Friday, October 23, 2009

Those pesky ethics keep holding me back.

Flying under the radar (har har) of the balloon boy hoax of last week was a media hoax of a far different kind: the Yes Men's successful effort to dupe major U.S. media into relaying their messages on climate change.

The Yes Men are activists whose business, according to their website, is "Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

On Monday, their target was the United States Chamber of Commerce. As the National Post reported earlier this week, the Yes Men booked the National Press Club in Washington late last week for a news conference, under the name "U.S. Council on Climate, which has the same acronym as the Chamber. On Monday morning, they called and changed the contact information for the event, and set up their press conference with U.S. Chamber of Commerce logos."

Staff at the National Press Club realized something was up, and alerted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the fraudulent news conference was about to take place. The video below shows what happened when a legitimate representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce arrived on the scene.

While the news conference was only a few minutes old when it got broken up, a number of media outlets had already reported on the announcement. According to the National Post,
"Reuters had already filed a story based on a fake press release. The news appeared on several websites and was announced on live television; an anchor for the Fox Business Network retracted the news within seconds of reporting it. Reuters quickly issued a correction."
The situation was an embarrassment for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Press Club, as well as the media who reported the story before realizing it was a hoax. But the Yes Men certainly got what they wanted: national headlines and coverage of their messages on climate change.

Some may see publicity stunts like this one as victimless crimes; and in some cases, they might be (other than the damage done to the credibility of the PR and media industries). But in others, there can be real victims: as the National Post story recounted, in 1994 the same front man for the Yes Men
"tricked the BBC into thinking he worked for Dow Chemical. In an interview with the broadcaster, he said Dow would pay US$12-million to the victims of India's Bhopal gas disaster. By the time that stunt was exposed a few hours later, the company's stock had plunged by US$2-billion."

This story has highlighted the fundamental problem of a "tweet-first-ask-questions-later" approach to journalism today, driven by the need to stay ahead of social media in breaking news. Whereas reporters used to have time to do background research before filing stories, today they are pressured to get the news out, at least in some preliminary form, as soon as they receive it. As the media landscape evolves, journalists will need to find a way to ensure the accuracy of what they're reporting, if they want to remain a credible source for their audiences.

In first-year PR classes at Red River College this year, we have discussed professional codes of ethics, and why professional associations like the Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators would need to have them; this story provides us with a perfect illustration of why such ethics codes are needed.

The Yes Men's stunt may have earned headlines, but it did nothing to build relationships. Ethical public relations does not employ dishonesty, arguing that the means justifies the ends; rather, ethical public relations involves open, honest communications between a client and its audiences, in the interests of fostering better understanding and, hopefully, earning trust and support.

It's important for ethical public relations practitioners to denounce actions like those of the Yes Men, because in some circles, their tactics are understood, incorrectly, to be the tactics of PR.

They aren't.


  1. I'm not sure I know what you mean when you say that some understand the Yes Men's tactics as those of PR.

    To me, the Yes Men have nothing to do with legitimate PR, in the sense that though their tactics are subversive, that is the whole basis of their operation, and they embrace it. They are an activist group doing radical actions that hold up a mirror to society, and they do it with a jolt. I think they certainly have their place, in this case giving the media industry something serious to think about in terms of their need to get news out ASAP at any cost, not to mention the environmental aspect of this stunt.

    Or perhaps I've misunderstood your point?

  2. You used the magic word when you said the Yes Men have nothing to do with *legitimate* PR.

    Unfortunately, the practices of groups like them (and many others who preceded them and worked on a smaller scale) have led some people to think that PR is all about tricking people or spreading misleading information in the interests of achieving the client's objectives. I've heard it myself, from people whom I would have fully expected to know better.

    The PR industry has a bit of a PR problem in that respect, and that's part of the reason CPRS, IABC and PRSA insist their members adhere to a very clear and very public code of conduct. Their accreditation processes involve evaluation of their members' ethics. Their hope is that, eventually, public audiences will recognize an "APR" or "ABC" designation after the name of a communicator on a news release, and be confident the information it contains can be trusted.

    While the Yes Men's actions were about getting publicity for their environmental positions, they misrepresented themselves as an authoritative voice, tricked journalists into coming down and covering their event, and successfully started some public discourse about their positions (even if it was secondary to the discussion of their stunt). But had you asked uninvolved observers what that stunt was, after the fact, I'll bet many would have said "it was just PR".

    My argument is that this kind of trickery is not PR - at least, professional PR. PR's reputation has come a long way - but it's not entirely "there" yet.