Writing 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.