PRSA Letter to Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight — March 13, 2012


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The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) sent a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight urging it to avoid actions that might diminish or severely restrict the U.S. government’s use of approved public relations and public affairs contractors.

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PRSA Letter to Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight — March 13, 2012

  1. 1. Gerard F. CorbettChair and Chief Executive OfficerPublic Relations Society of America33 Maiden Lane, Floor 11New York, NY 10038March 13, 2011The Honorable Claire McCaskillHart Senate Office Building, Suite 506United States SenateWashington, D.C. 20510Dear Senator McCaskill:I am writing on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) to express ourconcerns regarding the ongoing investigation by the Homeland Security and GovernmentalAffairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management into the federal government’suse of public relations and advertising services.Principally, we are concerned that the Subcommittee is disregarding public relations’ centralvalue to government: its ability to engender a more informed society through ethical, transparentand honest communications between the Government and its citizens, and its role as aneconomic contributor to the economy of today and tomorrow.Ethical Public Relations and GovernmentAs the world’s leading member organization representing public relations and public affairsprofessionals, PRSA champions values for the public relations profession that are grounded inthe principles of our nation’s Founding Fathers: the free flow of accurate and truthful informationthat is essential to contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society. Thecornerstone of our efforts to advance the public relations profession is ourMember Code of Ethics1, which clearly states what constitutes ethical practices in theprofession. We invite members of the Subcommittee to review the enclosed PRSA MemberCode of Ethics.Within this framework, we believe that all stakeholders in society — including governmentsthemselves — must participate in vigorously communicating their goals, programs, objectives,and knowledge to the public at large. Our organization has in recent years recognized andcelebrated communications work done at various levels of government. In 2011, the UnitedStates Army, working in conjunction with the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, received aSilver Anvil Award from PRSA for its campaign, “Connecting Army and America.” This initiativehelped create a deeper understanding of the value of Army service, create opportunities toengage Soldiers with Americans and build trust between the Army and the public through onlinecommunity engagement.Whether educating the public about government services, providing information on public healthand safety, explaining the tax code, attracting business to an economic enterprise zone, or any1 PRSA Member Code of Ethics, which is signed voluntarily by each member of the Society. It is published at: and is attached to this document as Appendix One.
  2. 2. 2of dozens of other areas, governments have a clear role in communicating effectively andefficiently to the public.The Value of Public Relations to the U.S. GovernmentWe believe there is significant value to be derived from the federal government using publicrelations firms to work directly with the public to help restore trust in America’s political systemand its elected leaders. We know that members of Congress agree, using public relations tosupport their campaigns and to remain in constant contact with their constituents.Whether communicating where disaster relief can be found, advising constituents about thelatest trade policy development, or helping to dispel unfounded rumors, elected officials andgovernments at all levels rely upon public relations to provide information and build trust.Trust in America’s elected leaders and its government is at a perilous juncture. As the 2012Edelman Trust Barometer indicates2, a majority of Americans distrust government and theirelected leaders. Trust begins with good communications, and public relations is vital to that end.Cost Effectiveness of OutsourcingThe concerns that you and Sen. Portman have raised regarding the need for prudent spendingby the federal government is one shared by all Americans, especially during these challengingeconomic times. In fact, all organizations can, at times, find it advantageous to contract outcertain services, including public affairs- and public relations-related work.As recent economically-focused debates across America have pointedly shown, there are, attimes, wage differentials between private- and public-sector employees that can make it costeffective to outsource work to save American taxpayers money. Other reasons to contract suchwork include access to expertise not available in-house, or to multiply the impact of an in-housework force without taking on permanent employees and their associated costs.Public Relations and Job CreationWhile outsourcing public relations can be more cost efficient, public relations today is also aboutgrowing the U.S. economy at a time when jobs are needed all across America. U.S. News &World Report3 ranked “PR Specialist” as one of the top-50 careers in 2011, noting that the fieldwill add 66,000 jobs to the U.S. economy by 2018. The U.S. Government, in fulfilling itsmandate, is estimated to spend $1.3 billion on advertising and public relations services2, and isan important driver for this economic engine.Within this context, PRSA respectfully asks that members of your Subcommittee consider thefollowing points, which we feel are relevant specifically to your investigation and, more broadly,to the federal government’s use of public-relations and public-affairs services:Regarding the Federal Government’s Use of Public Relations Services • Public relations advances the free flow of accurate and truthful information; open and transparent communication fosters credibility and trust in global institutions. • Public relations serves the public interest by providing the context, clarity and information necessary to aid informed debate and decision-making in a democratic society. • Public relations helps to build mutual understanding among a wide array of global institutions and audiences.2 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, “Credibility of Government Officials, CEOs Plummets.” It is published at: U.S. News & World Report, “Best Careers 2011: Public Relations Specialist,” Dec. 6, 2010. It is published at:
  3. 3. 3 • Public relations professionals have a special obligation to practice their craft ethically, with the highest standards of truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public. The PRSA Code of Ethics provides a practical set of standards to follow. • Public relations serves the public good by changing attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, from breast cancer awareness to drinking and driving to smoking and obesity. The public relations industry also has prevented consumer injury and illness, raised awareness of products that have improved our quality of life, advanced worthwhile causes and provided pro-bono services for institutions that needed public relations assistance but could not afford it.Finally, I also would respectfully request that members of the Subcommittee use discretionwhen attempting to characterize the federal government’s use of public-affairs and public-relations contractors. Pejorative statements such as “taxpayer-funded spin” and “hiringsomeone to help [the government] ‘spin’,” are speculative misnomers that debase the importantwork being performed by approved federal contractors working on behalf of the Americanpeople, whose main goal is to keep the public informed on relevant issues. Elected officials andfederal workers are no strangers to having inappropriate language used to describe their work,and I would hope that as a result, the Subcommittee will be mindful of this concern.On behalf of PRSA’s 32,000 professional and student members and the broader public relationsprofession, I ask that members of your Subcommittee give further consideration to thesubstantial public interest served by public relations and public affairs professionals around theworld.Sincerely,Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSAChair and Chief Executive OfficerPublic Relations Society of America
  4. 4. 4APPENDIX ONEPRSA Member Code of EthicsPreamblePublic Relations Society of America Member Code of Ethics 2000 • Professional Values • Principles of Conduct • Commitment and ComplianceThis Code applies to PRSA members. The Code is designed to be a useful guide for PRSAmembers as they carry out their ethical responsibilities. This document is designed to anticipateand accommodate, by precedent, ethical challenges that may arise. The scenarios outlined inthe Code provision are actual examples of misconduct. More will be added as experience withthe Code occurs.The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) is committed to ethical practices. The level ofpublic trust PRSA members seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on aspecial obligation to operate ethically.The value of member reputation depends upon the ethical conduct of everyone affiliated withthe Public Relations Society of America. Each of us sets an example for each other — as wellas other professionals — by our pursuit of excellence with powerful standards of performance,professionalism, and ethical conduct.Emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directorsretains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has beenor is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is inviolation of this Code.Ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member. We view the Member Codeof Ethics as a model for other professions, organizations, and professionals.PRSA Member Statement of Professional ValuesThis statement presents the core values of PRSA members and, more broadly, of the publicrelations profession. These values provide the foundation for the Member Code of Ethics andset the industry standard for the professional practice of public relations. These values are thefundamental beliefs that guide our behaviors and decision-making process. We believe ourprofessional values are vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole.ADVOCACYWe serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. Weprovide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.
  5. 5. 5HONESTYWe adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those werepresent and in communicating with the public.EXPERTISEWe acquire and responsibly use specialized knowledge and experience. We advance theprofession through continued professional development, research, and education. We buildmutual understanding, credibility, and relationships among a wide array of institutions andaudiences.INDEPENDENCEWe provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.LOYALTYWe are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.FAIRNESSWe deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the generalpublic. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.PRSA Code ProvisionsFREE FLOW OF INFORMATIONCore PrincipleProtecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential toserving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.Intent • To maintain the integrity of relationships with the media, government officials, and the public. • To aid informed decision-making.GuidelinesA member shall: • Preserve the integrity of the process of communication. • Be honest and accurate in all communications. • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the practitioner is responsible. • Preserve the free flow of unprejudiced information when giving or receiving gifts by ensuring that gifts are nominal, legal, and infrequent.
  6. 6. 6Examples of Improper Conduct under this Provision: • A member representing a ski manufacturer gives a pair of expensive racing skis to a sports magazine columnist, to influence the columnist to write favorable articles about the product. • A member entertains a government official beyond legal limits and/or in violation of government reporting requirements.COMPETITIONCore PrinciplePromoting healthy and fair competition among professionals preserves an ethical climate whilefostering a robust business environment.Intent • To promote respect and fair competition among public relations professionals. • To serve the public interest by providing the widest choice of practitioner options.GuidelinesA member shall: • Follow ethical hiring practices designed to respect free and open competition without deliberately undermining a competitor. • Preserve intellectual property rights in the marketplace.Examples of Improper Conduct under This Provision: • A member employed by “client organization" shares helpful information with a counseling firm that is competing with others for the organizations business. • A member spreads malicious and unfounded rumors about a competitor in order to alienate the competitors clients and employees in a ploy to recruit people and business.DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATIONCore PrincipleOpen communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.Intent • To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.Guidelines
  7. 7. 7A member shall: • Be honest and accurate in all communications. • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible. • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented. • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented. • Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a clients organization. • Avoid deceptive practices.Examples of Improper Conduct under this Provision: • Front groups: A member implements "grass roots" campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups. • Lying by omission: A practitioner for a corporation knowingly fails to release financial information, giving a misleading impression of the corporations performance. • A member discovers inaccurate information disseminated via a Web site or media kit and does not correct the information. • A member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in "grass roots" campaigns.SAFEGUARDING CONFIDENCESCore PrincipleClient trust requires appropriate protection of confidential and private information.Intent • To protect the privacy rights of clients, organizations, and individuals by safeguarding confidential information.GuidelinesA member shall: • Safeguard the confidences and privacy rights of present, former, and prospective clients and employees. • Protect privileged, confidential, or insider information gained from a client or organization. • Immediately advise an appropriate authority if a member discovers that confidential information is being divulged by an employee of a client company or organization.Examples of Improper Conduct under This Provision: • A member changes jobs, takes confidential information, and uses that information in the new position to the detriment of the former employer. • A member intentionally leaks proprietary information to the detriment of some other party.
  8. 8. 8CONFLICTS OF INTERESTCore PrincipleAvoiding real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest builds the trust of clients, employers,and the publics.Intent • To earn trust and mutual respect with clients or employers. • To build trust with the public by avoiding or ending situations that put ones personal or professional interests in conflict with societys interests.GuidelinesA member shall: • Act in the best interests of the client or employer, even subordinating the members personal interests. • Avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests. • Disclose promptly any existing or potential conflict of interest to affected clients or organizations. • Encourage clients and customers to determine if a conflict exists after notifying all affected parties.Examples of Improper Conduct under This Provision • The member fails to disclose that he or she has a strong financial interest in a clients chief competitor. • The member represents a "competitor company" or a "conflicting interest" without informing a prospective client.ENHANCING THE PROFESSIONCore PrinciplePublic relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the publics trust in the profession.Intent • To build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations. • To improve, adapt and expand professional practices.Guidelines A member shall: • Acknowledge that there is an obligation to protect and enhance the profession. • Keep informed and educated about practices in the profession to ensure ethical conduct. • Actively pursue personal professional development. • Decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this Code. • Accurately define what public relations activities can accomplish.
  9. 9. 9 • Counsel subordinates in proper ethical decision making. • Require that subordinates adhere to the ethical requirements of the Code. • Report ethical violations, whether committed by PRSA members or not, to the appropriate authority.Examples of Improper Conduct under This Provision: • A PRSA member declares publicly that a product the client sells is safe, without disclosing evidence to the contrary. • A member initially assigns some questionable client work to a non-member practitioner to avoid the ethical obligation of PRSA membership.PRSA Member Code of Ethics PledgeI 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 theprofession through continuing research and education; And to adhere to the articles of theMember Code of Ethics 2000 for the practice of public relations as adopted by the governingAssembly of the Public Relations Society of America.I understand and accept that there is a consequence for misconduct, up to and includingmembership revocation.And, I understand that those who have been or are sanctioned by a government agency orconvicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this Code may be barred frommembership or expelled from the Society.________________________________________Signature________________________________________Date