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 KSL.com, 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.