Monday, August 24, 2009

Passing the Buck and Ethics

If you've ever met me, and heard me talk about my first boss, you'll hear me wax poetically about how great a boss he is. I think I might have written about his rules before, but it's always good to rehash The Tiger's rules. He told me these one day when I was in his office, and I always remember them (with his explanations).
1. Blame up, praise down: what he meant is that he gets paid the big bucks (and I was a lowly AAE), and the buck stops with him. He would take the blame, and he would let the client know that we got the hits.

2. If I work late, you work late: No, not the scene from Scrooged but he just meant that if he left the office before me, he'd check in to see what I was working on and what could be taken off his plate. And vice versa - I would check in on him. Mainly, it came down to helping with time management, and being cognizant of what coworkers were working on that day.

3. Take responsibility and own up: While blame up was the end result - meaning he'd take the yelling from the client for a mess up - he wanted you to take responsibility with him if you made the mistake. Own up, and man up.

4. The client comes first: the client is paying your paycheck, so you look out for them. You go over the billing and invoices, and do the line item and make sure they are being fairly billed.
I try to work with the people I work with - in particular, the junior staff - with these thoughts in mine. The Tiger was one of the best bosses I had (yes, there were some bad things), but these rules have stuck with me since I worked for him. And, me and a coworker always tell him we'd work for him in a NY minute.

This seems like an era ago - not because it was 12 years ago, but because these sentiments seem to be lost at major firms nowadays. Time and time again during PR bitch sessions, I hear about senior staff throwing junior staff under the bus, or junior staff working insane hours, or interns wondering if what they're doing is actually public relations, or some bastardization - and can they say no.

So an incident this weekend with a marketing firm - Reverb Communications - brings all of this to the forefront. Thus far, the company has not fully responded to the allegations that they're astroturfing the iTunes Application Store, according to MobileCrunch. And, hey they put marketing first, so I refuse to call them public relations.

The two second version: Reverb is having its interns post comments on its clients iPhone applications to garner more downloads.

The question - and how it fits into the four golden rules - is at what point do the interns push back? Can interns push back at a job (forget the bad economy) and take a stance for what they believe is true and right? Don't the senior staff have an ethical obligation to be teaching their interns the right way to do things, the ethical way to behave in social media? (Yes, that's the rules tie-in).

I know that many public relations firms do go to their interns for brainstorming sessions, in particular for social media ideas. Hey, they're all on Facebook, so they MUST get it!!

But, well, being an intern you also tend to fashion your answers to best reflect what you think the agency wants; you want the job, you make sure your answers are right. Unless, well, you're headstrong like me.

The fact is the interns at Reverb probably should have pushed back - but it is quite easy for me to Monday Morning quarterback as someone whose internship is eons ago. Remember when you're an intern, and you don't push back because you (a) don't know better or (b) really want that job when you graduate from college. And who wouldn't want a job at Reverb? It's a hot shop for iPhone app makers, in the middle of the cool Apple environment. It's pretty much as close as working for an Apple agency as you can get.

So I asked two former interns, current and recent college students on their opinions. One went on the record, the other asked to go off the record. The off the record, of course, is the more damning and more telling.
From Monica Fineis, a Michigan State Alumna: This is sad. Third-party credibility is out the window. I don't think that anyone who represents a product should be allowed to review it, even with full disclosure. Do your advertising, do your promotions, but please don't mess with the reviews! If the reviews say your app sucks--change it! What happened to being advocates for the public? At my first internship, I might not have known better. We take transparency and honesty very seriously here (at my current firm) and theoretically if I was asked to do something like this now I would say no.

From College Student Doe, a current student: 1st incident - we were trying to promote a viral video and it was sent through the company listserv and to drive up views, employees were asked to continue watching etc. I know that this seems like a small thing but it made me feel uncomfortable because it would translate to impressions to the client and if alot of views were from employees, it seems wrong. I didn't push back because I didn't know if it was common practice done by everyone and I was just the loser intern who was behind the times. I wanted to learn; I thought I was learning. It's like looking up to adults because they were grown up and you weren't. I was an intern, these people have been working for years. What should I have said? Who would have listened? Profit is the answer, not ethics.
Nicely depressing, huh?

That is the issue in a nutshell: as senior practitioners, we have a responsibility to be as ethical as possible. But does that conflict with results for clients? As we see with Reverb, it's always inevitable that someone is going to expose your dastardly ways, and then the potential bad press may hurt business (that is a debatable point). And in this economy, we need to provide results all the time, or risk losing a client.

As an intern, you have to stop and ask if you feel comfortable doing what you are about to do. Do you feel comfortable posting reviews under a fake name? Do you feel comfortable with the directions you are being given, or fully understand what you are being asked to do? And, most importantly, do you have a good supervisor and advocate at the firm, whom you can speak to and ask for direction and help? If that supervisor and/or advocate tells you to just go along, at least you know that agency is not the right one for your long-term career path.

And, the reality is that these questions are not just ones you will grapple with as an intern, but ones you will confront throughout your career. It is a serious issue for public relations and marketing firms, and not one that is going to be solved by pointing to good PR people but by having real answers, real solutions for these situations and pushing forward for ethics in public relations ... or at least transparency.
Post a Comment