Of Big Gulps, PR Ethics, Courage and Hidden Identity

Is it ethical for a company to hide its identity when it enters into robust public discussion of important social issues? Is it decent?

Is it ethical for PR people to be part of this charade?

Some big businesses apparently have the backbone of a Hostess Twinkie. If news and blog reports are accurate, Philip Morris, Wendy’s and Coca-Cola are some of the companies that are behind a clever and arresting ad campaign against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to fight obesity by banning restaurant sales of sugary drinks in bottles and cups larger than 16 ounces.

The ads are put up by ConsumerFreedom.com. At its website, the “consumer” group, The Center for Consumer Freedom, says:

Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a “game plan” to impose their views, so we respect their wishes.

Images of hordes of crazed tofu eaters and green tea drinkers with pitchforks and torches storming corporate headquarters to extract vengeance.

Really?

Obesity is epidemic. We all pay the price, through our health insurance premiums and taxes, for the health damage obesity causes. So — as is true with stemming the health costs of smoking through anti-smoking campaigns — this is a fair issue for public debate. Should government protect public health through laws? We ban asbestos in insulation because it causes cancer. We ban drinking while driving because it kills and maims people. We ban cigarette advertising on TV because it can lure young people into starting smoking. It’s no coincidence that obesity in America has risen while beverage companies have moved from 12-ounce serving sizes to 16, 24 and more.

Should the foods and drinks that cause health-destroying obesity be regulated? And, if so, how? Fair questions, and all sides should be heard in a spirited public debate.

But many on one side lack the courage to put their names behind their messages.

Yes, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (and I’m sure others) have come out publicly against Bloomberg’s ban, so they have the courage to oppose this issue in daylight. But there is something pernicious about advertising that hides its funders. That’s one of the issues in Citizens United. There is a big difference between a consumer reading that Coca-Cola opposes the ban and a consumer seeing a clever full-page ad that stirs the consumer’s emotions without disclosing who’s behind the ad.

The Center for Consumer Freedom was apparently founded by Philip Morris to fight smoking restrictions. Their purpose? To help consumers or to sell more products?

Over and over, in the PR business, we form corporate-created and corporate-funded “consumer groups” to push a business message. Is that ethical? Are we okay with that? Is it ethical to form front groups and not disclose who’s behind them?

When I was an impressionable new PR person, our client, Northwest Airlines, asked the PR firm I worked for to get people to call into a radio debate on public financing for airline maintenance and service centers. The question of whether it was good for Minnesota to spend tax dollars to create jobs in Minnesota and keep an important business in the state was a fair one to debate. I was uncomfortable, though, with the request to salt the mine, to get paid to prompt people to call in and support the airline’s position. Astroturf.

Should PR people be part of these kinds of lurking-behind-the-scenes campaigns? What do you think, gentle readers?

– Bruce Benidt

When PR Ghostwriters Get Busted

Are there ethical lines that we cross when we write an “authored article” for our clients? Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa thinks the Wyeth pharmaceutical company and its writing PR firm went too far in ghostwriting articles for doctors in medical journals supporting a Wyeth hormone replacement drug. The New York Times ran a story on Saturday in which Grassley said “any attempt to manipulate the scientific literature, that can in turn mislead doctors to prescribe drugs that may not work and/or cause harm to their patients, is very troubling.”

From the Times story:

Doug Petkus, a Wyeth spokesman, said Friday that Mr. Grassley was recycling old arguments.

“The authors of the articles in question, none of whom were paid, exercised substantive editorial control over the content of the articles and had the final say, in all respects, over the content,” Mr. Petkus said.

Officials for DesignWrite, a Princeton, N.J., firm, and its parent company, JMI, a medical information company in New York, did not return multiple phone calls and e-mail messages requesting comment.

According to the Times story, quoting internal Wyeth documents from Grassley’s probe, DesignWrite wrote the articles under a Wyeth communications plan, completing the manuscripts before they were “sent to the putative author for review. Any revisions were subject to final approval from the company.”

“Such activities would seem to run afoul of medical journal guidelines,” the Times writes. “The World Assoication of Medical Editors, for example, says ghost authorship — which it defines as a substantial contribution not mentioned in the manuscript — is ‘dishonest and unacceptable.’ “

So the Wyeth spokesperson says the docs have final say, and the Grassley documents, which include a “publicaton plan tracking report” from Wyeth, say the company has final say. There’ s one PR problem.

But overall, what’s Kosher in writing articles for someone else? I thought of all this when, for the second time recently, I offered to write an op-ed kind of article for friends who are too busy to do for their own companies what their companies do for their clients.

I have an internal gut measurement. If I’m offering to do a first draft, after interviewing the person whose name will be on the piece about what he or she wants to say, and after reading other things that person has written, and then turning the draft over to that person, I feel fine. I’ve been a pump-primer. I’ve gotten something going. It’s close to what the person would have written if he or she had time to sit in front of a computer for a few hours, and the final draft is in that person’s hands.

But occasionally in my PR career I’ve been around programs where pieces have been written entirely by PR people to support a client’s cause and then the PR team goes looking for people to sign the piece, whether an op-ed or a letter to the editor or a bylined article. And that’s made me feel queasy. Greasy. Clearly, in that case, the ideas and viewpoint are coming from the PR people, not the person who signs the piece. And that I don’t want to be part of. It comes down to where the piece is initiated. If it’s hatched in the mind of the person who signs it, and that person goes looking for a writer, that seems Kosher. If not, not.

I was a little surprised, when I moved from the newsroom to a PR agency and wrote a few op-eds with and for clients, that the op-ed editors fully understood that PR people help write these things. They expect that the piece will accurately reflect the executive’s views, they understand that execs get help writing speeches and other things, and they were OK with the process. And so was I.

What about you, PR folks and journalists out there? What do you think is ethical? What crosses a line?

– Bruce Benidt
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