How To Assure Your Agency Team Puts Ethics First

How To Assure Your Agency Team Puts Ethics First

How To Assure Your Agency Team Puts Ethics First

There’s been yet another brouhaha about ethics in PR, and rightly so. A staffer at one of Wal*Mart’s public affairs firms got it terribly wrong, posing as a reporter at a “closed” press conference given by a union. And smarter folks than I have weighed in.

(Since first publishing this blog, I learned that Wal*Mart fired the public affairs firmed involved.)

Said staffer has since been removed. But it got me thinking about what the agency might have done to prevent this, which certainly would have been in the firm’s and their client’s best interests. Of course one would hope that a PR professional, at any level, knows that pretending to be someone one isn’t, particularly a member of the media, is wrong no matter how you slice it. But what had the firm done to inform its staff of the ethical standards it requires each employee to follow?

Which got me to the bigger question: Are PR firms doing enough to prevent this kind of ethical nightmare?

I spoke with three PR agency CEOs, and learned that they indeed take this quite seriously, ensure that their employees understand how the agency defines ethical behavior, and do everything they can to assure compliance.

Steve Cody, co-founder and managing partner of strategic communications firm Peppercom (Disclosure: client), says the firm dedicates an entire section in its Employee Handbook to “Ethics/Employee Conduct,” which covers such topics as Conduct Prohibited by Peppercom, Conflicts of Interest, Insider Trading, Use of Company or Customer Property, Use of Office Equipment, Electronic, Communications and Information Systems Policy (includes electronic mail, the internet, computer software, etc.), Social Media Rules and Guidelines, Relationships with Customers, Relationships with Competitors, and Agency Publicity/Press Relations.

Equally important, Peppercom has a clearly defined Agency Code of Ethics included in the Handbook: “All Peppercom business will be conducted with the highest standards of personal and company ethics. High ethical standards include, but are not limited to, accurate representation of services provided and accurate invoicing. These standards also include equal treatment of clients, vendors and suppliers without regard to race, color, gender, citizenship, religion, national origin, age, handicap or disability, sexual orientation, veteran’s status, military status, or any other category protected by law.”

Eric Morgenstern, CEO of Morningstar Communications, has a somewhat different, but equally valid approach.

He’s developed a document called “Expectations of Excellence,” which has been virtually unchanged in more than two decades (Hey, if it ain’t broke…) which frames the agency’s vision for excellence. The section on “Personal Qualities: Who You Are” leads with a simple statement: “Ethics and accountability – always do the right thing.”

Morgenstern reviews the Expectations of Excellence document with every employee, “from intern through EVP” by their third day on the job. He also reminds them of two ethics-related points: “If you’re not sure if something you’re going to do is ethical-ask (someone in senior management)!,” and “If you’re asked to compromise your ethics-ask!.”

In addition, every employee signs a pledge to follow the PRSA Code of Ethics, and every client agreement acknowledges that this is the code that the firm and all its employees will follow.

Ann Willets is the CEO of Utopia Communications. I was particularly interested in how her firm approaches this topic, since it “was established as an ethically-focused public relations agency committed to full and open disclosure, transparency and advocacy for our agency, clients and the profession at large around acting ethically.”

Willets employs a number of key actions to assure that team members approach the business with the highest ethical standards, including:

  • As with employees of Morningstar Communications, Utopia staffers, upon hiring, are required to review PRSA’s Code of Ethics and sign an agreement that says they will adhere to the code.
  • Each year, employees are required to undergo the LEAP Ethical Decision Making Workshop, a four-hour ethics training program, offering a step-by-step approach to ethical development and decision-making for individuals. (FYI, LEAP stands for Learn everything you can, Evaluate your options, Access your intuition, Put your plan into action).
  • Willets routinely discusses current ethical issues within the industry in her “The Ethical Optimist” blog. Here’s her take on that Wal*Mart agency’s ethics imbroglio.
  • When the agency is considering taking on a new client, all employees are given the option to review the prospective client and determine if they should be part of Utopia’s portfolio or if signing on that client would present any ethical issues.
  • Employees are assured that they can speak to any member of the management team or fellow employee about an ethical issue without fear of recrimination. In fact, they’re encouraged to do so.

So what can you learn from these agency leaders help ensure that your firm’s team acts ethically?

1) State It. Articulate your agency’s code of ethical behavior. In writing.

2) Disseminate It. Don’t let the code sit in a file drawer somewhere. Make sure that staffers can access it, and encourage them to refer back to it. Often.

3)  Talk About It!  Just one unethical action by just one staffer can pose enormous risk to your agency’s reputation, and that of your clients. So be sure to engage your team members, at every level, in discussions on ethical behavior. As Willets says “Unfortunately, these things keep happening. But each time they do, it’s a teaching moment.” She recommends that when agency leaders read about an ethical misstep in the media or online, they should get it in front of their staffs by taking a poll about the situation using the agency intranet, as well as discussing it in the next staff meeting. Ask team members for their views on what happened, and how it could have been avoided. Restate your agency’s ethical guidelines, and your view that all personnel must abide by it.

4) Consistently Model Ethical Behavior. Make sure every member of the staff knows how seriously you take the topic of behaving ethically. The best way to do so is to model ethical behavior in all your actions.

5)  Follow Your Moral Compass. Be willing to part ways with clients who ask you to act unethically. (Of course, first point out that the action they’ve asked you to take is unethical, and suggest an ethical alternative. But if they insist that you proceed, you know what you need to do.) When meeting with potential clients, have your antenna set high for unethical behavior. And keep seeking out clients who are guided by the highest ethical standards.

What are you doing as an agency leader to avoid ethical missteps? Are you doing enough? Are you following my five recommendations above? What else do you recommend to fellow agency owners and leaders? I’d welcome your response in the Comments section. 


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