September is “Ethics Awareness Month” at the PR Society and leaders of the Int’l Assn. of Business Communicators are also chiming in on the topic.

Tens of thousands of words have been generated so far on PRS, IABC and other websites with many more to come. But specific examples of alleged unethical behavior are few and far between. No one wants to get accused of defamation or slander.

PRS, IABC and the Arthur W. Page Society, the three major PR groups, ought to be setting an example of PR ethics by doing the right thing. They don’t seem to have a clue as to what is right or wrong.

Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson, who are active in IABC, said on their FIR podcast series July 30 that there are so many “jaw dropping abuses labeled PR” that the industry should adopt a new “certification” label to police offenders.

The blog generated 3,836 words including 14 replies by Sept. 8, most of them applauding the suggestion.

Not convinced was PRS VP-PR Arthur Yann who posted in 484 words saying that ethical certification would be a “tough sell “ because of the difficulty of enforcement.

PRS chair Gerry Corbett posted on the PRS website that the group “tried for more than 50 years to enforce its Code without success.” There were “enormous legal and investigative expenses” but only “meager results” and there was a “lack of return on investment,” said Corbett.

Charges vs. Board Caused Code Dissolution

What actually caused the demise of the enforceable PRS Code in 1999, including the dismantling of “judicial panels” throughout the U.S., was that the board voted a press boycott that year because it didn’t want to talk about the five-year, $150K credibility survey that placed “PR specialist” 43rd on a list of 45 “believable sources of information.”

It also didn’t want to talk about charges of unethical behavior made by the EIFS construction industry vs. Duffey Communications of Atlanta, headed by PRS' treasurer Lee Duffey. He was in line to be chair-elect but the nomcom put up Kathy Lewton against him and Lewton prevailed.

In addition, an APR member who was a Fellow filed formal charges that the board broke five articles in ordering a press boycott. The board did not want to deal with that, either.

What was expensive about ethics was the creation of a new Code with no enforcement powers. That tab was $197,243 for 1999-2000 and included leader/staff travel, meals and hotel costs. A competent writer could have come up with a new code sans enforcement in an afternoon.

Harold Burson’s Definition of PR Ignored

PRS/IABC/Page can start giving an example of ethical PR behavior by following what Harold Burson told the PRS Foundation April 26 upon receiving the Paladin Award for courageous and meritorious service to PR.

PR, he said, involves listening, being a corporate conscience, communicating, and serving as an “ombudsman” for the press and public.

The PR dept. of PRS has not functioned as defined above since forces led by Patrick Jackson took control in 1980 and evicted all the PR pros. There was only one PR person on staff from 1984-94, Donna Peltier, whose contact with the press was severely limited.

IABC does not currently have anyone on PR nor does Page. That solves the PR problem! Don’t have anyone there to listen to reporters and answer their questions.

Paige Wesley heads “marketing and communications” for IABC but she said she does not consider herself to be the press contact. Her main duties are marketing.

Page for three years had Anuneha Mewawalla as communications director. But she left Jan. 26 and has not been replaced although Page had cash/savings/investments of $1.26 million as of Dec. 31, 2011.

Oddly, though PRS is desperate for PR, it hired law school grad Stephanie Cegielski in June as associate PR director to replace Keith Trivitt. No announcement of this was made on the PRS website or elsewhere.

PRS/IABC/Page can start showing interest in ethics by providing their financials early in the year and by reporting the contracts of their COOs. Page gave us their 2011 Form 990 two months ago.

PRS is withholding the terms of the three-year contract that COO Bill Murray got as of Jan. 1 and IABC is withholding the contract given its new COO Christopher Sorek in June. IABC said it will not provide its 2011 IRS Form 990 until November, the last possible month. It can then take months for the 990 to show up on GuideStar. PRS has ignored repeated faxes asking for its 990 for 2011.

Jack O’Dwyer -- Go Away

PRS’s policy of press avoidance is not only unethical but un-American as chair Gerry Corbett all but admitted on the a.m. PRS teleconference Aug. 29 in referring to this reporter.

These are among his opening words: “Jack, if you are on line, good morning. You’re not supposed to be. You may want to take off. Jack is very interested in these proceedings. Obviously, someone is keeping Jack posted which is fine. That’s your call to do that in America. But just be aware that by keeping him engaged in what we’re doing is just adding, you know, additional fodder for his commentary and that is your call but our business is the business about the PR Society and membership and values and I’m hoping that’s why you’re here as well. Thank you.”

So Corbett believes, regretfully, that a member, “in America,” can keep the press informed of what goes on in PRS. Corbett regards the press as an intruder, echoing a formal policy of PRS that does not allow reporters as members.

Any member caught sharing secure parts of the PRS website with a non-member can have his or her privileges revoked on mere “suspicion” of doing that, says page 3 of a 13-page proposed document on member access to the website.

Another odious section says PRS, “in its sole discretion,” can delete “unacceptable content from your posting.” Except for eliminating profanity or personal attacks, this gives far too much editorial powers to the PRS overseers. Another zinger is that PRS will monitor any use or searches a member makes of the site. This is spying on members and something that belongs in a dictatorship and not in America.

Legal Proposal, Finances Need Discussing

Since Holtz, Hobson, Corbett and others are looking for ethical topics to discuss, one of them should be whether PRS is doing the right thing in dumping 13 pages of legalese on members and threatening to bar them “at our sole discretion without explanation.”

Lawyers say members are not bound by anything in the 13 pages because they have already paid their $255 for full membership rights and can’t have any of them taken away at anyone’s “sole discretion.”

“It’s like you bought a hot dog and the vendor then says you have to pay another 50 cents if you want to eat it,” said a lawyer.

One section of the 13 pages says that if any of the terms violate New York law, they will be deemed deleted while the rest of the terms remain in force.

A member would have to hire a lawyer to go through the 13 pages and check whether any violate New York law.

Members are not going to hire a lawyer but we have and that is one of the functions of the press. Another topic for Holtz, Hobson, Corbett and others is whether PRS/IABC/Page are being unethical in not reporting their financial results a few weeks after the close of the year, the standard forced on public companies by the SEC.

No one is forcing PRS/IABC/Page to do that but ethics is where you are not forced by law to do something but you do it because it is the right thing to do. No law says you have to help someone who falls on the sidewalk in front of you but ethically you should.

Diane Gage-Lofgren of Kaiser Permanente, a member of Page, is looking for topics that PRS Assembly delegates can discuss during the afternoon of Oct. 13. The 13-page proposed contract and the financial reporting practices of PRS should be among them. Delegates have to come up with their own topics since none will be supplied by the leaders, the PRS teleconferences were told Aug. 29.