Nothing Good Happens at 2:47 a.m., A Lesson in PR Ethics

I shot out of bed and looked at the clock: 2:47 a.m. “The photo,” I thought to myself. “Is it ok we used that photo?”

Here is how it all started:

After completing research as part of a client’s public relations plan, I advised them to invest resources in a regularly updated blog. In addition to moving us toward our measurable objectives, we ensured the blog had appeal to our target publics while educating, entertaining and informing them.

In preparation for a client event, we wrote a blog entry that everyone on the team loved. When I say team, I mean my agency, the client, the client’s boss and key stakeholders. The blog educated while at the same time evoked a favorite moment from an iconic American television show. It appeared we had achieved the impossible! We crossed generational barriers with one blog. The client’s intern even posed with a member of my team in a picture to re-create the TV show’s iconic moment, and we posted that 2011 version side-by-side with the photo from the classic TV show.

Why, oh why had I set myself up for a 2:47 a.m. wake-up call and reminder? The photo? Did we have the rights to use the original photo from the TV show?  Was there a protected copyright on this iconic image? Or was I protected by fair use? How could I, as my chapter’s Ethics Chairperson, not pause and research the rights of the photo before posting it? Had I somehow put one of PRSA’s Code Ethics Code Provisions (Enhancing the Profession) at risk?

Was I blinded by the elation that we were able to emotionally touch people in all age groups with this one piece of Americana? Did I lose myself in the ease to pull an image off the web and re-create it for the sake of humorous blog-appeal?   Was I drunk with pleasure over my team’s creativity and dedication to their job?

All these questions and my clock just mocked me, shining bright at 2:47 a.m.

After a few moments, I allowed my body to fall back onto the pillows as a cold drop of sweat zig-zagged off my temple and down my cheek. I drifted back into a slightly fitful sleep and put it on my “to do” list to research first thing in the morning. If I talked in my sleep that night, it is possible I would have mumbled, “I was advocating for my client and ‘advocacy’ is one of the Code of Ethics Professional Values!”

In the end, I researched the photo and its sources.  I was covered by fair use for this specific photograph. The 2:47 a.m. wake-up call was a terrific reminder that sound ethical values should guide every decision we make. Whether it is planning, implementation, research, hiring, business development…whatever we do as PR professionals, PRSA offers a firm code of ethics to guide us in our daily decisions.

Avoid an unwanted 2:47 a.m. wake-up call. Review PRSA’s Code of Ethics, its six Professional Values and the accompanying six Code Provisions. Do it now because nothing good happens at 2:47 a.m.

Guest blog by Vanessa S. Stiles, President & CEO of Victory Sun, Inc. Find her on Twitter @victorysunpr.