Ethics Month for Public Relations Society of America chapter doesn't mean enforcing ethics

Governor John Hickenlooper has proclaimed September as Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America's Colorado chapter. According to the PRSA's Code of Ethics, the goals include "to build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations" and "to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making."

Info like "travel and entertainment expense politics that bordered on abuse under Government Auditing Standards," according to a State Auditor's report? How about shoving a reporter or threatening to break his finger?

Both of these charges were leveled at Ken Ross, the CEO of Pinnacol Assurance and the PRSA's 2010 Business Person of the Year. Last year, Ross was on a $318,000 Pebble Beach press junket when he threatened Channel 7's Tony Kovaleski -- and the news of his golf-course behavior was coming out as the Colorado chapter announced that award.

"I don't think there was controversy on our end. We gave that award based on his contributions to the community in 2009," says Meredith Bagnulo, president of the Colorado PRSA chapter. "We felt that at the time he was the best candidate for the award." Besides, the "unfortunate incident" at Pebble Beach occured after the award was decided, she notes.

In order to promote a renewed emphasis on good business behavior, the Colorado chapter will "incorporate some questions related to ethics" at one of its regular monthly luncheons, Bagnulo says. The organization has also published an entire blog post about ethics.

According to Eric Brown, Hickenlooper's director of communications, the state proclamations are "nonbinding documents in recognition of special events or significant issues," and the governor's office produces approximately thirty each month.

Governor Hickenlooper has come down hard on Pinnacol, a quasi public agency that serves as the insurer of last resort for companies that otherwise could not get worker's comp insurance in exchange for a break on state taxes. Earlier this year, he appointed a couple of Pinnacol critics to its board, and that board has adopted new, tougher policies regarding entertainment expenses and ethics.

Declining to comment specifically on Pinnacol's history, Brown notes: "As stated in PRSA Colorado's press release about the proclamation, 'This proclamation serves to honor and support those PR professionals who are conducting their business and communications efforts according to the highest ethical standards.' PRSA says they are using the month of September to educate the public and those within the PR industry about sound business ethics."

While PRSA celebrates its code of ethics, it doesn't enforce it publicly. While the national organization "retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that fails to comply with the Code," it has not identified members who break the code of ethics or sanction unethical behavior since 2000. Colorado's chapter has followed suit. "It proved to be very difficult from a legal and monetary perspective," Bagnulo explains.

In fact, PRSA's website has a page discussing why it no longer enforces ethical violations. As one of the documents cited on the page puts it: "PRSA Code of Ethics Moves From Enforcement to Inspiration."

Happy Ethics Month.

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Jenny An
Contact: Jenny An