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Putin, The New York Times and PR

September 16, 2013

The recent publication in The New York Times of an Op-ed entitled A Plea for Caution From Russia by President Putin that was placed by the PR firm of Ketchum has created quite a controversy both in the media and the blogosphere. Some have criticized The New York Times for accepting to publish the article and others have questioned whether it was ethical for Ketchum to work for the Russian Government.

I personally do not see any ethical violation in either issue but they both raise interesting ethical questions.

Was it ethically right for The New York Times to publish the Op-ed? I do not see why not.  The paper is a private institution and it is up to the editorial board to decide what it publishes and what it does not. The New York Times did not violate, in any way, its own ethical guidelines or the code of ethics of the Society for Professional Journalism. The paper also made it clear that by publishing the Op-ed it endorsed neither Mr. Putin nor his ideas. Ethics is very often determining where one draws the line between what is acceptable and what is not. I am quite certain that the paper would not publish an Op-ed whose content it considered abhorrent, such as advocating discrimination and promoting hate.

Did Ketchum violate any ethical values in accepting to work for the Russian Government? I do not believe it did. Russia is a major player in the world’s diplomacy and economy of our planet and cannot be ignored. President Putin may be very authoritative but he is not a dictator. Some have questioned whether President Putin actually wrote the piece or whether it was written by executives at Ketchum. From an ethical point of view, I do not think it really matters. Once a text is signed off by its declared author, he or she owns it. It is a common practice in PR to write for our clients. We are counsel in communications, whether we whisper in our clients’ ears or whether we submit a draft for their approval.  

More generally what are the criteria, from an ethical point of view, determining whether a PR firm accepts or refuses to work for a client?  It is a challenging question.

The PRSA code of ethics does not address this issue except to say that we should:  “decline representation of clients requiring actions contrary to the Code.” In other words, if a client demands that we take action that is contrary to the PRSA code of ethics we should obviously refuse to comply and most likely resign the account. 

I believe that ultimately it is the culture of the agency that will determine which clients are accepted and which are refused. Some people believe everyone is entitled to PR representation, as long as the actions taken for the clients are within the law. Others have a different view. We, at Ruder Finn, in our Ethics Guideline, list a number of public relations activities that we do not want to be involved in such as: defending or endorsing the suppression of human rights anywhere in the world, threatening word peace, disseminating what we believe is false and deceptive information, making unsupported or misleading claims for product, corporation, institution, government or cause… etc.

Doug Lundrigan, MBA- President of Lighthouse Business Solutions defines corporate culture quite well. He says that:

 ”The culture of an organization is the sum of all the words and actions of all members. An organization’s stated or aspired-to culture may be captured in its vision, mission and values, but the actual culture is how people behave and speak at work.”

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Comments (1)

September 26th, 2013 at 5:39 pm Posted by Andrea Gils

As long as the article does not have anything that jeopardizes national security, incite imminent lawless actions, or all of the components in the legal test of clear and present danger, I don’t think the NYT would have to block the message. If there was content addressing these issues, if the NYT did not censor it, the government would anyway.

The content of this op-ed may not be what the President of the U.S. or U.S. citizens may want to hear, but censoring such kind of content would take us back to when people and newspapers did not have freedom of speech/press. In addition, the article ran in the op-ed section, not as an article written by someone in the NYT.

Hearing different views and having a place for them (marketplace of ideas) is what I think gives the so called “exceptional” quality to the U.S., and blocking messages because they simply differ from the general population or hurts someone’s feelings would be failing to honor the essence of this country. I am aware I am using to the word “exceptional” with a different meaning from what President Obama and the NYT address.

Whether Ketchum had to do with it or not does not really matter. It would matter to me (as a PR young professional) if Ketchum denied taking part in something when it actually did (regardless of the topic)- simply because it would not be honoring one of our PR values which is included in PRSA’s Code of Ethics: transparency. I don’t understand why there is so much “fuzz” about Ketchum’s involvement in this either. If Ketchum wants to have a client (wherever or whoever it is) and this client matches Ketchum’s code of ethics, culture and views, I don’t see why it should not work with that client.

I’ve looked Ruder Finn’s page but unfortunately I couldn’t find RFI’s Ethics Guideline. I would really like to read that one too.

These types of situations show why companies, agencies, and newspapers must think about ethics, prepare beforehand, and not wait until the issue arises. Ketchum knows what type of clients it wants to work with and the NYT knows what type of newspaper it wants to be. It is up to the company’s culture and its leaders to decide who they want to work with and publish, or not.


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