Wednesday, March 4

Does PR Transparency End Where Individual Privacy Begins?

A new lawsuit filed by Nina Pham, the 26-year-old nurse who contracted Ebola from her patient at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, ought to give public relations professionals pause. The allegations raised in the lawsuit raise some valid questions about the industry's pat answer that transparency is always an effective remedy for crisis communication.

While negligence is at the core of the lawsuit, Pham says that the hospital's public relations efforts violated her right to privacy. Specifically, as reported by ABC News, the lawsuit alleges that the hospital released false information about her condition, shot and released a video of her while she was in care without her knowledge or consent, and breached her privacy by releasing her name in an attempt to be transparent with the media.

According to Pham, the public relations department was also inappropriately aggressive, asking to talk to her for a news release "about how much she loves Presbyterian" shortly after doctors were simultaneously talking to her about end-of-life decisions. The release was part of a public relations campaign aimed at restoring faith in the hospital. The slogan was "Presby Proud."

The hospital maintains that not only was it sensitive to her privacy, but it also adhered to HIPAA rules in determining what information was shared publicly with her consent. It has since released a media statement that they will continue to support her and wish the best for her while remaining optimistic that constructive dialogue can resolve this matter.

Employees are both — part of the organization and the most important public.

One of the most challenging aspects of crisis communication is for public relations professionals to remember that employees are an independent public as much as they part of the organization. And that means that employees, those affected by a crisis in particular, are not necessarily part of the "organization" that the public relations team is trying to protect but rather its most important public.

It's all too easy to forget. During a maelstrom of media attention, especially national coverage that threatens the reputation of the organization, good public relations professionals are trained to efficiently meet the needs of the media and the public outside of the organization. But all too often, they are not trained to think of the afflicted employee as having very different priorities.

If public relations professionals did remember that afflicted employees are an independent public, then they would be more likely to remember that one of the core functions of the profession is to build mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics. And in framing the profession and relationships this way, come to very different conclusions about coercion, persuasion, and possibly exploitation in releasing videos, drafting quotes, or asking for a campaign endorsement.

On the contrary, while those relationships may naturally develop as a result of mutual trust, the public relations team ought to be working for the individual as much as the organization. In other words, they have to ask not only what is in the best interest of organization but also the employee.

Was persuading her to give up some privacy in her best interest? Was releasing the video that she allegedly had no knowledge was being shot? Was soliciting her endorsement for a PR campaign?

The answers are fundamentally different if we perceive the role of public relations as a function of protecting the organization or working in the best interest of all involved. The latter view, which is the more evolved perspective, recognizes that working in the best interest of everyone is often the most effective means to protect not only its reputation, but also its ability to mitigate a crisis and recover, ushering in a new standard for preparedness.
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