How can public trust not be eroded when a political consulting firm takes over the news content of a website that purports to be neutral? It gets even worse when that firm was hired by Florida Power & Light, a huge utility.
According to reporting by a nonprofit investigative newsroom called Floodlight and the Orlando Sentinel, the political consulting firm Matrix LLC, which was employed by FPL, worked behind the scenes to influence journalists, control both the context and the content of news articles to be published, and otherwise interfere with what should be a free and open flow of information from the utility to both the media and to the public.
I’m a former public relations professional, and I still teach courses on the craft to college students today. And I can tell you that there is a chasm between fairly and honestly representing a client and manipulation and misrepresentation. My job was always to make sure that my client’s or employer’s actions and activities were communicated clearly and accurately to our public. Today, as chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, I find these devious actions involving FPL more than disturbing. Sadly, though, it’s not just FPL nor Florida where this occurs.
Transparency — open, frank and honest communication — is crucial to the ethical practice of public relations on behalf of an organization and was blatantly ignored here. We live in a democracy, where public access to truthful, accurate news and information is — or should be — a given. I remember vividly as a child asking my grandmother how she happened to know about a particular incident. Her response invariably was, “I heard it on the radio.” She, like countless others, relied on “the news” for reports on things of importance to her and to the nation. That an industry upon whom tens of thousands of citizens rely for vital services should choose to subvert that responsibility by manipulating what is communicated to the public is an appalling disservice.
We, the Public Relations Society of America (as do other professional associations), have clearly stated ethical guidelines to guide our members and others in formulating their own communication initiatives and best serve their public. Among other concepts, our Code of Ethics clearly states that honesty is crucial: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” In addition, we emphasize disclosure of information as a means of building trust with those publics by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.
It is unfortunate that FPL should have chosen to blatantly ignore this simple but significant advice. It also serves to emphasize a bit of advice that I have offered to literally thousands of young men and women during my most recent career as a college professor: “If you see or hear something that ‘feels’ sketchy, check and double-check your information. Don’t rely on just one source.”
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I also caution — are you listening, FPL? “Don’t think that you can sneak something by me. Trust me, I will find out.” It’s a shame that we would have to apply this advice to the communication activities of a public utility. As we experience more and more attempts to sway public opinion by falsifying or simply refusing to divulge information of importance to each and every one of us, we are becoming more cynical and distrustful. Let’s hope that Florida Power & Light — and others — learn from this incident.
Kirk Hazlett is an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Tampa and chair of the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards for the Public Relations Society of America. He lives in Riverview.