PRSA National Response
The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) today issued the following statement regarding reports of unethical communications practices by Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, Utah. The Deseret News (Salt Lake City) reported that Winder had been engaging in deceptive communications practices on behalf of West Valley City by creating a false identity to write news stories for Utah media outlets about the city he represents. According to published reports, Winder used the pseudonym of “Richard Burwash” and contributed more than a dozen articles to the Deseret News as part of the newspaper’s citizen journalism initiative.
Statement by Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, PRSA chair and CEO:
The basic tenets of ethical communications practices, as addressed in the PRSA Code of Ethics, require that those representing organizations or governments serve the public interest by advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information. Open and honest communication is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society. The PRSA Code of Ethics clearly states that it is unethical for those who represent a business or organization to engage in deceptive online practices or misrepresent one’s identity or professional affiliation, both of which Mr. Winder has admitted to doing.
Furthermore, the Society’s Code of Ethics calls for communicators to be “honest and accurate in all communications” and to “avoid deceptive practices.” Clearly, Mr. Winder’s actions failed in both regards, which is a disservice to both the public he serves and the media he tried to influence.
At a time of severely low public trust in government, it is imperative that politicians and public relations professionals represent themselves and those they serve in an ethical and transparent manner.
Rosanna M. Fiske, APR
Chair and CEO
Public Relations Society of America
Greater Salt Lake Chapter Response
Last week Mike Winder, Mayor of West Valley City, Utah, admitted to creating a false identity as a freelance writer “to try to restore balance” by increasing the number of positive news stories about his city over a two-year period. The deception included a fake Facebook page, the stolen image of a former professional tennis player, and representing himself to multiple local publications via email and phone conversations as the made-up freelance writer “Richard Burwash”.
According to Winder, everything he wrote as Burwash was “100 percent truthful, accurate, and verifiable”. He has stated publicly that he is not a member of The Public Relations Society of America and not a public relations professional, although he does serve as a director of public affairs for a local communications firm. However, at issue is how this incident reflects on professional communicators, West Valley City, and Utah.
PRSA members commit to a code of ethics designed to protect our profession and each other. More importantly, the code is designed to promote the public good. PR professionals “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate” (PRSA Code of Ethics, Advocacy). Further, we “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public” (PRSA Code of Ethics, Honesty).
Yes, PR professionals advocate – often vigorously – on behalf of those we represent. Our job is to promote a particular position or organization, but we also have an obligation to provide objective counsel to those we serve and to serve the public good by increasing awareness of an issue. Many PR professionals are familiar with the Mayor’s complaint – that the organization we serve is over-represented by news stories with a negative slant, or not represented at all. His goal, he has said, was to increase positive stories about his city. His repeated defense for his actions has, in effect, been that the ends justified the means. We disagree wholeheartedly.
Increasing the positive coverage of West Valley City is exactly the kind of work a qualified PR professional would have undertaken. The methods, however, would have been quite different. Instead of setting out to deceive or mislead the public, a professional would have identified the many good things taking place in West Valley City, established relationships with media outlets and reporters, and worked to promote the city honestly and openly, keeping the city’s (and the Mayor’s) reputation above reproach. By choosing to take a shortcut via deception, Mayor Winder not only damaged his own reputation, but that of West Valley City, the city’s elected representatives, and communications professionals.
Mayor Winder chose to come clean, which was the right thing to do. He has apologized to some of those he harmed, which is the correct course of action. We hope that Mayor Winder has learned from his experience that honest and transparent promotion of his city is far more effective than other means in the long run. Certainly that is what the citizens of West Valley City and the rest of Utah deserve.
Greater Salt Lake Chapter
Public Relations Society of America