“Your Cheatin’ Heart”: Why Transparency Should Matter

February 22nd, 2012 | Kirk Hazlett | 18 Comments

transparencyI frequently voice my opinion on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) on ethics, in particular on the issue of “transparency.”

What set me off recently was an article in the Boston Globe about the Super PACs and their impact/effect on the voting public. (Note: The Globe chose not to print my letter, but I’m not giving up!)

PRSA’s Code of Ethics presents clear guidelines on the ethical considerations that public relations professionals should embrace when representing clients or employers.

Of particular note are articles relating to “free flow of information.”

Hiding behind a false front in hopes of getting someone to act in a particular way is in no way an example of transparency.

If I had to choose one word that, in my mind, describes this act, it would be deceit. Or, to borrow the title of one of my favorite country-and-western oldies but goodies, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Democracies are based on informed decision-making by a nation’s citizens. And these decisions are made based on a free and open flow of information to and from those citizens and their leaders.

I would never dispute the right of anyone to represent a client. I might not agree ethically or morally with that individual’s actions, and I might speak out publicly and vociferously against that individual’s choices.

But I also firmly believe in a free society where intelligent people make their own choices and have to abide by the consequences of those decisions.

But… and this is where PRSA’s Code of Ethics comes into play… if you are going to make a decision or take an action that, in your own professional estimation, certain stakeholders are going to find fault with, do so openly and honestly.

Don’t hide behind a smokescreen of deceit, manipulation, and obfuscation. Make your decision; announce your decision; and act on your decision.

If you have conducted your research and talked with representative groups of stakeholders from all the publics impacted by your decision, you will be aware of and prepared to respond to both positive and negative reactions.

That’s what makes the public relations profession a “profession”… one that I am proud to have played a small part in for closing in on half a century… the planning and forethought that go into programs developed on behalf of clients or employers.

And if you find yourself facing a situation that presents public opinion challenges, take a deep breath and listen… again… to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” It’ll “make you weep”!

Image: kelsey_lovefusionphoto via Flickr, CC 2.0

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Kirk Hazlett

Kirk Hazlett

Professor at Curry College
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, holds the position of Associate Professor, Communication/Public Relations, at Curry College; he is also Lecturer in Communications, at Regis College. Kirk has 35+ years’ federal government and nonprofit organization PR experience, followed by nearly 10 years’ undergraduate- and graduate-level college teaching experience. Some of the organizations he has counseled include the Blood Bank of Hawaii, Medical Area Service Corporation and Boston Harborfest. He blogs at A Professor’s Thoughts.
Kirk Hazlett
Kirk Hazlett
Kirk Hazlett

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"A Little Birdie Told Me" could fly into your inbox just once a month. It's Shonali-as-seen-nowhere-else. What're you waiting for?

16 comments
shonali
shonali

@cyberlandgal Thanks so much for sharing @KirkHazlett post!

KirkHazlett
KirkHazlett

@jgarant Thanks for sharing this, Jamie! @shonali

JGarant
JGarant

Nice post @KirkHazlett . Unfortunately it's that old school thinking of PR and communication as 'smoke and mirrors' that continues to take legitimacy away from the ethical and transparent practitioners out there. I love that your post mentions the process required to talk to stakeholders and to plan and respond with a larger vision and forethought in mind. Sometimes I think that most people don't understand the work that goes into these efforts - efforts that do make public relations a profession. Let's hope that your sentiment and call for transparency are heard and carried forward by all of us as we move forward.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Did you represent Big Tobacco in the 80's Kirk? LOL Great post!

I think of companies like Arthur Anderson who willingly helped the Enron debacle. I know we all want to make money. And my industry Advertising is not very honest most of the time. Unlike our right to an attorney in the constitution businesses do not have a right to PR or Advertising services. Yes money talks. But the Agencies and Individuals have a fiduciary duty to be truthful to their clients/stakeholders even if they are paid to not be fully truthful to the public (and agree to this). Also internally. Sometimes you can do something that brings you guilt by association.

@ginidietrich often mentions this when there are PR debacles. A good agency will run through all possible outcomes, risks etc And they should turn away business if they are asked to go against their own code of conduct/ethics even if the price seems right,

MattLaCasse
MattLaCasse

Couldn't agree more @kirkhazlett . I'd make the argument that 99% of PR crisis situations could have been averted by simply being open and transparent. Really enjoyed the read!

CyberlandGal
CyberlandGal

@shonali Anytime, Shonali! @KirkHazlett had some important points RE #transparency. Would be better world if all #PR folks heeded his advice

JGarant
JGarant

@KirkHazlett @shonali no worries Kirk, great post!

KirkHazlett
KirkHazlett

@MattLaCasse

Thanks very much, Matt. And you're absolutely right about crisis communication "success." I have spent a LOT of time in my life convincing higher-ups that they couldn't sweep the situation under the rug and pretend it didn't exist. But, it seems that the concept lives on!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@KirkHazlett@MattLaCasse I want to bring attention to compensation. The Iraq War had plenty of cost plus contracts. So there was no incentive for contractors to be fiscally responsible in fact the incentive was the opposite.

Granted a crisis could risk losing a client. But if you are retained on an hourly basis couldn't that incentivize and agency to allow a crisis to unfold?

MattLaCasse
MattLaCasse

@HowieG@KirkHazlett Sort of building in an "ethics clause" into your contract. I like that idea. The unfortunate truth is that not every person in our industry will ever be completely ethical. All we can do is continue to show that most reputable PR pros are transparent, open, honest, and ethical.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@KirkHazlett@MattLaCasse But this can be fixed by a compensation structure that rewards for minimizing crises. a big company could easily do a 10 year review and identify preventable events and come up with a per year number then use that savings if it happens as a rebate to the agency.

KirkHazlett
KirkHazlett

@HowieG@MattLaCasse

Now you're getting into the "other" side of this conundrum, Howie. Are we doing this for the "greater good" or the "bigger check"? Some of our so-called PR consultants appear to embrace the latter.

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  1. [...] Sorry loyal “Scandal-ites.” I’ve been known to “wax unlyrical” time and again with my view of what comprises good/ethical/professional public relations. Nothing… no way… no how… in this episode was representative of what I, and thousands of [...]

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