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.

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15 comments

  1. Nice post, Jeremy -- will be sharing with my students. And, by the way, is this the guy who's always taking your cookies?

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  2. He's the guy that taught me that expression. East coast PR mentality, though.

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  3. I'm glad you covered this topic, Jeremy - Not the best idea to start your career in PR (as an intern) with unethical practices. I was fortunate enough to have two very thorough professors in word-of-mouth marketing and social media at the University of Georgia, so I can say without a doubt that I wouldn't feel comfortable posting fabricated reviews. I don't think it's at all out of line to provide a boss with case studies of unauthenticity gone wrong to back up your stance. Surely you'd only be more respected at a worthwhile agency.

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  4. Good and timely post. The current zeitgeist is guiding the experimenters to rethink their ways and return to a belief that ethics is non-negotiable. After all, your ethical baggage is what you will get to keep and take with you.

    A sr. executive revealed at a meeting last week that he guides his choice for vendors based on their ethics and treatment of employees. Thinking back to the many companies I have come across, the ones that are admired and held in regard are the ones who do exactly that (and generate good profits too).

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  5. Great thoughts Jeremy! It is so true that the truth makes its way out. Better to be ethical in the first place. Plus, it makes for a much better night's sleep.

    My first time here - followed a tweet.

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  6. One of the last classes I had in college was an ethics class. We discussed the big ethical decisions that PR people and journalists have faced in the past - from Watergate to the Edelman/WalMart fiasco.

    However, I can say as interesting as those stories are, they made me think that it's a rare thing to face a real ethical dilemma. But since graduation, I'm realizing that everyday I have to make a conscious effort to stay within my ethical boundaries. Not that my employer asks me to do anything illegal or unethical in particular, but in the daily grind of devising a successful campaign, it's so ridiculously easy to cross a line that you really shouldn't.

    Great Post Jeremy - Tiger seems like an awesome boss. As a "professional" intern I can say there's nothing I appreciate more than a boss who will bluntly tell me what they like and what they don't like and who will hold me accountable for my work.

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  7. Great post for all PR practitioners to read. Here's your quote of the day, in my opinion: "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)."

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  8. Hannah Ballard9/01/2009 07:04:00 PM

    Interesting post, Jeremy. As a current student working towards landing her first internship in PR, these are some sobering questions to address. I'm not sure how I would react in the situation of reviewing under a fake name, however, as an intern, it would not be an easy decision. It would be difficult to irritate the employer who I might later depend on for a letter of reference. I would like to think that my ethics would be better than that, but in this economic environment, it's a little more difficult to make that call. I enjoyed this post, though. Definitely some food for thought.

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  9. Smart post JP. 4 fabulous bits of advice for so many folks in so many businesses!

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  10. @Lizzie - Thanks for your insight and input. As someone that was just coming out of that scene, it's your on the ground reporting that is more than my "years ago" POV. And, I look forward to meeting these good UGA professors soon!

    @Bali Well, I wonder how many have the outward face of good treatment, but a different reality behind the scenes. I know of firms that win "best place to work" year after year, but the employees are miserable. But it is at least one way to choose partners!

    @Monumental13 - Thanks!

    @Janice - Thanks for visiting! And, it does make for better sleep. :)

    @Aaron - I took ethics in college - not as a PR person, but part of my philosophy courses - and it amazing what can be moralized away when it comes right down to it. It's why I love watching the health care debate - it's all medical ethics 101, but not many people realize it. And it easy to cross a line, and time changes the rules (despite what people want to say).

    @Lorrie - Thanks. The reason I put debatable is because so many companies CAN walk away from a bad, unethical incident. Most of us hope for the best, but realize it's about the bottom line more often than not.

    @Hannah - That is true, and I tried to hit on that. In this economy, and job market, you don't want to rock the boat too much. You just hope you have a good mentor and advocate that looks out for you, and helps you steer the way. Good luck in your internships!

    @Adam The rules came from my first boss, and were routinely ignored by other bosses. All from the same agency, ironically, but post too many mergers.

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  11. While I think this incident crosses a pretty clear line in business, there is a lot that goes on that is less clear. What about DIGGing your client's coverage? Is it okay if you only do it once? What about ghost-blogging, which is the only way some clients ever get a blog off the ground? Is that any different from ghost-writing an article or a speech? Aren't there a lot of folks who would consider those tactics shady? What may be a line to me, is less of a line to others.

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  12. @Robin - I agree that the line is hard to tell on your examples. And, the level of acceptance HAS changed over the years in blogging, where it was unaccepted at first with ghost blogging but has become somewhat more the norm.

    But, yah, fake reviews are fake reviews.

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  13. Hi,buddy Nice to read your informative article you have shared with us.I have didn't ever heard any where else....
    Good job

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  14. As a current PR intern, I found this article interesting. Most interns do know better than to act unethically, but they go with the flow to look out for their best interests. I'm lucky, because the senior management I work under act ethically and now that I'm more familiar with the field, I feel more comfortable in my actions and saying "no" when I don't want to do something.I have yet been asked to do something unethical, but if I were, I would voice my opinion against it and probably do it without caring so much...I am only just an intern after all. However, my ethical boundaries would be more stern if I were in senior management, and getting paid the big bucks.
    It sucks being an intern, working long hours for no money. All we want is experience and a reference, so maybe if PR ethics were to strengthen, it would require a combination of top-down strong ethics from management, as well as treating interns with respect and paying them what they deserve. Most of us learn the ropes pretty fast and after a few months are just as valuable as a PR grad.

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