Ethical Dilemmas in Communications
VTR Date: February 13, 1996
Ruder Finn's chairman and CEO David Finn shares his views on media ethics.
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I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
My guest today is chairman and CEO of Ruder Finn, one of the largest independent public relations firms in the world, and, importantly, one whose help makes possible this program’s continuing production. As such, I owe David Finn. Yet I’ve needled him each time he’s been my guest here over the years, because of my own quite negative fix on public relations itself, which some have referred to as “spin control”, “mass persuasion”, “the engineering of consent”, terms my guest has dismissed as less than realistic, signs of the hyperbole sometimes employed to hype PR’s presumed prowess in the manipulation of our minds.
But now David Finn has written an enormously thoughtful essay titled “Ethical Dilemmas in Communications”, in which I think I see more searching questions, and perhaps even more doubts about public relations than David has offered up before. And I want to ask him if I’m seeing straight.
Am I imagining this, David?
FINN: Well, there’s the old story that the more you know, the less you know. And, since I’ve been in this business for almost 50 years, I do think I know less about it than I did when I started, which means that I have more questions about it, more questions about society and how it works. So I don’t doubt the importance of public relations; I think everybody needs to communicate in a world that’s getting more communicating all the time. We’re flooded with all kinds of messages. So universities need public relations, museums need public relations, governments need public relations, corporations, radio programs, networks, etcetera. Everybody needs to try to communicate. And they all come to public relations people to try to help.
But I am puzzled, increasingly puzzled about how to establish ethical guidelines as we represent different clients. So I am worried about it.
HEFFNER: When you say “ethical guidelines”, I think of the many times that lawyers sit at this table. And lawyers talk about the advocacy system, and say that their job is simply to put their client’s best foot forward. Do you have some other consideration?
FINN: Well, you and I have talked a little bit about that in the past. I don’t see public relations in the same light as I see law. A law is a system that works with a tradition, a body of law. We have a judicial system, a jury, a judge, and so on. So a lawyer has a right or obligation to be an advocate for a client in any particular situation. We don’t work with a body of law. We don’t have a jury. We don’t have a judge. Who do we communicate to? I communicate to you. You’re my friend. I communicate to my family. I communicate to the man or woman on the street. So I don’t want to be in a position of advocating something I don’t think is right or believe in. A lawyer may, or may not. That’s beyond my realm of experience. But as a communicator to my friends and my family, I want to be confident that what I’m doing I feel comfortable with. So I have a different kind of ethical problem or framework, and I have to work that out in my own mind.
HEFFNER: But, you know, it’s interesting that you say that, David, because I experienced what I’ve called a kind of epiphany after spending 20 years in Hollywood, or going back from Sin City East to Sin City West. I attended a meeting at which I heard someone in the media, in the entertainment media say, “Hey, that’s my business”, when called to account for some of the horrendously violent things that he had participated in. He said, “That’s my business. I don’t let my kids watch. I’m two different people: I’m the business man, that’s my business; and then…” as you just said now, though you meant something very different, “…I communicate with my family and friends. And there’s a vast gap between what I do when I wear my professional hat and what I do when I’m talking with…” instead of using that fancy word, “communicating” with “my friends, family, etcetera”. Can you not make that split? Do you no longer care to?
FINN: No, I can’t. No. I like to lead an integrated life. I remember Mark Van Doren, the poet, once said something about, or was said of him, that he was the same person to the outside world as he was inside and to his intimate friends. I like to think of myself in those terms. And there are many, many ways in which I find my personal life and my business life relating to one another. So I don’t like to be somebody else in business than I am myself in my own personal life. I feel very keenly about that.
HEFFNER: Now, when David Finn feels keenly about that and rubs up against – I won’t say “your clients” – but those generally who look for public relations counsel, do you find that same attitude?
FINN: Among my peers? You mean others in the field?
HEFFNER: No, not in your field. Among potential clients, among people who generally come for public relations counsel.
FINN: Well, you know, you say “generally come”. Many of our clients, as I say, are in the nonprofit world. I work a lot in the educational field. And certainly people there expect me, as an individual, to believe in what they are trying to say or communicate. For instance, if we work for, as we do, for a group of liberal arts colleges that want to explain the virtues and values of liberal arts education, and the distinction between major, Ivy League institutions, state universities, and liberal arts colleges, they assume that I understand those values and feel comfortable articulating them, helping them to articulate them. The same thing is true of an exhibition that we may represent in a museum. Or a corporation that has a product.
Now, corporate clients, many of whom may have a different attitude towards their business and personal lives than I do, may not think that I would be concerned about that. And so they may have a cause or a program that has to do, let’s say, with the environment, which I mentioned in this essay that you referred to. And they may say, “Look, we want to make it clear that our program, our activity, is good for the environment”. Environmentalists may say, “We don’t think it’s good for the environment”. So they feel, if they hire us, that they can assume that we will represent their cause whether we believe in it or not.
FINN: And I don’t feel that way. So I say that I have to feel comfortable with what I’m doing. And I think the people in our firm should feel comfortable with what they’re doing. And if they’re not, they shouldn’t work on those clients. And if I’m not, then the firm shouldn’t handle a client.
HEFFNER: Then let me ask quite cynically: How did Ruder Finn become as large as it is?
FINN: Well, because we took that seriously. And, as you may remember, Dick, we had an ethics committee in our company, where we always have an outside advisor. He has been a priest, a minister, a rabbi, a sociologist, a philosopher. We’ve had all such people sitting with us from time to time over 40 years when one or another of us has a question in our minds: How should we behave towards a particular client or towards each other? And we sit in a group of five or six or ten people with this outsider, we put the question on the table, and we discuss it. We find there’s no right or wrong answer. But the fact that we’re willing to ask the question and get advice from an outsider who knows how to think about such issues, helps us be responsible.
HEFFNER: All right. We’re taping this program (I have to think) in February 1996. Just the other day, on the front page of The New York Times, there was the beginning of a story that went on into the paper about public relations work and the way it is so frequently now becoming dirty pool. So the position that you maintain clearly is not universally shared in your profession. Or should we not call it a profession?
FINN: Well, I think it’s presumptuous to call it a profession. I think a profession is, again, something with a body of experience and knowledge and so on where one can become an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor. That’s a profession. We are more like a practice or a business, like you are in your business as an interviewer or television personality. I think everybody in life has his or her own way of figuring out how to behave in a way that they feel comfortable with. I don’t know of another public relations firm that has an ethics committee in the way that we do. And they may solve their problems or deal with that issue in different ways. I’ve been reading the same story you’ve read, and been concerned about it. I would not have taken on that assignment personally. That was an assignment where, as you know, had to do with a tobacco company that was being accused of not telling the truth by a scientist. And a report was issued that was published in The Wall Street Journal in which the law firm representing the tobacco company had investigated this fellow, this scientist, and presumably had shown that he had done a lot of things that were irresponsible or wrong or untruthful, and there was a 500-page document reporting. And a public relations person delivered it to The Wall Street Journal. Now, the public relations person was the messenger in that particular instance. Would I have delivered that to The Wall Street Journal?
HEFFNER: Tell me.
FINN: I doubt it. I doubt it very much. I don’t know. It’s very hard to make a judgment without having had to face the issue and not knowing all the considerations that I’m sure a lot of good arguments would have been placed before me as to why it would had been legitimate and responsible to do so. But from what I’ve read, I would not have done it.
HEFFNER: Well, now, now widespread to you feel that point is? Because when I go back to your, the essay that ticked off my interest in coming together again with you here, “Unethical Dilemmas in Communications”, when you attended your book table group, you indicated, well, you started talking about O.J., and you started talking about the question of whether these people who, so many of them were involved in publishing, whether they’d publish a book in which he stated his point of view, his rationale…
HEFFNER: …his, whatever you want to call it. And, as you wrote here, some said no, because they were convinced he was guilty, and others said yes, because the book would surely be a money-maker. But I guess the question before us, David, is: How much more frequently in our time does the “yes” for that reason, it’ll be a money-maker, prevail? Is that what is happening to our society today? Not just in the PR world or the world of publishing, but generally?
FINN: I don’t know whether it’s happening more frequently or less frequently. It’s always very hard to detect trends, even in our own lifetime. But it’s happening a lot, there’s no doubt about it. And we had disagreements in our own firm about whether we should represent a particular client or not. And that’s why we have these committee meetings. Now, I do think that there are a great many people out there who don’t ask themselves the questions. If it’s a good business deal, and it’s legal, they’ll do it. I think that is pretty common, commonplace. And I’m not exactly thrilled with that circumstance ion our lives. But that’s probably true of human nature.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but David, that’s…I don’t want to let you cop out here when you say that’s a question very difficult to answer in our own lives. Look, you and I are long in the tooth. We’ve been around for a long, long time. (Laughter)
FINN: (Laughter) It’s true.
HEFFNER: There’s no kidding anybody about that. I started out life as a historian, and learned that history doesn’t repeat itself, but historians do. And I presumably take a long-range point of view. But it does seem to me that things have changed in our lifetime quite considerably, and that maybe one of the factors that have led to that change has been public relations itself and the whole concept of spin control. Now, last time you were at this table, you said, “Spin control? I don’t know what that is. Never heard of it.” Okay, now we’ve all heard of it. And again, I come back to the question as to whether the very concept of public relations as it has developed hasn’t lent itself enormously to this further shift in our times where people don’t take responsibility, as long as they can con the public or their neighbors or their family or their friends into believing something.
FINN: I think there’s some truth to that, Dick. I think that one of the fallouts of public relations is that we have learned to focus more on appearance than reality, if you will, or what we think is reality; that we think that we can create a career for ourselves by being a showman. You come from the entertainment world, so you know…
HEFFNER: No, I don’t. I’m an academic. Please, please.
FINN: …you know about the showman…I’m very much involved in the art world, and I wonder whether artists, there are more artists today who are becoming successes because they have a flair for public relations, they have a flair for getting in the news or being talked about rather than producing works which are going to last, endure. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But I do think that there is an aspect of public relations which has an unfortunate consequence for our society in that it tends to make us feel that with some strategic planning, which people like us do, they can be successful or accomplish things whether they merit it or not. I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t like that aspect of public relations. And I try to write about it and try to write against it to warn us about it. And I worry about that field of the arts, with any field, science, education. But, nevertheless, I think that if you recognize that there is a very vital role to be played by public relations…
HEFFNER: Well, I was just going back last evening over something you had written. Well, now, this was 1975, this piece in The New York Times, the op-ed piece, “The Business of Businessmen is not just Business”. And then, going back still further, 1962 – I didn’t know you were around then, David – in Harper’s Magazine, “Stop Worrying about Your Image”. Both by my friend, David Finn. Interestingly enough, I don’t know whether you picked these little sub-entities in The New York Times, but there were two quotes here, one from Henry Ward Beecher, “The commerce of the world is conducted by the strong, and usually it operates against the weak”, and, from the New Testament, “For the love of money is the root of all evil”. So you’ve been bothered by these ethical notions all of your professional life, because this dates back to the beginning.
FINN: I worry about repeating myself. I try to think in fresh ways about all these subjects. And it’s true, I wrote an article, I think it was in 1957, for the Harvard Business Review on the struggle for ethics in public relations. So I’ve been struggling for a long time. And I’ve been troubled about it. I’ve tried, in these articles and books that I’ve written, to be a spokesperson for a concerned point of view towards our business. And I don’t know whether I’ve made a dent in people’s thinking or not. But I continue to think along those lines. And I do hope that our firm and the things we do will stand for a responsible position and point of view towards the field. And as I look ahead I hope that, I know that public relations is going to be here for a long time to come, is going to have a future in this country and this society. And I ask myself whether it can be practiced in a responsible way. I hope it can be.
HEFFNER: I guess the last time we were here and we talked about spin control, I guess the question comes up: Can you control by spinning? What do you think?
FINN: Look, the most wonderful example that I’ve seen in recent days or weeks of the fact that the image that people have of public-relations people ain’t true was a story in The Wall Street Journal about the former president of Mexico, detailing the problems he’s had, and being very critical, and about his brother who is now in prison, I believe, awaiting trial. In the course of that article, which was the lead article in The Wall Street Journal, it happened to mention that the former president of Mexico, about whom they were writing, had recently become a member of the board of Dow Jones, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal. And the reporter quoted the chairman as saying that he had complete confidence in the member of the board that was being written about. Now, who would have had a better contact or better ability to have spin control than The Wall Street Journal about its own member of the board? And here an article appeared in the paper.
So I think this notion of PR people having the ability to control the media or even have a great influence on the media is not valid.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but if we go back to this notion of persuasion for profit, engineering of consent…I mean, Edward L. Bernays, the late Edward L. Bernays, lived off of that notion for quite some time. You don’t think you can engineer consent?
FINN: Look, I used to think I was naïve when I would talk to you and others about how I disagreed with the validity of that concept. But I can’t consider myself naïve about public relations anymore, even though I say I know less about it than I used to know. I do know something about it. And I have never been able to engineer consent, although I’ve tired very hard at controversial issues to present a point of view and persuade others, the public, or a particular element of the public, segment of the public, of the point of view that I was representing. And I very often failed. I’ve used all my resources and all my techniques, all my knowledge and all my skills. And yet I have often failed. I’ve sometimes succeeded. I think when the argument was sound I certainly have been able to be more successful than when the argument wasn’t sound.
HEFFNER: But you’re, David, you’re spitting against the wind of our times. Right? I mean, isn’t this true?
FINN: No, no. No, but you’re asking, “Isn’t it true that public relations people can engineer consent?”
HEFFNER: Oh, I don’t mean to give you that great, big out by saying, “All the time”. I don’t mean that. But I mean, isn’t that what we’re talking about? Consent that comes, oh, essentially, I think, out of manipulation, out of engineering, out of persuasion?
FINN: I don’t think that has anything to do with the business that I’m in, that I know about. If I worked for – I’ll go back to the group of liberal arts colleges to try to present the validity of their role in education – how am I going to engineer consent? I merely try to let people know who are interested in education what the facts are about those schools.
HEFFNER: Yes, but suppose we turn to the prime examples: politics. American politics.
HEFFNER: You wouldn’t use the phrase in the context of political shenanigans – No, let me not say “shenanigans” – political action?
FINN: I think there’s a role in government for communications, for effective communications. I think that many of the problems that we’ve had, the whole experience of President Clinton’s program to develop a new health program for the US, I think the failure of that program had a lot to do with communications, and poor communications, inadequate communications, inadequate public relations. Not in a bad sense of trying to put a good face on it; but rather in explaining clearly what it’s all about.
HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. There’s another side to that coin.
HEFFNER: And that is the negative public relations, the game-playing. What was the couple in which those who were against the health plan had on the air all the time, Mabel and Harry, or whatever…
HEFFNER: …who were playing on our capacity to be fooled by well-tooled communications?
FINN: Look, as much effort was made on both sides of that story to try to present the positive aspects as they were, to present the negative aspects. I think the failure in that case was to present the positive aspects effectively. Now, I do know something about this situation. I’ve looked into it quite a bit. And I do know that the, I believe that steps that might have been taken, that could have been taken, that should have been taken to explain clearly to the American public what that health plan was all about were not taken. So I think there was a failure of communications there.
HEFFNER: You think they could’ve been taken successfully?
FINN: I do.
HEFFNER: Why weren’t they taken?
FINN: Well, that’s a…
HEFFNER: In the minute and a half we have left.
FINN: Yeah. That’s a complicated question. I think there were too many people involved, too many different points of view. Perhaps there was nobody really in charge of communications who had the responsibility and authority to decide how it should be communicated. And so I think there was a failure. I think that often happens in society.
HEFFNER: So you think that here you could have had an effective rather than a negative against – which was effective – campaign. Although you see this as a vacuum. You don’t see the victory; you see a defeat. You see a defeat because they didn’t do anything.
FINN: Well, it isn’t that they didn’t do anything. I said they didn’t. They were not successful. They weren’t effective. And I think that that was a perfect example of where communications can play a positive role, public relations can play a positive role. I don’t say that if I had been involved it would’ve been different. But I do see it as a failure in communications.
HEFFNER: David, 30 seconds. When we come back, the next life, you be a public relations mogul again?
FINN: Oh, I’ve enjoyed this thoroughly. Dick, I’ve learned a lot, and, as I say, I’ve led an integrated life. As you know, I write a lot, I’m a photographer and published many books, and I’m a painter. All this relates to what I do in public relations.
HEFFNER: Of course, that’s the key, David Finn, that you are such a creative artist yourself. And thank you very much for joining me here again on THE OPEN MIND.
FINN: Thank you for inviting me. It’s always a pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, our guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.