Wal-Mart has been under hot water. Among many public relations incidents and negative press, a few years ago a blog titled “Wal-Marting Across America” was born, supposedly written by a couple who were grateful to the corporation for letting them park their RVs overnight in store parking lots. The entries gushed of happy employees, wonderful working conditions, grateful customers and the couple’s appreciation to the corporation.
Sounds too good to be true? It may be. Because of recent public pressure on Wal-Mart, the corporation has partnered with Edelman to better its public image. Many suspect the blog was an Edelman brainchild and a shining example of astroturfing.
Treading on thin ice
Many companies face looming ethical decisions in their corporate communications departments, a public relations specialization I hope to work in. Public relations is perhaps one of the most ethically-charged fields, comparable to the law profession. By its nature, professionals must make difficult decisions daily as they uphold and safeguard their company’s reputation. Many issues arise every day, but the three primary concerns that continuously resurface in the field include:
- Using social media for reporting
- Telling the truth in times of crisis communication
- Avoid conflicts of interest
It may require more effort, but making conscientious ethical decisions in corporate communications and taking the high road helps companies foster trust, goodwill and generate money in the long run.
Social media’s advantages aren’t contained to the private and personal sphere – they help journalists and public relations professionals reach sources more easily and crowdsource public opinion. However, because social media is a relatively new phenomenon, the rules regarding reporting using social networks have not been clearly established, and during the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, “reporters created Facebook identities to get students’ contact information or started online memorials to solicit postings for their story” (Bowles and Borden, 169).
The ease of social media presents great temptations, but keeping the accuracy and honesty of the story, as well as the wellfare of interviewees in mind is essential to building a better reputation for one’s clients.
The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but
While this adage fosters honesty in children, it doesn’t always work with PR. Crisis communications present some of the most unique challenges to PR firms and corporate communications. Professionals must make immediate decisions and tell the public the truth, while apologizing for misdeeds and recovering their reputations through honesty and trust-building.
KitchenAid beautifully handled what could have been a devastating incident last year. A company representative mistakenly sent out a personal tweet on the company account:
Cynthia Soledad, KitchenAid brand leader, took control of the situation by issuing statements to Mashable and tweeting apologies to President Obama. She followed all the suggestions for crisis communications recovery operations.
Melissa Agnes, a crisis communications expert, recommends six tips during times of crisis communications:
- Confront the situation head-on
- Give quick, real-time responses and updates
- Offer compassion, sympathy and transparency
- Humanize your brand
- See what you’re doing to fix the situation
- State what you’re doing to prevent this in the future
Managing conflicting interests
Lastly, avoiding conflicts of interest is essential to building trust and goodwill with one’s publics. The Public Relations Student Society of America states, “Avoiding real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest builds the trust of clients, employers and the public.” In potential cases of conflicts of interest, PRSA offers the following guidelines:
- Act in the best interests of the client or employer, and even subordinate the professional’s own interests
- Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests
- Disclose any existing or potential conflicts of interest to clients
- Encourage clients or customers to determine if a conflict exists after notifying all affected parties
Public relations professionals must not only rectify conflicts of interest after they appear, but must take the high road and put themselves above suspicion. The Society of Professional Journalists recommends avoiding involvement with political parties or organizations, not writing about anyone with whom the professional is personally involved, and avoiding covering stories related to businesses in which they hold stocks. Ensuring PR professionals and journalists do not have personal stakes in the stories they cover helps the public receive honest and accurate news.
Making good judgments, promoting transparency and taking the high road in corporate communications, especially with social reporting, crisis communications and negotiating conflicts of interest, will ensure happy clients and consumers and generate more revenues in the long run.