spending in other parts of the budget -- e.g., for the military and government employees.
  • Federal spending on healthcare is projected to double in the next decade as the aging population joins Medicare and as the Affordable Care Act extends Medicaid and insurance subsidies to more people.  
  • Overall medical costs are growing faster than the underlying economy and at a higher rate than overall inflation.

Insurance (including Medicare, Medicaid, etc.)

  • Health insurance in itself does little to lower healthcare costs, though it's the one element most people see and therefore pay attention to. 
  • Insurance companies have relatively little purchasing power because the nation's health system is so decentralized. 
  • Legislation inhibits the purchasing power of the government in some areas, e.g., negotiating drug prices. 
  • On the other hand, the government tool most often threatened -- unilaterally lowering doctor payments -- will not lower costs, because doctors will opt out of the system, lowering the availability of care and forcing patients into hospital emergency rooms, which are the most expensive  
  • Lowering the cost of health insurance will do little to lower the cost of healthcare itself. In fact, cheaper insurance could increase the consumption of healthcare services, which is the primary driver of rising costs.
Consumption
  • Americans spend more per capita for healhtcare than any other nation. The principal reason for this is that we consume more healthcare services, not because our healthcare system itself is inherently more expensive. 
  • The biggest and fastest-growing segment of total healthcare spending is end-of-life care. According to a government study, 70% of healthcare spending is on the elderly and 80% of that is during the last month of life.
  • So it seems a no-brainer that that's where we should concentrate our attention.

Rationing

  • The only way to lower healthcare costs is to make tough-minded cost/benefit choices.
  • This doesn't require "death panels." But it does require better research into what treatments are effective and therefore worth pursuing. And it could mean basing insurance payments on those findings.
  • And that will require the ambidextrous exercise of the thorniest of all disciplines -- ethics and politics. 

Finally, I say all this even though I am fast approaching the point when I myself will need end-of-life care. And with full knowledge that my own kids -- who may be making these decisions on my behalf -- occasionally read these musings.



Empathy works

AshokaA friend recently introduced me to Ashoka, an organization that, for 30 years, has been identifying and supporting some of the world's leading "social entrepreneurs."

Social entrepreneurs bring energy, smarts, and passion to solving entrenched social problems. Ashoka is supporting their initiatives in areas ranging from education and youth development to farming and financial services.

One of those initiatives is designed to help children develop their natural sense of empathy, which Ashoka considers "a core 21st century skill." Its rationale is straight-forwaed:

"We know that a child who masters empathy at the age of six is less likely to bully ten years later, and that, for students, having one supportive relationship with an adult outside the family can be the difference between success and failure as an adult. And we know that far from being a "nice-to-have," empathy – and the various skills it entails – is increasingly critical to our success at home, in the workplace, and in the world."

That happens to be the theme of OtherWise, so I was happy to sit down for an interview that is currently running on the Forbes web site.  For the same reason, I'm happy to plug the empathy project's web site, especially the excellent survey of current research on empathy.