PRNEWS often reports on the best practices of communicators and PR professionals, but we rarely acknowledge the mistakes that make or break a career. We reached out to the wider public relations community to create a list of the seven deadly sins of PR. Committing one or many of these atrocities could end a career or at the very least, take it in an undesirable direction. Humility, honesty and trust remain some of the most basic, but essential tenets of ethical PR. Keep the list below handy if you ever find yourself questioning your actions (or those of a colleague).
Developing a reputation for bending the truth can put you on the wrong side of the PR law. Successful communicators continually promote the best in their clients, serving with transparency and openness. Whether it comes down to facts about a client provided for an article, or the specifics of your accomplishments as a PR pro, it’s important to stay truthful. Vince Galloro, founder and principal of Sunrise Health Communications, sees lying as a top PR sin. “Claiming to have done something on the client's behalf but not actually having done it,” breaches the client’s trust, he said.
- Leaking Info
Sharing confidential information with the press does not bode well for those looking to move up the ladder in PR. “I’d have to say leaking confidential information would be one that tops the list—even if by accident,” said Meredith L. Eaton, director of North America at Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. “After all, PR pros are also secret keepers. We are let into the innermost circles of our clients’ businesses and are often among the first to know sensitive information, so we can help create crisis plans or craft comms for whatever situation unfolds. As the old motto goes, loose lips sink ships! And, as PR pros, we need to keep a lid on it or risk ruining not only our own careers, but potentially others’ as well.”
- Breaching Trust
This action can take many forms: exceeding authority of those you represent, lying or other sorts of ethical mishaps. Another deadly sin of PR and client service is “leveraging any kind of confidential client information for personal gain,” said Anne Green, principal, managing director, G&S Business Communications. “This should go without saying, given the ethical and potentially legal implications. But it is critical to be vigilant on this front and ensure all professionals coming into the field understand what is appropriate use of client information, and what is not.”
- Mistreating Reporters
Communicators need to remember that journalists and PR pros are on the same team. You catch more flies with honey and ultimately reporters’ work benefits you and your clients. “This is particularly relevant for crisis communications but a good rule of thumb regardless: reporters are doing their jobs,” said Andrew Friedman, SVP of crisis management at Berlin Rosen. “Whether or not you like a story that a reporter is working on (or perhaps, passes on), attacking the reporter is almost always a waste of time and often will make a situation worse. Respecting journalism and those who practice it is generally in the best interest of your clients.” Therese Van Ryne, global PR director of Zebra Technologies, added the importance of de-prioritizing deadlines. “It’s important to meet reporters’ deadlines if you want to maintain positive relationships with them,” Van Ryne said. “One way to dampen, if not ruin, a PR career is to allow other distractions to get in the way of meeting or, better yet, beating reporter deadlines. The more responsive you are to reporters, the more they will rely on you as a valued resource.”
- Ignoring the Details
The little things can add up to big problems if you don’t remain detail-oriented and aware. Kim Sample, president of the PR Council, reminds communicators to always edit their work, and refrain from asking the Pepsi client for a Diet Coke. “Remember to demonstrate preference for your client’s brand,” Sample said. “Don’t stay at a Marriott-branded hotel if you’re pitching Hilton. Don’t pull out your HP laptop at a Lenovo meeting. Don’t use your Amex card to pay for a meal with the Visa client. A colleague at lunch with a PepsiCo client could order a Diet Coke and be asked to leave the team.” Spelling errors are “unforgivable,” according to Sample, especially if it is the name of a brand or a person's name. “Pay particular attention to acronyms because they can be easily transposed. Be sure everyone involved knows what the acronym stands for. I recall a very painful story about a new business meeting in which the team didn’t know what the acronym stood for and endured some embarrassing moments,” she shared.
- Lack of Transparency
Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO for the Institute of Public Relations, said there’s an issue with withholding important information from stakeholders.“Whether dealing with clients or employees, public relations professionals have a responsibility to provide information to both internal and external stakeholders that helps them make key decisions that affect peoples’ lives, even when the information may not reflect the organization positively,” McCorkindale said. “Failure to be transparent negatively impacts your reputation as a professional and how much people trust that you have their best interest in mind.”
- Picking the Wrong Spokespeople
Sure, not everyone is great at public speaking. However, determining the wrong spokesperson for a client or brand can have terrible consequences. “It’s critical to train your spokespeople on the do’s and don’ts of speaking to the media and track their progress in doing so to best represent your brand,” Van Ryne said. “Picking the wrong spokespeople could interrupt your longevity in this industry.” In sum, “ensuring your spokespeople know the rules of the road and stick to them benefits PR pros and the companies they represent.”
- BONUS: Inflating Numbers
Along with lying, falsifying metrics is a huge sin. To investigators they say “follow the money”; when applied to metrics, it’s relatively easy to follow the numbers and see where a PR pro is off. “One of the worst career moves I've seen is PR professionals inflating media impression numbers to make their programs or campaigns appear more successful to clients,” said Sabrina Browne, account director, corporate, BCW Global. “Not only does this break client trust, it brings your entire agency's measurement capabilities and credibility into question. Inflating impression numbers in end-of-year reports or recap decks will not help your success in the industry, but hinder it.” Specifically, Browne said, “clients will no longer view you in the same manner and raise questions around your ability to measure future communication programs.” To avoid this mistake, Browne advised PR pros to “develop a performance media strategy that generates results for clients beyond impressions. This approach allows you to leverage real-time data and analytics to deliver stories at-scale and drive measurable performance in today's business landscape.”
Nicole Schuman is a reporter for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal