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What not to do: legal PR lessons from the trenches

By Jana Schilder 

Do you think that public relations practitioners working for police departments are as upfront as police officers?

This question arises on the heels of a two-page feature article in The Globe and Mail describing how dozens of public relations practitioners worked together to avoid answering reporters’ questions about how often police deem sexual assault complaints as "unfounded."

In June of 2015, The Globe began investigating the rate at which police forces dismiss sex-assault complaints as unfounded — a term that means the investigator does not believe a crime occurred or was attempted.

Investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle obtained more than 250 pages of email threads under the Freedom of Information Act (1990). The June 13, 2017, article shows many have “a deep frustration with journalists, a lack of understanding about Access to Information laws and a resistance to transparency,” writes Doolittle.

I have been a public relations practitioner for 33 years, a former director of communication for McCarthy Tetrault in the mid-1990s, and today most of my clients are lawyers who want to carve out honest reputations for themselves and their firms.  

Doolittle’s article revealed that police departments across the country appear to be members of their own, private, public relations association: the Ontario Media Relations Officers Network (OMRON), a committee affiliated with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

Though OMRON does not have a website, it offers a four-day course in media relations through the Ontario Police College. Doolittle's article indicated OMRON members have regular conference calls, to decide how to handle similar requests for information from reporters as well as other matters.

It appears, from looking at the results of the Globe's investigative story, that public relations practitioners working on behalf of police forces across Canada believe their job is to protect the image of their employers rather than to act as a conduit with Canadian citizens.

In real-world public relations, there is a similar battle: should the PR person do what s/he is directed to by the CEO or present the actual picture of what's really going on inside an organization.

The Globe article is a great example of what happens when attempts to protect the reputation of an organization fail.

It’s not just that readers saw how police PR people may sometimes try to hinder journalists. It’s also a lesson for public relations practitioners that “circling the wagons” without full knowledge of the facts is a dangerous and embarrassing practice.

I looked for a code of ethics for OMRON — no luck. But I did locate the ethics codes of the two largest Canadian associations for public relations professionals: the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) — its Toronto Chapter is the largest worldwide with 1,600 members — and the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS). Although I no longer am a member of either organizationI still strive to follow their respective codes of ethics when working on behalf of our lawyer clients.

If most of the police public relations professionals who Doolittle interacted with were either IABC or CPRS members, I believe they may fall short of meeting their obligations.

For the record, IABC’s Code of Ethics states:

  1. I am honest — my actions bring respect for and trust in the communication profession.
  2. I communicate accurate information and promptly correct any errors.
  3. I obey laws and public policies; if I violate any law or public policy, I act promptly to correct the situation.
  4. I protect confidential information while acting within the law.
  5. I support the ideals of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas.
  6. I am sensitive to others’ cultural values and beliefs.
  7. I give credit to others for their work and cite my sources.
  8. I do not use confidential information for personal benefit.
  9. I do not represent conflicting or competing interests without full disclosure and the written consent of those involved.
  10. I do not accept undisclosed gifts or payments for professional services from anyone other than a client or employer.
  11. I do not guarantee results that are beyond my power to deliver.

And, let’s remember that freedom of the press is guaranteed under s. 2(b) of Canada’s Constitution Act (1982).

Similarly, they may fall short of CPRS’s Code of Professional Standards:

  1. A member shall practice public relations according to the highest professional standards. 
    Members shall conduct their professional lives in a manner that does not conflict with the public interest and the dignity of the individual, with respect for the rights of the public as contained in the Constitution of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  2. A member shall deal fairly and honestly with the communications media and the public. 
    Members shall neither propose nor act to improperly influence the communications media, government bodies or the legislative process. Improper influence may include conferring gifts, privileges or benefits to influence decisions
  3. A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information. 
    Members shall not make extravagant claims or unfair comparisons, nor assume credit for ideas and words not their own.
    Members shall not engage in professional or personal conduct that will bring discredit to themselves, the Society or the practice of public relations.
  4. A member shall deal fairly with past or present employers/clients, fellow practitioners and members of other professions. 
    Members shall not intentionally damage another practitioner's practice or professional reputation. Members shall understand, respect and abide by the ethical codes of other professions with whose members they may work from time to time. 
  5. Members shall be prepared to disclose the names of their employers or clients for whom public communications are made and refrain from associating themselves with anyone who would not respect such policy. 
    Members shall be prepared to disclose publicly the names of their employers or clients on whose behalf public communications is made. Members shall not associate themselves with anyone claiming to represent one interest, or professing to be independent or unbiased, but who actually serves another or an undisclosed interest. 
  6. A member shall protect the confidences of present, former and prospective employers/clients. 
    Members shall not use or disclose confidential information obtained from past or present employers/clients without the expressed permission of the employers/clients or an order of a court of law. 
  7. A member shall not represent conflicting or competing interests without the expressed consent of those concerned, given after a full disclosure of the facts. 
    Members shall not permit personal or other professional interests to conflict with those of an employer/client without fully disclosing such interests to everyone involved. 
  8. A member shall not guarantee specified results beyond the member's capacity to achieve.
  9. Members shall personally accept no fees, commissions, gifts or any other considerations for professional services from anyone except employers or clients for whom the services were specifically performed.

There is one lesson I believe everyone in the judicial system can take away from Doolittle’s article: don't trust everything police departments report to the media.

Criminal defence lawyers across Canada are probably grateful to Doolittle for pointing out — on two full newspaper broadsheets on a Saturday “long read” article — that statements from police departments may not necessarily be fully accurate.

The Russian proverb popularized by late American President Ronald Reagan applies: “trust but verify.”

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