An important ethics decision - Nicky Hager
Reaction to the Public Relations Institute decision on the professional conduct of Klaus Sorensen and Rob McGregor of Shandwick New Zealand Ltd in the Timberlands PR campaign
By Nicky Hager, 11 May 2001
An important ethics decision
The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) delivered an important decision today that will have implications for future public relations in New Zealand. A key part of the complaint, which my co-author Bob Burton and I lodged in late 1999 following publication of our book Secrets and Lies, was questioning the ethics of PR companies undertaking activities designed to undermine and discourage the opponents of their clients (in this case, environmental groups and their supporters). The activities included monitoring these groups, legal threats and seeking to cause trouble for outspoken critics of Timberlands via their employers. We estimated that about half of the work done by Shandwick was aimed at attacking environmentalists rather than helping Timberlands state its own case.
PRINZ has judged that it was unethical for Shandwick staff to pay for someone to infiltrate one of the key environmental groups involved in the 1997 tree-sitting in one of Timberlands’ native forests and “condemn[ed] any actions to apply unjustifiable pressure to individual opponents of a company’s policies”. More than this, PRINZ declared that “there is a need for even higher standards and vigilance when working on behalf of an arm of government, when opponents are effectively exercising a democratic right to express an opinion on Government policy”.
We congratulate PRINZ on reaching this decision. It sends an important message to other PR people working for clients involved in contentious public issues.
Legal tactics stopped most of our complaint from being judged
Following legal threats by Mr Sorensen and Mr McGregor in April 2000, the original PRINZ investigation of the case was abandoned and replaced by a highly legalistic process. Most frustrating was a decision to dismiss about three-quarters of our complaint, without even reviewing our evidence and case, because I had been out of town one week when an unannounced request had arrived instructing me to provide all my evidence by that Friday. My repeated requests to PRINZ to re-consider that decision were blocked by Mr Sorensen and Mr McGregor’s lawyers and so were rejected by PRINZ.
Thus when the PRINZ decision says that most of the allegations against Mr Sorensen and Mr McGregor were not substantiated, this merely tells us about the victory of legal tactics over ethics. They are omitting to mention that their own flawed process resulted in there being no proper opportunity for the allegations to be substantiated.
Comments by Mr Sorensen and Mr McGregor that 19 out of 20 complaints were dismissed is factually wrong.
The process was also frustrated by Mr Sorensen and Mr McGregor refusing to provide their own Institute with papers and information to assist the hearing of the case. It was a very one-sided process. On one side, we were required to prove every aspect of our complaint with documentary evidence; on the other, Mr Sorensen, Mr McGregor and their witness (Dave Hilliard, Timberlands CEO) had their replies and denials taken seriously and quoted extensively in the decision without the requirement to provide any substantiation of what they were claiming.
These experiences echo those of the Public Relations Society of America, which recently abandoned trying to judge ethics complaints against its members because non-co-operation and legal obstruction were making the process of the ethics investigations too difficult and prohibitively expensive in legal costs.
Unsound decisions by PRINZ
Some of PRINZ’s decisions, on the parts of our complaint that were considered, are strikingly out of step with how I think the public would judge the ethics. Notably, we documented a case where Shandwick had prepared a letter for Timberlands, addressed to a Cabinet Minister, opposing a conservation proposal. This letter was then faxed to Timberlands with the message: ‘THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP WITH THIS AND FOR ARRANGING FOR THE ACTION GROUP TO DISPATCH THE LETTERS ON THEIR LETTERHEAD AND IN THE NAME OF THEIR ORGANISATION. BETTER THIS SALVO COMES FROM THEM THAN TIMBERLANDS.’
PRINZ saw nothing wrong with this manipulative plan, arguing that the person who signed the letter would have had free choice whether to put their name to it. This judgement ignores the obvious deceptive intent of the plan. The whole idea was to mislead the Minister into believing that the concerns in the letter originated from a real West Coast individual, whereas the initiative was really coming from a state company that had no right to lobby its own government in that way. It is disappointing, and worrying, that public relations consultants see nothing wrong with deceptive tactics.
PRINZ also dismissed as a whole the section of our complaint relating to a PR firm conducting government lobbying on behalf of a state company. PRINZ argued that it is unclear whether it is wrong for a state company to systematically attempt to influence the policies of the government that owns and directs it. I think that most members of the public would see it as abundantly obvious that a state company has no right to get invovled in politics in this way. Again, it is disappointing and worrying that the PR Institute was unwilling to take a stand against these tactics.
Overall, I think that the case shows that some people in the PRINZ national executive were keen to take a stand on unethical behaviour. The Institute’s declaration that it is unethical to attack citizens who are exercising their democratic rights is a very important decision. However the PRINZ decision also demonstrated that maintenance of ethical standards in the PR world cannot be left to PRINZ: first, because of legal obstruction to investigations by its own members and, second, because (as the “Action Group” letter above shows) what PR people think is ethical may not be the same as what the wider public regards as ethical. Since public relations campaigns have a strong potential to undermine democratic processes, there is an urgent need to find a more effective way of ensuring ethical PR behaviour.
Contact: Nicky Hager 04 3845074 (Bob Burton is currently travelling in the United States)