Nov 13

My Brother’s Keeper: When a Colleague Crosses the Line – Sunday Coffee Contemplations

What responsibility do you as an ethical public relations professional have when a colleague crosses the boundary and engages in unethical behavior? And no, I’m not referring to the child sex abuse situation at Penn State, but another ethical situation that slipped in under the radar this weekend: The case of Mike Winder, the director of public affairs for Summit Group Communications and currently mayor of West Valley, Utah, who admitted to creating a fake identity to “write stories for area newspapers in order to disseminate “good news” about his town.”

The Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics clearly states “The value of member reputation depends upon the ethical conduct of everyone affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America. Each of us sets an example for each other – as well as other professionals – by our pursuit of excellence with powerful standards of performance, professionalism, and ethical conduct.” So….how are Winder’s colleagues to interpret that tomorrow when they go to work? Especially, as the Code goes on to state:

“Ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member. We view the Member Code of Ethics as a model for other professions, organizations, and professionals.”

Winder’s unethical behavior – including his apparent lack of remorse – has placed his colleagues right in the midst of an ethical quandary. How do you work with someone who not only acts unethically, but casts his actions in the light of a champion for his community:

“There will be people who will be disappointed in me because of this,” Winder told KSL-5. “But there will also be people who respect me for putting my neck on the line to get good coverage for our city.”

Really? The end justifies the means? That slope isn’t just slippery, it’s downright coated in lard.

Winder admits he used the name “Richard Burwash” to contribute more than a dozen stories over a two-year span that were published by the Deseret News, Oquirrh Times and aired on, among others.

The ethical sins didn’t stop with writing under a fake name. The Deseret News said Winder quoted himself in his stories and used anonymous city employees as sources, created a fake email account for “Richard Burwash” to communicate with his editors and pretended to be Burwash in phone conversations with them. He even created a Facebook profile for his alter ego, and lifted a photo from a Google image search, according to the news stories. I can’t confirm this, because a search of Facebook doesn’t return anything for “Richard Burwash.”

What Winder did is so wrong, it shouldn’t require explaining, but apparently it does. After all, this is the mayor who launched a transparency issue for his community, saying, according to the Deseret News:  “In our free society, the people should have information relating to how they are governed, and they should have a government that is open, accessible, transparent and honest.” Um, yes. Sure, Richard – er, Mike. Transparent and honest. Right.

PRSA Code of Ethics

PRSA’s Code of Ethics is very clear on just how wrong Winder/Burwash’s actions are:


We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.

Just how informed can the public be when they are being lied to? Every message has to be judged within the context in which it is created. There’s a big difference between the context of an article written by the elected mayor and a private citizen.


We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.

I think this should need no further explanation – but then again, there is the example of Winder/Burwash now to show that apparently some people still need this explained to them.

Winder isn’t a member of PRSA, and so not required to adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics, but three of his colleagues are members of the organization, as I am. And while the Code is clear on this issue, it’s not so clear on the obligation of what the colleagues of someone who engages in unethical behavior must do. How will Winder’s ethical lapse reflect on his employer and colleagues, who may be judged guilty by association? I know his actions reflect badly on the profession I’ve spent over 20 years in, and I’m not happy about that. 

So how should Winder’s colleagues respond now that his actions have been disclosed? That’s a difficult question. I feel badly for my colleagues at Summit Communications Group.  I’m just glad I’m not in their shoes tomorrow morning. 

Author’s note: The initial post stated that four employees of Summit Communications Group were members of PRSA. That was in error. Three of Summit’s employees are members of PRSA.


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  1. This certainly does present a dilemma for Summit folks Debra and I’m with you. I don’t envy their Monday morning discussions. It’s easy for me, or others, to sit here in the comfort of another office and offer advice. It’s another to be in the room with a leader of the agency who’s shown such a lack of transparency and honesty.

    The colleagues on the management team, his peers, have an obligation to address the issue in a management meeting. Antonio Lima, a management team member, is an accredited member of PRSA. As a member he’s clearly agreed to abide by the Code which Winder broke. I would hope Lima understands his responsibility here. Following a management team discussion, I hope there’s a company-wide discussion about TSG’s commitment to the ethical practice of public relations.

    Those not on the management team are in a tougher position but I would hope those who subscribe to the Code of Ethics will begin searching for new jobs. I know it would be terribly difficult for me to remain in an office where this type of public relations is condoned.

  2. After writing this post this morning, I spent some time thinking about it the situation this afternoon. I began to wonder if perhaps I’d been to harsh in my original post – then I read this story by in The Washington Post:

    He obviously sees nothing wrong with his actions. These are the kinds of people our profession DOES NOT need.

  3. And now Winder has essentially admitted to social media identity theft:

    As if privacy issues online weren’t enough of a concern.

  4. Ethical Deconstructionism, aha, Jacques Derrida would be proud, what a fascinating case to present, Debra. Thank you. And yes you came down on the right side.

    The great thing about aspirational behavior re: ethics is that it can make each and all of us uncomfortable upon some self-reflection.

    “You totally crossed the line between what is ethical and what is garbage!” Holly Hunter yells at him in the airport, her traditional journalism values. “It’s hard not to cross it; they keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?,” replied William Hurt, the not-all-that-smart-pretty-boy handsome blow-dried news-reader anchor in Broadcast News.

    Not certain I knew who “they” are in this movie, but, in the Mayor’s case, it’s technology, journalism practices and the economy that have converged to create a window of opportunity that he exploited.

    And, yes, I self-reflect, sitting here just having ghost-written 3 letters-to-the-editor for Board members on a project this morning, with the idea that they will adapt and fit to their style and submit, something PR pros have done forever. And, I suspect, more than one PR pro has used a Pen Name, or submitted something anonymously, whether in writing or via phone.

    But, in this case, the active misrepresentation of himself as another person, incl setting up the identity, makes this a slam-dunk of an ethics case. He says his stories were accurate, I hope they were, but if they were not (e.g., did he quote himself accurately!?!), he’s certainly compounded an already egregious error.

    Disclosure Note Exposure is the maxim I’ve always used in Issues & Crisis Management, so at least the miscreant gains points from me for his self-disclosure without being revealed or threatened to be revealed. And the Southern Baptist from my Mother’s side in my “raisin” prompts me to be forgiving too of his misjudgement where he has acknowledged voluntarily, stepped up and owned it, and is trying to make amends to the real Mr. Burwash.

    Thanks, Debra, for bringing it to our attention. None of this makes the offense less egregiously unethical!

    Sam Waltz / Greenville, Wilmington, DE

      • Debra Bethard-Caplick on November 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm
      • Reply

      I’m concerned by the fact that he doesn’t seem to grasp that he has done anything unethical. Actions like this damage the profession as a whole.

    • Jeri Wigdahl on November 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm
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    “The only crime was my name.” What? Would you really advise your clients to lie like this? Would you really teach your children that lesson? This is so ethically wrong, whether a PRSA member or not.

    Personally, I wouldn’t judge Winder’s colleagues on his actions, because too often we don’t know our colleague’s actions. However, as PRSA members, I can’t believe they would support his actions, or continue to support his leadership as Public Affairs Director at Summit. My respect would be gone.

      • Debra Bethard-Caplick on November 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm
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      I agree with you, Jeri. When writing this post, I kept trying to put myself in Winder’s colleagues’ shoes, and wonder how I would react to a colleague who had done something like this. I just can’t see how someone could continue working with someone who seems proud of what he did.

  5. I hadn’t heard about this–really interesting. Love the line about lard.

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