Was it the devil who made him do it? – violation of standards of professional ethics

Was it the devil who made him do it? – violation of standards of professional ethics – includes related article

Mark P. McElreath

Economic weakness and competitive pressures: This “devil’s brew” makes some communicators violate IABC standards.

Knowing how and why other communicators make unethical decisions may help you prevent or avoid similar situations. Knowledge can serve as an antidote to the devil’s brew.

You know the devil’s brew: It’s always tempting, smells great and initially tastes exactly the way you like it. It is especially difficult to refuse when you are both financially weak and being pressured by others to do something wrong.

Economic hard times — especially when the people suffering perceive few options — affect ethical decisions, as the following case illustrates. It’s been fictionalized to protect identities, but, it is based on facts gathered from in-depth personal interviews with communication executives.

Here’s what happened:

Two executives composed the “professional” staff of a small advertising and public relations agency, with billings that placed it in the top 40-50 agencies in their market. Most of their clients had local or regional business interests.

One of their clients — a subsidiary of a real estate firm — wanted to rename an existing service, which was a computerized listing of new home owners in the community derived from public records of new home sales. The client wanted to reposition it with a new name and describe it as a new research service, even though there would be no changes in what was offered. The client did not want to pay for any market research to determine customer reactions to the planned name change. The client told the agency of its decision and instructed it to prepare an appropriate campaign to introduce the “new” service.


The following values were identified as being relevant to the advertising and public relations practitioners in this case:

To be successful and make money — or, at least, not to lose money but stay afloat as an agency.

To be creative.

To be better than other agencies.

To generate lots of publicity for the client.

To satisfy the client.


The following principles were considered by the executives of the agency — some were high-minded, some were not:

The client is always right.

The media always are interested in human interest stories.

You can fool some of the people some of the time — and, those are pretty good odds.

Client monies are better spent on publicity stunts than on what-if market research.

Being accredited reflects not only on the individual, but also on organizations with whom that individual is associated.


The following loyalties were important to the advertising and public relations practitioners:

To the advertising and public relations agency.

To the client.

To the media.

To current and potential customers.

To members of the local community.

A major factor affecting decision-making in this situation was the economic weakness of the agency. Losing any one client, the senior partners thought, would ruin them. So, they were willing to do whatever it took to keep all their clients.

As it is with most ethical dilemmas, the participants in this case engaged in a mixture of good and bad actions. The executives of the agency felt that to compete successfully with larger agencies they had to hype press releases, stage pseudo-news events to generate publicity, and create misleading ads — anything to keep their client happy.

Here’s what they did:

The agency distributed press releases describing the client’s computer listing as a one-of-a-kind research service, claiming it was new because it was timely and because the names could be presented in a variety of mailing label formats — which was exactly what the “old” service provided. Professionals understand the difference between hyperbole — exaggerated claims no one is expected to believe — and clever overstatements designed to fool people into believing what is not true. But, the agency executives forgot this distinction — or chose not to think about it — and sent out misleading, exaggerated claims in their client’s press releases.

The agency also designed a scavenger hunt that involved teams from local high schools going to homes found on the most current list of new residents, asking for old household items from the homeowner’s previous residences and for comments about why they chose to move to their current new homes. The team with the most outlandish set of “old” household items and the best set of “new” quotes won a cash prize. Following the scavenger hunt, the agency invited local media to a press conference, where the “loot” was displayed, scholarships were awarded to the winning high school teams, and press releases were distributed with the best quotes from people who had recently moved into the community. Prominently mentioned throughout all these activities was the “new” research service of the client.

The media were not fooled by this staged event: They treated it as “soft” news. The client received lots of publicity. The students and schools benefited. In this aspect of their campaign, the agency did something right.

However, the agency also created ads that included copy that implied that the client’s research service was accredited by IABC, when the fact was only one of the ad agency’s executives was accredited by IABC.

The executive’s experience conducting real estate market research was described in the ad. The ad also highlighted this person’s IABC accreditation and juxtaposed it with a description of the client’s research service. The ad implied that the client’s research service was accredited “by an international association.”

No one complained about the ads. It wasn’t until a university researcher asked a professional to describe ethical dilemmas other communicators had faced in this market that the facts of this situation became known.

Requests for the client’s research service, after an initial surge in interest, declined — primarily because a local newspaper began running a weekly column that contained much of the same information. The client dropped the research service and took its advertising and public relations business elsewhere. The agency lost other accounts and filed for bankruptcy. The accredited executive dropped out of IABC and went into another line of work.

The devil’s brew is especially bitter in the end

The agency’s small market put the two professionals who ran it in a vulnerable position: They did not think they could afford to lose any client. Thinking they had no options, they did not question the lack of market research or the duplicity of changing the name of an old product without making substantive changes in the product. Neither did they have any problem with implying that the client had earned IABC accreditation.

Had the agency had a broader client base, they might have raised additional issues during the early planning stages of the campaign. With more financial security, they might have walked away from unethical client requests and, most likely, would not have been so desperate as to write ad copy making false claims about IABC accreditation.

Even without financial security, the agency executive could have been more creative and could have identified ethical activities that would have accomplished the same goals. In this case, the client’s research services were not new and were easily duplicated by the local newspaper. Market research might have discovered unique information that customers wanted that could have been provided only by the client’s new service and not by the local media.

With an appropriate set of values, principles, and loyalties, the agency could have identified ethical solutions to the client’s situation. As it was, they chose to drink the devil’s brew and violated the IABC Code of Ethics.


Communication professionals should uphold IABC’s standards for ethical conduct in all professional activity, and should use IABC and its designation of accreditation (ABC) only for purposes that are authorized and fairly represent the organization and its professional standards.

IABC recognizes the need for professional integrity within any organization, including the association. Members should acknowledge that their actions reflect on themselves, their organizations, and their profession.


The IABC ethics committee has been engaged in a year-long study of the code. They have participated in three “waves” of a Delphi survey designed to identify and clarify ethical guidelines and standards in the profession. In addition to members of the ethics committee, dozens of other IABC members from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Mexico, the U.S., Canada, England, France, Belgium and South Africa have participated in the study. A number of revisions in the current code have been suggested. The results of the study will be presented to the IABC executive board at the international conference in June.

Mark McElreath, Ph.D., ABC, APR, is associate professor, department of speech and mass communication, Towson State University, Towson, Md.

McElreath is head of the IABC ethics committee. The ethical case described in this article is based on research reported in McElreath’s “Managing Systematic and Ethical Public Relations” (Brown and Benchmark, 1993).

COPYRIGHT 1994 International Association of Business Communicators

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