The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Public Relations Ethics

There was a time I had a box of tools and a Ford pickup truck and worked as a Berkeley Street mechanic. It’s what I did when I quit PR. After several years working in New York City and San Francisco PR agencies, I ran into a series of ethical hurdles I couldn’t clear.

So I traded a profession I no longer believed in for a trade I did not yet know. A few months’ apprenticeship in a local Porsche/Volkswagen shop and four years fixing cars may not have made me a working-class hero, but I slept well. By the time I scrubbed my nails clean and came back to PR, everything was different — less corrupt, it seemed — and everyone was younger and more professional.

Today, watching the dot-com PR explosion of youth, energy, and, yes, greed, I feel like I’m seeing a vibrant, high-tech, fast-moving field growing out of the decaying old practice of public relations. Blame the Internet. Nothing shadowy can long survive the glare of a hundred million computer monitors trained on Yahoo or Google, ZDNet or ESPN.

That’s why I was pissed when the story first broke about California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush greasing his political ascent with insurance money that belonged in the pockets of earthquake victims. It appeared the wolf had not only been put in charge of the chicken house, but was feeding on the flock with a whole pack of insurance-industry friends. At the very heart of this tale is a major public relations agency — Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metsger, Inc. (SZMI) — and a basic unasked question that needs to be moved to the front of the PR agenda.

In the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about positioning and techniques, looking at some successful online programs and some busts. But we haven’t come close to the dark side of PR. While it is certainly possible to promote a product, a company, and a personality with some honest PR work, it’s also possible to use the same tools and the same techniques to deceive and to violate the public interest.

The question we need to be asking in planning and executing programs is not only can we do this, but should we? There are guidelines in the form of a Code of Professional Standards published by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), adopted in 1988. You may not find it in the following story, but you can find it online.

There is a nuanced version of this story, a version David J. DePinto, president and CEO of Stoorza, told us last Monday night. (In his defense, he was on his cell phone, driving, and fielding questions on the fly.) DePinto says SZMI never worked for Quackenbush, despite media reports, but did have a client, the California Insurance Educational Project (CIEP), a nonprofit corporation and one of several set up by Quackenbush.

We asked if Stoorza had anything to do with the formation of CIEP.

DePinto is good, a definite PR heavyweight. Former director of marketing and PR for Coca-Cola Bottling Company in L.A., he earned a Silver Anvil from the PRSA for his work on the Atlanta Olympic Games and Knott’s Berry Farm. He hesitated a minute, then said it was a complicated issue, but the foundation was a California nonprofit, and Stoorza was hired by CIEP’s Board as program administrator.

Here’s the simple version: A respected Los Angeles Times staff writer, Virginia Ellis, reported that of $1.3 million placed in CIEP, $1 million came from Farmer’s Insurance Co. “in lieu of an investigation of its handling of Northridge earthquake claims.” Another $286,000 was put in by Pacific Life Insurance. This educational fund, reports Ellis, was “the brainchild of Stoorza, Ziegaus, Metsger & Hunt… which pitched the idea for the foundation to the Department of Insurance in the spring of 1999.

“Quackenbush signed an agreement with Stoorza to pay the company $50,000 to help set up the foundation and recruit a board of directors,” wrote Ellis. (DePinto denies this widely reported version.) Once the Board was assembled and funded with insurance-company money, one of its first acts was to grant Stoorza a $25,000-per-month, two-year contract. Not much disagreement there.

Nor has there been much of an arm’s length relationship between the PR agency and the state insurance commissioner. Back in 1996, Quackenbush named Dana Spurrier, media director at Stoorza, as his deputy commissioner and press secretary. A few months later, Lisa Acheson, a former account executive at Stoorza, was appointed his assistant press secretary. Another connection? CIEP’s chairman of the board was former California Health and Education Secretary Sandra Smolley, a Stoorza paid consultant from March 1999 to January 2000.

Stoorza is California’s largest independent full-service public relations firm, with reported revenues of $10 million and 85 employees. Last year, Gail Stoorza-Gill, chairman, was named one of the top 50 women in PR by PR Week. She sits on the board of directors of the San Diego Convention Center and the UCSD Graduate School of International Studies.

It’s hard to know just what took place, but the Stoorza saga reads like a page out of the old-style PR playbook. Stoorza could step up, investigate this story on its own, make its findings public, and, if necessary, clean up its house. It’s certainly an opportunity for the PRSA to match its lofty claim to ethical standards with legitimate self-policing action. What happened in the Quackenbush affair, and how does that affect the perception, and practice, of public relations?

On the other hand, if public relations professional standards are only an oxymoron, then Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger, Inc., need only come forward, look us in the eye, and clearly say, “I never had sex with that woman.”

Pass me a wrench, will you?

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