Service of Conflict of Interest

October 20th, 2011

Categories: Communications, Conflict of Interest, Deception, Fashion, Full Disclosure, Luxury, Marketing

Some who practice public relations give it a bad name. Because it’s one of those industries that lots of people don’t “get,” it can have a harder time than others justifying itself. And then there are the high profile sleazes. They exist in every industry from medicine and hedge fund management, banking to politics.

How do I handle the splash from PR people who don’t conduct themselves ethically and land in the spotlight? I avoid any hint of conflict of interest as do my associates and millions of doctors, hedge fund managers, bankers and politicians.

Years ago, an acquaintance asked me to help promote his friend’s business. His friend was a furrier in New York’s garment district. I interviewed the owner, he showed me how the coats were made, and we addressed his challenges. His comment to our mutual contact after our meeting was surprise: “She didn’t ask to try on a coat or for a discount.”

So this is why my nose is out of joint when a reputable news source known for business reporting offers to sell me its top stock picks. It smacks of conflict of interest. I don’t mind when it offers me discounts on wine. It’s not known for wine reviews. Used to be that reporters at a news source such as this returned holiday gifts and would not accept even a cup of coffee from a business or PR person. This place isn’t alone.

The New York Times  reported last month that magazines are selling fashion picks in online stores and one through its website. Eric Wilson notes that GQ sells its selections through Park & Bond; Esquire sends readers to Cladmen.com and the Vogue website is the place to buy select items from this season’s runways. Wilson quotes the website: “Vogue may receive a commission on some sales made through this service.”

Wilson notes the potential friction between these venues and stores like Saks, Neiman’s and Barneys. The impact of editorial conflict of interest is worse.

How many times have I told a client adding beige to a lackluster, generic product line or planning an open house where nothing will be different that day from any other: “No reporter, editor or blogger will consider sharing this with their readers. To get out this information you’ll need to buy an ad.” With a change in editorial policy, how this might change, and not for the better for readers.

PR people tout the value of third party endorsement when a reporter or magazine features a product or service. It’s the ultimate sales tool. Do you think that smudging of roles for magazines and newspapers, where they sell some of their picks as well as feature them, will affect their credibility and validity with readers? Might it eventually accelerate their demise, the ultimate irony as one of their arguments is that they are trying to stay afloat through such sales?

10 Responses to “Service of Conflict of Interest”

  1. Gene Matthews Said:

    I applaud your writing on this topic.

    I believe in our modern technologically oriented society we pay far too little attention to issues involving right and wrong, and good and bad.

    This is most apparent in our evolving legal system, where lawyers who once taught the concept that they are Officers of the Court with the consequent duty to see justice done no matter what, now are cynically trained to help their clients, however unethical, avoid the consequences of the law. How many times have I heard a “good” lawyer, earning his fee, tell his client, in effect, “It would probably be illegal if you did it that way, but if you try doing it this way I can argue that you are complying with the Law.” Seldom is there ever any discussion as to whether his client is being dishonest or unethical.

    Regrettably, I doubt that this downward drift toward corrupt thinking will slow down anytime soon. We are too busy punching keys to be able to focus much on right and wrong.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Gene,

    Is it technology or the anything goes business atmosphere that’s leaked into publishing? It’s frustrating to see some businesses make $zillions while yours–a pefectly valid, important one– slips away.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Writer Matthews is undoubtedly right regarding lack of attention to ethical standards, but business is all about making money, and not acting as guardian of the public morals. Bad things happen to good people, and all the moralizing in the world won’t change a thing. Best to treat life as a challenge. It’s not always evil which prevails.

    This comes from one who sees PR as a form of costly damage control, and mistrusts the selling (euphemism: Marketing?) world, and who gleefully enjoys throwing malicious darts at both balloons, so feel free to take everything said with a grain of salt!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    You point to the toothless dentist/cobbler with no shoes aspect of PR: The industry does a crummy job of telling people what it does.

    The damage control aspect of PR can be the most fun, as in challenging, and lucrative, but it isn’t what most of us do. We write speeches, blogs, brochures, web copy, presentations, features and advertorials, video and audio scripts, help name products, draft product inserts, train clients to speak to the media, and/or encourage media to cover our client’s products or services and that’s for starters.

    As for sales, I think we’re all in it whether or not we want to be. We sell an idea to a boss—such as to give a raise; sell ourselves to a new employer and so forth. I admire great salespeople especially if they are not annoying. The hairs on the back of my neck rise up if they are.

    But back to the topic of conflict of interest: Anything goes doesn’t set well with me. The idea is to make money but not to ruin a reputation of decades in the meanwhile.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    My first jobs, as a young adult, were in PR, and even if they weren’t, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out its various aspects. Few need be told what it does, and the admission that it does a “crummy job” in describing itself speaks volumes!

    Of course, we “sell” ourselves in various ways — who doesn’t? So let’s not twist my words. Selling oneself to get a job or to promote an idea does not necessarily do more than respectively win a paycheck, and insure the continuation of employment. I need not tell you that “selling” aka “marketing” is a field of endeavor, as is research, teaching, not to speak of raking leaves or playing football & etc.

    Nowhere did I promote the notion of “anything goes” as a good one, but regardless of what is said, it will not go away. Recognizing the ill and making every effort to avoid catching the disease may make a better world, but unless there is an unforseen change in human personality, there will be no cure.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I was responding to what you wrote: That PR is “a form of costly damage control.” I see it as a proactive effort and disagree with your experience that it serves primarily to deflect bad publicity.

    While I have been on boards of industry associations and supported them with hundreds of hours of time, I’ve never been active in local and national PR associations. Like many such groups–interior design groups as well–I never felt they knocked themselves out to tell businesses and the general public what their industries do. They seem to give themselves awards and in the case of PR, create opportunities to meet media.

    And I may be knocking my head against a wall when I identify and write about a turn of events that shouldn’t be let to go by with a shrug or que sera sera attitude because I can’t change human nature. There are plenty who don’t permit conflict of interest to taint their businesses. I’ll favor them.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    You are welcome to disagree, but the fact of the matter is you can’t negate someones experience, or cause it to disappear, as much as you may like! No doubt about it, hire a PR firm, and be prepared to pay. Many businesses get along very well without such an amenity. Now along comes a recession, and who/what gets sacked?

    You are indeed knocking your head against a wall, human nature is not about to change, so how about doing things your way without having to explain or expound? Carrying on about societal evils only distracts from your goals…..Pointing the finger of blame is lousy PR in anyones book!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    If I didn’t want to explain or expound, I wouldn’t write a blog. That’s the point of the exercise. I like writing a blog.

    I don’t think that noting how a venerable institution has taken a wrong turn is carrying on. Further, in the case of today’s post, it doesn’t involve society, it involves several brands.

    Last, there is no finger of blame. I am pointing out a fact which has nothing to do with my PR, but certainly does affect the images of the media in question.

  9. ASK Said:

    In case anyone didn’t notice, The New York Times is marketing its own goods, services, and access to VIP events to subscribers through their website. It seems no one is immune from trying to make a profit. What I want to know is why they think I would buy an outfit simply because someone like Christie Brinkley “selected” it….

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    I’m all for trying to make a profit, but as you note, how and what else a company does to its reputation and credibility in the meanwhile is the head-scratcher.

    Though not publishing-related and not conflict of interest but rather, “what’s the connection?” in the era of anyone with a recognizable name tried to license it to sell anything, a wallpaper client named a collection after a retired golfer. I never understood the connection and I don’t think that orders for the patterns flew out of sample books for obvious reasons. Christie Brinkley and fashion: A bit of the same along with a dash of desperation.

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