Page Principles and PRSA Guidelines

Professional organizations such as the Page Society and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) give practitioners guidelines about transparency and disclosure.

The Page Principles advise practitioners to tell the truth, listen to stakeholder to learn what information is needed and always manage for tomorrow. These core principles provide a foundation for how to handle transparency and disclosure.

PRSA provides specific examples through the organization’s ethical standards advisories. In these advisories, practitioners are encouraged to reveal any conflicts of interests, disclose financial interests and avoid deceptive practices. Conflicts of interest are part of professional and personal life, and must be disclosed to build trust.

The advisory from PRSA about professional conflicts of interest suggests disclosing anything that might be perceived as biasing the practitioner’s judgment. Examples include disclosing that a family member works for a competing client, having an outside job, taking on clients with opposing philosophical or moral orientations and receiving gifts from clients.

In addition to personal conflicts of interest, practitioners should be transparent about financial interests. An excellent example of financial interests is pay-for-play. The term comes from early radio days when DJs were paid to pay specific musicians. In public relations, the term means “the undisclosed compensation of reporters or media for the placements of editorial material."

Advertorials, native advertising and sponsored content can exist in any media channel, but the growth of the internet and social media has compounded the issue.

In a 2013 survey by Edelman, the firm found that 73 percent of online outlets offered sponsored content. The sponsorship of content occurs in media large and small. For example, The New York Times has a production studio dedicated to creating stories sponsored by advertisers. An early work from this group was an interactive story about a women’s prison sponsored by Netflix, and timed with the premiere of the second season of "Orange is the New Black." 

The newspaper disclosed the sponsorship with a special URL, the words "paid post" and both the Netflix and show logos. Some critics think the sponsorships such as The New York Times/Netflix one should be displayed more prominently so “reader confusion over what’s an ad” does not occur. Without clear disclosure of financial relationships, trust is hard to build and then maintain. However, The New York Times and many other print and online publications continue this controversial practice.

Finally, the PRSA Code of Ethics states to avoid deceptive practices such as omitting facts, failing to correct false facts, deceptively using front groups and paying for "volunteers." The unethical use of front groups is also called “astroturfing,” implying that the group appears to be a grassroots organization, but is really a fabrication.

An example is the Coalition for Better Food. It sounds like a grassroots organization, but was formed by “farm interests dedicated to softening legislation on feed lot pollution." Therefore, the Coalition for Better Food lobbied for farmers and farming interests rather than for the average person interested in better food choices.

In addition to using front groups, the creation and compensation of individual volunteers must be disclosed. Faux volunteers could range from experts endorsing an idea, to people posting comments on a blog, to advocates filling a city council meeting, but all are deceptive and could lead to damaged relationships. These unethical tactics might work in the short run, but once discovered by a public the damage is almost irreversible. The short-term gains are not worth the long-term harm to reputation and relationships.

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