907.529.2391 | mary@barbergp.com

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!

This phrase from Sir Walter Scott (Scottish author & novelist, 1771 – 1832) has been coming to mind a lot lately as we learn of communicators practicing in deceiving manners. It’s very frustrating for the thousands of professionals who practice with ethical standards and commitment. It doesn’t seem that hard to me to observe the tenets of the professional Code of Ethics.

The basic tenets that guide my personal life also guide my professional life. I wouldn’t have it any other way:

I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public; to improve my individual competence and advance the knowledge and proficiency of the profession through continuing research and education.

Oh, the tangled webs we weaveWhile the basic premise of the PRSA Code might seem fairly easy to understand and abide by, it seems some in the profession, and also many in the media, are hell-bent on showing what unethical professionals we are.

Take a few of the most recent examples. In each of these cases, professionalism, honesty, fairness and responsibility were overtaken by greed and ego. Additionally, once uncovered the perpetrators really didn’t seem to understand what they had done was wrong.

  • Utah Mayor Mike Winder created a fake identity and provided his local newspaper with articles about his town…quoting the Mayor. He also used a guy’s photo found on Google Images as his alter ego.

He says he just used a different name to get the publicity his city deserved. But he had to lie to get it so did his city really win in this case? I don’t think so.

  • LA-based Coglan Consulting Group created fake news sites for their clients so it looked like their clients were getting more news coverage. Gini Dietrich covered this quite well last week on SpinSucks as did PR pro Denis Wolcott when the story first broke in September.

In this case, I can’t really find a statement from either Coglan or their clients, namely the Central Basin Water District. So…no apology?  No commitment to make changes in how you do business? Unbelievable.

  • Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to smear Google in the press. Then, when exposed, the agency deleted Facebook posts on its page about the incident. Burson really didn’t do a great job of cleaning up the mess.

This one hit especially hard because Burson is one of the oldest and most respected agencies in the US. It was founded by Hal Burson, one of the fathers of modern public relations. The agency apologized (called lukewarm by many) and promised to make sure their employees understand more about the code of ethics.

  • Reverb Communication wrote fake product reviews for their software customers about a year ago. The FTC cited them but many media put all PR pros in this bucket.

In this case, Reverb said there were no rules against what they did. I was reminded of my Mom who would regularly ask us…if he asked you to jump off a bridge would you do that too? The answer, of course, was a sheepish no.

What’s missing from each of these stories is someone to say – hey don’t do that. It’s wrong. But also, what were the leaders at each company, client, agency or organization saying? For that matter, where were all the employees involved? It’s hard to believe it got this far without someone raising a flag. But I think it takes some guts to raise the flag today, when jobs are tight. However, one still has to feel good about going to work.

We need to feel okay in our jobs when we question a decision, especially when it’s a question based on honesty, transparency and decency.

One that’s so far from what we were taught as children we know it’s wrong. And, as senior leaders, we need to provide an environment where that line of questioning is allowed and even supported. We need to listen respectfully and promise to change. In fact, we need to teach ethical practices, demonstrate what high standards are, and reward those who support the ethical practice of public relations.


By |2018-03-18T22:48:54+00:00November 29th, 2011|Leadership & Networking|8 Comments

About the Author:

Mary Deming Barber, APR, Fellow PRSA, runs a strategic communications consultancy where she helps clients understand how to integrate new media into traditional communication programs. Mary has counseled clients in Tacoma, Anchorage, San Francisco, Oregon, and Colorado for nearly 40 years working with a variety of food organizations, several agencies, and as a key team member on two successful US Senate campaigns. 


  1. Charlotte74 November 29, 2011 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    If only that were the case. People just don’t speak out these days, whether or kids misbehaving in public, people littering. Perhaps the occupy movement is a sign that people are now willing to speak out and hold people to account.

    • mdbarber November 30, 2011 at 6:50 am - Reply

      @Charlotte74 That might help but our corporations also need to create a culture where it’s okay to speak up as well. I have heard many discuss the Occupy Movement as simply a bunch of hippies/kids/young people who don’t want to work. I’m sure they all only wish it was so. We need to be more willing to listen and learn from those whose ideas might be different from ours. Thank you for your thoughts. I hope you’ll keep coming back to the blog.

  2. fergusonsarah November 30, 2011 at 7:30 am - Reply

    I promise to perform myself professionally, with truth, accurateness, equality, and accountability to the public; to develop my individual capability and advance the information and expertise of the profession through continuing research and education.

  3. DeAnnBaxter November 30, 2011 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    The problem, as I see it today, is that people don’t want to say no to their bosses. They don’t want to rock the boat for fear of losing their jobs. In my opinion, it also hurts that more and more people are jumping into PR without a formal background or education in the subject.

    Part of becoming Accredited in Public Relations for me was to go beyond this idea that public relations pros are “spin doctors.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, and it upsets me to no end to think about what these so-called experts in the field are doing. It absolutely harms our industry, its reputation, and everything the profession truly stands for.

    I hope that programs like the ones PRSA is implementing will pay off in the future, as more people know and understand the true meaning and value of PR.

    • mdbarber November 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm - Reply

      @DeAnnBaxter Interesting perspective DeAnn, especially regarding the fear individuals have in today’s economy. I do think that is a factor but it also means it’s even more important for bosses to make sure they allow for dissent. Sometimes I think both sides his behind the economy rather than building a collaborative culture.

      I’m sure PRSA would be interested in your thoughts on how to increase awareness among non-APRs of how the process of securing your APR broadened your horizons and perspective. I really like your comment about how it taught you professionals are more than spin doctors.

  4. LauLau81 December 2, 2011 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Yes this is so true… The positive attributes of a leader is sometimes overtaken by greed and power… Honesty is the tool… Living in honesty, professionalism and fairness will let the community succeed.

    • mdbarber December 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      @LauLau81 Thanks for reading. I completely agree with you. Honesty is always the best policy and fairness something we should always look for.

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