PR ethics in a blogger’s eyes: Would you sell your soul to the clients?
By Nguyen Thi Thuy Linh – s33099990
Growing up, I was always the troublemaker in my family. Mom’s punishment back then used to be my best friend; we hung out together almost every day. Yet the only time Mom made me cry was when she accused me of stealing her money, which later turned out to be an experiment. Not only did the incident help my Mom verify that distraction could immediately stop the hiccups I was having, but it also made me realize how strongly I detested unethical behaviors prompted by the greed for money. That personal value, however, has constantly been challenged during the twenty years I have been living in this materialistic society. Knowing that the battle between ethics and money will get even fiercer once I enter the workplace, I decided to seek for advice from one of the top three most prominent bloggers in Vietnam, who is now the founder of Robbey Communications PR agency – Robbey Le (Cimigo 2011). In a room filled with the delightful fragrance of tea, we had a long talk about life in attempt to find the answer to one of its hardest questions: how can we protect our ethics in a profit-driven business world?
Figure 1. Reproduced from: Le 2012
Ethical blogging: I do not love the way you lie
Defined as the set of values that we should embrace along with the responsibilities and actions we take in order to manifest these virtues, ethics is one of the key issues in any modern societies (Theaker 2004). In the context of public relations, ethics can be measured in terms of honesty and integrity (Bishop 2009). However, with the rise of social media which empowers blogging to function as an effective PR tool, companies are paying bloggers to write positive articles about their products, which is argued to consequently tarnish the credibility of PR (Duke & Davila 2009). As a blogger himself, Robbey looks at this issue in a rather more flexible manner: ‘Ethical blogging means the opinions must truly be yours’: no matter whether the blog entries are paid for or not, their content must be trustworthy and newsworthy, and also reflect the writers’ beliefs. Letting out a sigh, Robbey shared that there are some bloggers in Vietnam who tend to badmouth brands that do not ‘bribe’ them. ‘But the readers are not fools. With the sea of information nowadays, it is not impossible for them to check if you are lying. Unethical blogging will leave a permanent stain on your reputation’, he remarked.
Money is not the most valuable asset
Acknowledging his position as an opinion leader – a person who is capable of influencing others (Lamb, Hair & McDaniel 2008), Robbey is also aware of the responsibility that comes along; thus, before accepting any client, he always does research on the company and their campaigns to see if they match his values and interest. ‘I only work on projects that I truly feel passionate about’, he said. When asked why he did not take advantage of his influence to take on as many clients as possible, he just laughed. Then all of a sudden, the famous blogger told me in a sincere tone: ‘Once you start chasing after money, you will gradually start losing your personality, your values, and your taste. Money only shows short-termed results. It is your own colors that determine your success in the long run.’
PR ethics: An honest agency-client relationship
The relevance of ethics as well as the concepts of honesty and integrity applies to not only the relationship between the PR practitioner and the audience or between the PR practitioner and himself/herself, but also his/her relationship with the clients. In the business context, ethics is tightly linked to professionalism (Parsons 2008; Pratt 1991), which manifests itself in the agency-client relationship as mutual respect (Bivins 2006). From the perspective of the agency, it refers to the autonomy needed to fulfill their role as a trustworthy partner and advisor: the agency should be given the right and the freedom to come up with solutions that they deem as most appropriate for the client instead of being forced to follow the clients all the time (Bivins 2006). ‘Some clients tend to consider the agencies their pawns’, Robbey shared. ‘But they must realize that influencers are those with strong personalities, and strong personalities won’t put up with that kind of treatment’.
His opinion falls in line with that of Salacuse (2000): a great advisor is one who knows when and how to disagree with the client. That explains why Robbey hardly ever bends to the clients’ demands: he refuses to deliver anything but what he believes is the best for their campaigns, even if it means conflicts. ‘Aren’t you afraid you will lose clients?’ I asked out of curiosity. ‘No big deal. I’ve argued with some of my clients before, but when they launch new campaigns, they still call me. I believe if you work with ethics, the clients will return,’ he remarked. However, it does not mean that Robbey opposes to Solomon’s statement: ‘There is no no in your client vocabulary’ (2008, p. 105). In fact, both of them emphasize on the importance of negotiation: ‘To convince someone to follow your ideas means to put yourself in their shoes and look at the issue from their perspective before trying to explain why your ways are better. Even when you are right, never allow yourself to look down on them,’ Robbey stated. ‘That is also the code of ethics of a PR practitioner’.
‘It’s not about the money, money, money…’ (Jessie J 2011)
Not only did our long talk on that rainy Saturday afternoon reinforce my belief that ‘Price tag’ is indeed the theme song of my life, but it also brought about precious lessons regarding the dignity of professional communicators: our personal values are not for sales. Much as money is important, there are more valuable assets that we need to treasure: honesty, integrity, respect for ourselves and for others, all of which are essential in building strong client-agency relationships. With the main focus put on creativity and ethics, agencies should hold on to their values when encountering clients who use money to win the upper hand in the relationship. For me, when caught in situations where I waver, I shall recall the words Robbey said that day as a mantra: ‘Personality is a creative person’s most valuable asset. Don’t trade it for some mere checks.’
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Proof of life
Bishop, B 2009, ‘Authentic communication: A new PR litmus test for corporate ethics’, Public Relations Tactics, September, p. 19.
Bivins, TH 2006, ‘Responsibility and accountability’, in C Bronstein & K Fitzpatrick (eds), Ethics in Public Relations: Responsible advocacy, SAGE Publications, California, pp. 19-38.
Cimigo 2011, Cimigo youth report – Vietnam’s Generation Z, Cimigo, viewed 21 August 2012, Cimigo database.
Duke, WT & Davila, RJ 2009, ‘Point/Counterpoint: Does social media affect the PR profession and ethics negatively?’, Public Relations Tactics, September, pp. 18-19.
Jessie J 2011, ‘Price tag’, Who you are, audio CD, Lava, New York, US.
Lamb, CW, Hair, JF & McDaniel, C 2008, Marketing, Cengage Learning, Ohio, US.
Le, R 2012, conversation, 1 September.
Le, R 2012, ‘Portrait’, image, Facebook, 25 July, viewed 1 September 2012, <https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151956347030206&set=a.10151085890455206.774077.129440445205&type=3>.
Parsons, P 2008, Ethics in Public Relations: A guide to best practice, Kogan Page Publishers, London, UK.
Pratt, CB 1991, ‘Public Relations: The empirical research on practitioner ethics’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 10, pp. 229-236.
Salacuse, JW 2000, The wise advisor: What every professional should know about consulting and counseling, Greenwood Publishing Group, Connecticut, US.
Solomon, R 2008, The art of client service, Kaplan Publishing, New York, US.
Theaker, A 2004, The Public Relations handbook, 2nd edn, Routledge, Oxfordshire, UK.