Tammy Wynette Code of PR Ethics?

As I watch public relations professionals struggling to do their best to serve Senator Larry Craig, Representative William Jefferson, 3M, Michael Vick and other embattled entities, I feel professional empathy. But this question also comes to mind. If I’m a PR guy working for a client or employer who turns out to have done something that is illegal, unethical or unsavory, am I obligated in any way to continue providing PR advocacy services?

Are there acceptable reasons for standing by your man until the bitter end? Contractual obligation? Client/employer loyalty? Professional ethics? Financial survival? Or is it never acceptable for a PR person to advocate for someone you know to have engaged in behavior that is illegal, unethical or unsavory?

– Loveland

Note: The original version of this post referenced Tanya Tucker, who only wished she had advocated standing by her man. Thanks to the reader who pointed out that the original stander was Tammy Wynette. Turns out Tanya didn’t even join Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics, Elton John, Minnie Driver, Tina Turner, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, and many others who have covered the song.

12 thoughts on “Tammy Wynette Code of PR Ethics?

  1. JJ says:

    Why is this even a question?

    The true PR professional has an absolute obligation to quit any client who is guilty, unrepentant, unethical or sleazy.

    If you want to held in the same the same low esteem as the legal profession, just act as lawyers do.

  2. Thankfully, I’ve never been involved in such a situation in my short time in the PR biz. But I suppose there’s some merit in an extension of the lawyer’s claim that “Everyone deserves (legal or public relations) representation.”

    Also, just because a PR firm continues to do its work during or after illegal activity or some other big, bad deal has been brought to light doesn’t automatically mean that firm is going to be putting on the smiling-faces, nothing-to-see-here approach. That firm could just as a likely be acknowledging the client’s “F-ed up”-ness and simply coaching them through the process of admission, contrition and rebuild-ition.

    Or am I just an idealist little kid with no sense of how things work in the real world?

  3. Hornseth says:

    Mike, you make an important point. If an entity has done something wrong and it’s trying to right it, by all means it should be entitled to good PR counsel to help it do that — and it often takes the very forms you mention.

  4. jloveland says:

    JJ or any other like minds, does the obligation to walk away apply to “unsavory” acts too, or just illegal and unethical?

    Also, do you have an ethical duty to advise your client/employer pre-engagement about the terms of your future loyalty?

  5. jloveland says:

    Hornseth, Mike and other like minds, don’t entities tend to make PR amends as a means to lessen the level of accountability for the original illegal, unethical or unsavory behavior? If so, is there a line you cross where you are enabling an escape from accountability? Where is the line?

    Not intending to be a jerk folks, just trying to get at the ambiguity and agony involved in these decisions.

  6. I believe each person’s individual moral and ethical standards come into play when facing illegal or unsavory situations, with the big BUT inserted in such a way as to state the obvious: if the jack as* you’re providing PR counsel to is of the O.J. Simpson ilk, you best be severing ties (no pun intended) or your career will be a short one.

  7. As an anti-war leftie, I worked in Honeywell’s aerospace and defense business for just over a decade. I wasn’t strictly in PR, but a fair amount of my work involved articulating the case for ethical, productive defense contracting that carried out government policy. As citizens, we ought to encourage foreign policy that avoids war, and having a credible military might can be an instrument of that approach. Using weapons, not having them was the issue for me; as was spending money on guns, but not butter.

    I felt my employer’s position was consistent with that. It was a sometimes ginger dance, but I was never asked to compromise my principles.

    Ironically, I discussed my position regarding war before I was hired. But I didn’t articulate in advance the position that led to my decision to leave. It was based in part on watching an executive I respected openly disagree with a particular statement by the company in positioning its defense business to securities analysts. Having objected, he said he would still do his job, which was to make the statement.

    I decided right then that if he found himself in that position, it was only a matter of time before I might be asked to do the same thing — professionally obligated to say what I did not personally believe.

    My point, I guess, is that we have personal, uncrossable lines we may know in advance. But we will still encounter other situations to test our professionalism and consciences.

  8. In light of this discussion, it might be high time to have this crowd opine on what some consider to be the institutional code of ethical conduct for public relations. I follow it, as a dues-paying, APR card-carrying member of PRSA, although I take some exception to its lack of enforcement.

    In the case presented here by Mr. Loveland, walking is indeed an obligation of the ethical practitioner. But unless said client or employer’s actions are truly criminal, I also think you must first stand in their shoes – and get past the noise – before decrying PR representation.

    My two lousy cents.

  9. jloveland says:

    Thanks for posting the PRSA guidelines KG. Lots of good discussion fodder. In your memory, has anyone ever been booted out of the society for violating the code?

    The profession’s biggest occupational hazard is self-spin. In order to convince others, PR people first thoroughly convince themselves. Of course, all humans are suceptible to self-delusion, but this is what makes PR people more suceptible than most.

    Self-spin blinds PR people so they can’t recognize their client’s or employer’s illegal, unethical or unsavory behavior. I’m scared to death of it. If they offered a shot to innoculate yourself from it, I would be at the front of the line.

  10. Kelly Groehler says:

    I think there might be one case, or two, on the books, where a member was booted?

    I’ll buy your argument for an existing occupational hazard, under the condition it’s predicated on the stark reality of this profession: If she chose to do so tomorrow, my mother could hang out a shingle tomorrow and announce to the world that she works in PR. She could write up a nice, bloviating non-news news release and shill out some ching to put it on the national wire. Nothing can prevent her from doing so, and nothing mandates that she carry a license, degree, or doctor’s note for her employment, much less subscribe to an ethical code. Litigation is seemingly the sole recourse against this seemingly well-intentioned storyteller who deftly positioned refined carbs as the foundation of the food pyramid, resulting in my freshman fifteen – which I have yet to shed fifteen years later. Thanks a lot, Mom.

    Despite its lack of consequences, the PRSA code is a solid starting point, and I’d recommend any practitioner with a shred of moral fiber to consider subscribing to it – which can be done without necessarily joining the society.

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