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Vivian Li/李雯雯

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5 lessons in ethics from PR disasters

This summer—five years after the massive disaster of BP’s oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico—the company was ordered to pay an $18.7 billion settlement.

It’s the largest penalty that a single company has ever had to pay, and many PR pros wonder how much it will damage BP’s brand—or whether it will ultimately sink the company.

The crisis brought on by negligence made many question the company's motives and ethics, and it’s still a cautionary tale for communications professionals.

Let’s look at cases in which other PR pros violated ethical guidelines in order to advance their organizations’ means. Here are five lessons in ethics from recent PR debacles:

1. National Football League: Looking the other way won’t get you far.

When a video surfaced showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in a hotel elevator, a crisis unfolded in the NFL.

Thousands called for the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, to resign, and brands censured the sports organization for its mishandling of domestic abuse incidents among its players.

Though the NFL revised its personal conduct policy after consulting with experts of sexual and domestic abuse crimes, the league is still struggling with negative perception and lack of trust.

It may be your gut instinct to look the other way when something bad happens, hoping that a hands-off approach will minimize the damage and the problem will dissipate, but that sort of unethical behavior will usually come back to haunt you and your organization.

Instead of sticking your head in the sand, come forward and admit what’s happening as you find out. Also explain to your audiences—investors and sponsors, as well as your customers—what you’re going to do to fix it.

2. Uber: Don’t misrepresent “pay to play” stories.

Uber made headlines for a variety of PR crises in 2014. One resulted after LA Weekly didn’t take kindly to a story pitch that was supposedly written by one of its drivers. The driver had never seen the story.

The driver “may have a great story,” LA Weekly’s writer Sarah Fenske said, “but it’s hard to trust anything being peddled by a PR team that doesn’t disclose that fact immediately and up front.”

As more PR pros use bloggers and social media powerhouse users in branded campaigns, additional emphasis will be placed on disclosing these efforts in posts and sponsored content.

PR pros should also refrain from pitching internally created content as crowdsourced content in an effort to entice journalists. The efforts will probably backfire, and the relationship with the journalists involved will disintegrate.

3. Leslie Roberts: Disclose conflicts of interest.

Roberts, a journalist and news anchor for The Toronto Star, was suspended after an investigation revealed that his show’s guests were clients of his Canada-based PR firm.

Disclosing conflicts of interest is imperative to communications professionals because it keeps PR, journalism and marketing professionals’ credibility intact, and it bolsters the organizations and industries for which they work.

Though many PR pros freelance or take on extra tasks to boost their incomes, straddling the line and calling into question your ability to be objective isn’t worth the hit to your position—and possibly your entire career.

4. Brian Williams: “Phantom experience” can destroy your credibility.

Williams was suspended from NBC Nightly News and then demoted to MSNBC’s news desk after he exaggerated his accounts of stories he had covered throughout the years.

Williams wasn’t the only person who imagined himself in a situation that wasn’t the reality; Rachel Dolezal resigned as the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, after portraying herself for years as an African-American.

Similar to not disclosing conflicts of interest, adopting phantom experiences as your own can tear apart your credibility—thereby squandering an invaluable source of career revenue.

5. McDonald’s: Beware of copyright and intellectual property violations.

David Silorski and Kristina Bakrevski created something that had “Internet sensation” written all over it: a spoof engagement shoot celebrating a man’s love for his burrito.

McDonald’s came under fire a few weeks later for creating ads that mimicked the spoof engagement shoot.

Sikorski brought the incident to the brand’s attention and told Adweek the photos were clearly ripped off from his photo series:

The photos used by McDonald's are not a spinoff or a take on it, but an exact duplicate from the wardrobe, the positions and the concept. Neither myself, my photographer or the licensing company were approached for permission.

The fast-food brand took down its ads, apologized and said it was investigating what had happened—but the criticism for copying the ads had already come.

With all the content out there, coupled with the demand for PR pros to “make things go viral” for clients, temptation to rip off someone’s fantastic work may run high. The situation gets more complicated with online content’s varying attribution rules and widespread theft of articles, pictures and videos across social media platforms.

If something is posted online, that doesn’t mean it’s yours for the taking. Learn from a great idea; don’t swipe it and take a hit to your reputation.


Vivian Li

PR Manager

Tel: +86 010 8390 7451

Mobile: +86 13041030670