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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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