Recently, CNBC revealed a public relations agent’s disturbing attempt to bribe a CNBC employee. The pitch went something like this:
I would be asking you to include our clients in stories you’re working on (assuming there’s a natural fit), or pitch your editors on new stories that include discussion of our clients. We’re not looking for you to promote or shill for anything. Just include discussion of our clients in a natural, organic way.
What we’re paying varies wildly depending on quality of the secured hit. We’ve paid up to a dollar per word for great placement. What payment structure would you be comfortable with?
The CNBC employee knew better than to accept this offer and took it straight to the bosses. Meanwhile, the public relations agent and firm looked foolish as their own reputations took a dive.
Contrary to Status Labs’ apparent beliefs, not all publicity is good publicity.
Avoiding deception, promoting honesty
Aside from the blatant irony that this situation presents, there is much to be learned. Even image management teams have their own reputation to worry about. Companies like this are hired to create good publicity, not buy it.
The moral dilemma that the industry faces is that practitioners have to persuade their audiences without trickery. We can act as salespeople and must stick to the salesperson’s code when we do this. We can manage the facts, but they can’t change them. Most importantly, we cannot deceive our audiences.
Why is this so immoral? It goes back to basic freedoms. We fear control. Consumers must know if the information that they are absorbing is biased.
Truth reveals itself
But then, what isn’t edited these days? We watch commercials with a deep voice that’s speaking too fast to understand. We drive by giant billboards that say “Advertisement” in unreadable print. It seems as though every photo is modified, every statistic manipulated. Where’s the beef?
It comes down to the issue of honesty. If consumers don’t know that they are being lied to, then their judgment is compromised. They cannot make educated decisions.
Lies are all around us. We are sold millions of ideas a day. One thing we can be sure of is that lies act as boomerangs. The bigger the lie, the more likely it will hit you in the face. In public relations, as in life, the truth will always reveal itself.
Leah Strassburg is a dual public relations and policy studies major at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. In her spare time, she enjoys singing with Syracuse’s Women’s Choir and baking pumpkin bars.