A lesson in PR ethics, courtesy of ‘The Great Hack’

The Netflix documentary explores the depth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its long-term repercussions. The author extracts key takeaways for industry professionals. 

If you have not watched Netflix’s new documentary “The Great Hack,” immediately schedule a date with your couch and TV, and watch. 

Over the course of two hours, the documentary explores how Cambridge Analytica, a data research group, obtained private information on citizens in the United States and Great Britain with the purpose of creating marketing and public relations content during the 2015 Brexit Vote and 2016 U.S. presidential election.

 “The Great Hack” raises many ethical red flags that public relations professionals must address. Here are five of the most important:

  • How much data and profiling is too much when creating social media ads?

In “The Great Hack,” big data company Cambridge Analytica built profiles of citizens and voters in Great Britain and the United States to create personalized content to influence their feelings on issues and candidates. 

The company was able to access data on 87 million people. The information helped Cambridge Analytica identify “persuadable voters.” From there, the firm targeted blogs, websites, articles, videos and ads specifically at those voters until they saw the world the way Cambridge Analytica wanted them to.

As PR pros we have an obligation of honest communication. Mining data that violates personal privacy to benefit business is very unethical. As PR pros we need to be aware of how much data we collect on stakeholders and understand how much is too much. In addition, we need to be mindful of the ways we use the data and understand creating content that exploits the data we have is also unethical. 

  • As PR pros, are we being ethical when we create fearmongering content to convey our message?

The main message of the documentary is that Cambridge Analytica gave information to various political campaigns and helped to create voter profiles to disseminate fearful messages and persuade voters to vote for a candidate. 

Much of the content created was misinformation in the form of news stories and video news. The misinformation disbursed to the potential voters was what we now deem “fake news.”

As PR pros and according to PRSA’s Code of Ethics, we have an obligation to be honest and accurate in all communications and avoid deceptive practices. We simply cannot take information on an individual’s most private nuances to create fearful and deceptive content. 

  • Can we be ethical when dealing with a crisis?

According to the documentary, Cambridge Analytica approached multiple public relations firms and, as former COO Julian Whitehead said: “We spoke to tens of crisis PR companies that listened intently, went away to think about it, and came back and said, ‘Sorry, we can’t associate ourselves with your brand.’ I thought that’s what they were there for. It became impossible to get a voice.”

From an ethical PR perspective, representing a company involved in a “scandal”’ can be difficult. And while it may seem impossible to represent a company during a scandal without violating an ethical code, it can be done. 

If a company can take responsibility for detrimental action, avoid making excuses and keep from spinning a situation, then maintaining brand positivity can happen. It just takes some time to recover.

  • Do we as PR pros have an obligation to call out employers when something seems unethical?

Brittany Kaiser was one of the main whistleblowers on Cambridge Analytica. Knowing the repercussions of what would happen if she blew the cover on Cambridge Analytica, she felt she had a moral obligation to let people know the truth. 

It can be difficult to stand up for what is right, especially when your career and livelihood may be on the line. But as professionals in an era of misinformation and “fake news,” it is even more crucial that we keep our companies on the right side of ethics and morals. We owe ourselves, our clients and the public relations profession honesty and integrity. 

  • As PR pros, do we owe stakeholders a more transparent communication with the fine print?

In the documentary, every time someone allowed a third-party app to log in to a social media account, the user would have to agree to allow the app access to their profile. This allowed the company who ran the third-party app (in the case of the documentary, Cambridge Analytica) to gain access to all of a user’s personal data. The user barely paid attention to what they were allowing. And even though there was a small link to a terms and conditions page, people paid no attention to what those terms were. 

According to PRSA’s Code of Ethics, safeguarding confidences is one of the vital components of professional practice. Society has a right to privacy, and as PR professionals we have an obligation to protect those rights of clients, businesses and stakeholders. Proper communication of terms and conditions needs to be at the forefront of websites, landing pages and other areas where personal data is being obtained. 

Michael Vannest is the communications and marketing coordinator at E. V. Bishoff Company.

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