Hey, Business Leaders, Let’s Tackle Bad PR Behavior Together

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In the British TV drama "FLACK," the callous, often ruthless PR agency head Caroline tells her team, “I don’t care if you lie, or send innocent people to jail, or go around kicking crutches of Polio-riddled children, as long as you’re in control.”

In a recent interview, the actress who plays Caroline describes the character as “the embodiment of PR.”

Unfortunately, these days we’re seeing too many examples of that sentiment playing out in real life.

The recent case of Ronn Torossian, founder and CEO of PR agency 5WPR, could serve as a plot line for FLACK.

Mr. Torossian admitted to owning a news site and promoting himself, his agency and clients with bylines attributed to a fake editor and at least three other phony writers.  Under pseudonyms, he not only promoted his clients but disparaged other PR practitioners and agencies.  And on numerous occasions, lied outright about his ownership of the site.

I wish I could say Torossian’s unethical behavior was an anomaly.  Sadly, this isn’t the case.

Other Fakes

Last year we learned that aviation company Blade had a fake spokesperson for years.  Blade’s director of communication, Simon McLaren, was a made-up persona.  Company leaders reportedly issued press statements in his name and even impersonated McLaren in telephone interviews.

And don't overlook the case of Britain’s Bell Pottinger, a one-time bellwether agency brought to its knees by egregious ethical behavior associated with South African politics.

I won’t even go near the widespread misinformation associated with the 2020 election.

So, what’s to be done about all this?

'A Stain on Our Profession'

The PRSA-NY board of directors was the first to respond to Torossian. Its statement called his actions “a cowardly and blatant violation of PRSA's Code of Ethics…a stain on our profession.”

Richard Edelman wrote that he was "stunned and nauseated," adding, "It is a perversion of media that takes advantage of the weakness of the system to issue disinformation worthy of the Kremlin."

Great words indeed. We were all nauseated.  And we know this case is a stain on our profession.

But where is the accountability?

Questioning 5WPR's Leadership

Now we read that Torossian has resigned as CEO, turning the agency over to existing leadership.  Where were those leaders when all this transpired?  Are we to believe they were not aware?  Are they not co-conspirators by their inaction?

Our public relations industry has struggled with this question for decades.  There has been no shortage of proposals, studies and working groups looking at concepts such as licensing, censure, disbarment–all to no avail.

The associations are not the answer.  The role of the associations is not enforcement but rather to establish standards–like PRSA's and IABC’s code of ethics and the Arthur W. Page Society’s Page Principles–and to offer training, education and awareness to promote and elevate ethical behavior across the industry.

The PR profession is by far ethical and honest and resembles in no way the actions of those highlighted above.  This is especially true for practitioners active in one of our professional societies.  We take our code of ethics seriously and hold ourselves and our clients accountable to our standards.

Ethics and 'Follow The Money'

The answer to ethical compliance for those who stand outside of the norm is to follow the money. Profit fueled the actions of PR outliers like 5WPR and Bell Pottinger. They pursued the wrong interests of their clients over the right values of honesty, transparency, and integrity…for financial profit.

The call to action is for business to partner with PR professional associations and demand ethical behavior from all their PR partners. After all, don’t the businesses that hire these outliers share in the responsibility for their ethical transgressions?

Businesses must recognize that PR representatives' bad behavior is also their bad behavior. Business leaders must work only with PR partners and practitioners who subscribe to one of the industry’s codes of ethics.

It is only when the money ceases to reward bad behavior that bad behavior ceases.

Robert Hastings, APR+M, is a PRSA Fellow

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the PRNEWS staff. We invite opposing essays from readers.]