Transparent communication in public relations and marketing
The MobileCrunch story titled Cheating the App Store: PR firm has interns post positive reviews for clients details alleged misconduct by Reverb Communications. The story has stirred up another round of discussions about ethical behavior and transparency in public relations. When these controversies surface, it reminds me that professional public relations practitioners have a code of ethics that is well defined by the Public Relations Society of America. They aren't complicated and do a good job of anticipating a situation where a communicator would be tempted to unfairly promote their client's products or interests.
The core principle of the code of ethics is that open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society. The intent is to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making. The principle requires that a PR person reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented and openly discloses financial interest. An example of improper conduct is a front group that implements "grass roots" campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups. Certainly, employees that get their salary from a client they are reviewing would need to disclose that fact to readers under this simple definition.
The online world expects more transparency and disclosure than we have seen in the past so PR and marketing professionals need to rise to that standard. If you find yourself responding online (or offline) to a comment, just open with a sentence that says "I work for XX that represents XX." That quick disclosure avoids a real or perceived conflict of interest. I often hear that the people who work and sell a company's products are the most knowledgeable about the product and the problems it solves. I agree that they probably are the best experts on that topic and should respond to questions, but the code of ethics and general honesty require that you disclose your affiliation. I find that it actually increases your credibility in the online conversation when you disclose these facts because people know that you have strong domain experience.
Next time a client or manager asks why can't they edit their company's Wikipedia entry or anonymously respond to criticism on a blog, point them to these clear ethical guidelines. If that doesn't convince them, direct them to read the outrage in the comments section of the MobileCrunch story.
Now for my disclosures - I am the past president for PRSA Silicon Valley and I work at Edelman, a PR agency.