The Importance of Integrity-Driven Public Relations | By David Fuscus

Doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons

The public relations industry has a public relations problem. According to a September 2019 Gallop survey on industry perception, perceptions of public relations and advertising practitioners is the lowest it’s been since 2012, with only 33% of U.S. adults maintaining a positive view of the industry.

While public relations practitioners frequently abide by the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) code of ethics, some members of our industry fall short in their practice of advocacy, honesty, loyalty, professional development, and objectivity. In the fast-paced and dynamic media environment that we live in, some may view the adherence to a code of ethics as a roadblock to “going viral,” optimizing impressions or boosting your client’s – or your own – prestige in the space.

In our industry, we are united by a common truth: reputation is everything. Reputation building – or rebuilding – is what signs the checks. So why is it that the reputation experts have such a hard time maintaining a positive reputation? The answer is simple: integrity.

Most PR professionals act in good faith to produce honest work on behalf of their clients or agency. However, yielding the persuasive power we have can produce a slippery slope when goals are not driven by integrity.

A good – or bad – example of this is the recent viral story that 38% of American beer drinkers would not buy Corona “under any circumstances” because of a perceived association between the beverage and the spread of the deadly Coronavirus. This story was published by 5W Public Relations (5WPR), a New York-based PR firm that conducted a survey presumably designed to create viral content and market the agency.

A recent 5WPR’s press release on their poll said “While the brand has claimed that consumers understand there’s no linkage between the virus and the beer company, this is a disaster for the Corona brand. After all, what brand wants to be linked to a virus which is killing people worldwide?”

The story immediately was picked up by prominent media outlets, like CNN, Fox News and USA Today, and quoted on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, fueling the spread of damaging publicity to a brand that did nothing to deserve it. In the first 24 hours after the release was distributed, an association between Corona beer and the Coronavirus was mentioned more than 124,000 times across traditional, digital and social mediums. Even publications produced by the Russian government enjoyed its slice of the media-frenzy pie.

There is a lot wrong with PR based on fake or misleading information, especially when it seeks to capitalize on an epidemic that is gripping the world in fear. This shortsighted strategy targeted a company for no other reason than to push content. Content that is not what 5WPR presented it to be.

The agency omitted the questions asked in the survey and the methodology in which they analyzed the data. There are any number of reasons for why American beer drinkers would not “under any circumstances” buy Corona, the least exciting and most likely answer being they simply don’t like the taste.

Yascha Mounk from The Atlantic was able to get access to the full list of questions and confirmed, “the survey was a fishing expedition designed to elicit viral stats.” Questions included, “Is Corona related to the Coronavirus?” and “In light of the Coronavirus, do you plan to stop drinking Corona?” Mounk’s request for the results to those questions has gone unanswered, suggesting those data points don’t support 5WPR’s narrative.

Constellation Brands, which owns Corona, CEO Bill Newman was forced to put out a statement to refute 5WPR’s claims  and taught 5WPR a valuable lesson in emotional intelligence:

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by this terrible virus and we hope efforts to more fully contain it gain traction soon. It’s extremely unfortunate that recent misinformation about the impact of this virus on our business has been circulating in traditional and social media without further investigation or validation…we’ve seen no impact to our people, facilities or operations and our business continues to perform very well.”

It’s no wonder that some people don’t trust PR agencies when company’s like 5WPR play fast and loose with the facts, blur the line between misinformation and outright lying, and fail to develop integrity-driven goals to guide their work. Public relations agencies should focus on valuing integrity in its communications practices. Without integrity, the reputation of an entire industry of “reputation builders” will continue to suffer.

David Fuscus is a former member of the board of directors of the Public Relations Council and a former member of the executive committee at PRGN.

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