Beware of High Stakes PR Gambles

Posted by Dan Keeney

Public relations should not be a high stakes gamble because your reputation is too valuable to risk for short-term gain.

When Mercury Public Affairs describes itself as, “A high-stakes public strategy firm,” I guess they aren’t kidding. I have always thought that the term, “high-stakes” suggests high risk and high rewards. Personally, I have always preferred low risk and high rewards. I think clients aren’t wild about high risk when it comes to PR.

After all, an organization’s reputation is its most valuable asset. You don’t want to risk that.

Unfortunately, the reason we are mentioning all of this is that part of the whole ‘high stakes’ thing apparently included going undercover and posing as a member of the media to gather information about the opposition on behalf of one of Mercury’s clients.

I won’t retrace all the particulars because it is reported well in, “Wal-Mart PR Rep Poses as Reporter to Infiltrate Union Meeting.” What I will do is take this opportunity to encourage clients to seek out members of the Public Relations Society of America for their public relations needs. All members of PRSA adhere to the PRSA member Code of Ethics. The code includes guidance related to a number of different situations in which a PR person could find him/herself, including the following language regarding, “Disclosure of Information.”


Core Principle

Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.


To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.


A member shall:

  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
  • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
  • Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organization.
  • Avoid deceptive practices.

Examples of Improper Conduct Under this Provision:

  • Front groups: A member implements “grass roots” campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.
  • Lying by omission: A practitioner for a corporation knowingly fails to release financial information, giving a misleading impression of the corporation’s performance.
  • A member discovers inaccurate information disseminated via a website or media kit and does not correct the information.
  • A member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in “grass roots” campaigns.

Clearly, posing as anything other than a public relations person would be a violation of the PRSA member Code of Ethics. It can harm the reputation of the client and certainly tarnishes our profession. Knowing what I know about the operations of PR agencies, I find it very hard to believe that Stephanie Harnett unilaterally decided to go black ops.

The team at mediabistro expressed similar suspicions, but Mercury’s Managing Director, Becky Warren is sticking to the firm’s statement:

“The action taken by Ms. Harnett was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Walmart or Mercury. Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision,” the statement reads, in part.

We contacted Warren over at Mercury today to further address the suspicions. In an email, she told us, “Our statement is 100% accurate.  It was unacceptable and an action we would never, under any circumstances, authorize.”

If you want high stakes, pull up a chair in Vegas and ante up. If you want to protect and enhance your organization’s reputation, watch out for gamblers that pursue short-term gains at the risk of long-term pain.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 19th, 2012 at 9:06 am and is filed under Crisis PR, PR Stories, Public Relations Advice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Beware of High Stakes PR Gambles”

  1. Kristen Escovedo Says:

    I hate when it is PR pros (and in this case I use the term pros loosely) who give us a bad name. We have enough trouble fighting the “spin” image, we don’t need anyone else working to tarnish the rep of those communicators who work diligently and ethically to better their organizations.

  2. Dan Keeney Says:

    At a time of diminishing trust, it is imperative that PRSA step forward and clearly admonish these activities. Considering how this is a clear breach of the Code of Ethics, I am surprised that the leadership has not issued a statement — it is a good opportunity to distinguish between legitimate PR strategies and those that cross the line and put clients and the profession at risk.

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