Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Writing about ethics again

I was saddened (literally) to hear about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's fake news conference last Tuesday. For anyone unfamiliar with the situation, here's a little background.

In the midst of last week's devastating fires in Southern California FEMA decided to call a press conference/media briefing. The problem with this was that they called the briefing 15 minutes before it was scheduled to start, and thus, most reporters were unable to attend. One could easily dismiss this as oversight or lack of planning ahead on FEMA's part, but it gets worse.

According to the Washington Post's story on the incident, reporters unable to attend the briefing were provided an 800 number which, surprisingly, was "listen only." In other words, reporters could listen in, but couldn't ask any questions. Seem bad? It gets worse.

After some brief remarks by Harvey E. Johnson, FEMA Vice Adm., the "reporters" in the room were able to ask questions. The news conference proceeded as normal, but the Washington Post notes that none of the reporters were asking really tough questions. The reason? The so-called reporters in the room were merely FEMA employees! Ridiculous.

How in the world could this have happened? How could any of the FEMA PR staff have let this slide by. Was no one courageous enough to stand up and say a fake news conference is a bad idea?

PRSA responded to the FEMA debacle in a release on its Web site yesterday, but from a quick scan of the reader comments, it's easy to see that people think PRSA should have been a little more harsh on FEMA for its actions.

We as PR people struggle enough to maintain credibility, and actions like this do nothing more than to destroy all the good things we do. This action by FEMA further demonstrates that there are PR people out there that either don't know what they're doing or are just completely lacking in ethics.

Part of PRSA's mission is to to help advance the profession of public relations, but I think this is a responsibility that lies with every public relations practitioner out there. It is imperative that we have the courage to speak up when something goes against what we know to be right. I could be altruistic and say that good will always prevail in these situations, but the sad fact of the matter is that it may not. Jobs may be lost, promotions may be denied, but unless someone stands up and takes the bullet, stuff like FEMA's fake news conference will continue to happen.

I'm not saying we should sacrifice jobs and careers to make PR look good, we should make these sacrifices simply because it is the right thing to do.

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