shutterstock_143349826I confess to making bad assumptions about public relations and marketing practitioners during my previous life as a newspaperman. Sure, I liked a lot of the good people we referred to derisively as “flaks,” and I even hoisted a beer or three with them on occasion. But in the end, they were not to be trusted in matters of business.

I’ve since learned that my assumption (You know what happens when you assume, right?) was rooted in plain, old-fashioned ignorance. As much as we wanted to believe that we in journalism held the high ground on all ethical issues, the guy on the other end of the line was working hard to live up to his own standard, and his bar for honesty and integrity was equally as high.

The Public Relations Society of America maintains a member Code of Ethics that pledges to “be honest and accurate in all communications.” It says, “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” And, “We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public.”

Everything I’ve encountered or observed since my career transition supports the fact that the overwhelming majority of “flaks” are working to uphold these noble ideals. That’s why a story that broke last weekend in Dallas is so disappointing.

The Tempest Over Museum Tower

For about the past year, a local tempest has pitted the developer of a 42-story luxury condo building against its neighbor, the Nasher Sculpture Center. Reflected sunlight from the glass exterior of the condos, called Museum Tower, is baking the architecturally significant museum.

Museum supporters want big changes to the building to stop the glare, while the tower’s tax-supported owner (a police and fire pension fund) says the museum should simply redo its roof. The battle has gotten increasingly ugly, including scorching criticism by a couple denizens of social media: “Brandon Eley” of the Bronx and “Barry Schwarz” of St. Louis.

Enter two of my former Dallas Morning News colleagues, Steve Thompson and Gary Jacobson. Their excellent investigative report (the original is behind a paywall, but here’s a follow story that covers the basics) revealed that Brandon and Barry were, in fact, fake online personas operated by none other than PR guy Mike Snyder, working on behalf of – you guessed it – Museum Tower.

The Story and the Damage Done

You’d think Snyder would know better. He’s a longtime former local TV anchor who became partner in a new PR firm, Ropewalkers, after retirement. (Although Ropewalkers says he was working on his own when posing as Brandon and Barry.) This was no rookie mistake.

The fallout for Snyder was swift and certain. A member of the Dallas City Council repudiated him, and the administrator of the pension fund that owns Museum Tower did his best to distance from the skullduggery. (Although The News’ found email indicating Richard Tettamant knew all about it.) The Press Club of Dallas released a statement saying Snyder’s actions “represent some of the worst in 21st Century communication” and strongly condemning the use of made-up IDs to sway opinion. By midweek, Snyder had lost not only the account but also his position with Ropewalkers. He resigned, saying the fake personas were his idea alone.

“While the comments I made contained accurate facts and data, I regret I was not always transparent in the posting of comments on news blogs by using my own name,” he wrote. “I am sincerely sorry and apologize to those people whom I offended using a screen name…”

We All Suffer for This Screw-up

As a result of Snyder’s dishonesty – let’s call it what it is – the Museum Tower is taking a severe public relations beating and losing ground in an argument that more than a few local residents believe it should win. The News’ editorial page called for a housecleaning at the pension fund. I’ll be surprised if the episode doesn’t move public opinion toward the Nasher, even though it has nothing to do with the core issue. All because of a tactic that any first-year PR student knows is clearly out of bounds – even in an era when social media has blurred some boundaries.

What bothers me personally is the stain that Snyder’s actions leaves on me and the rest of us in PR and marketing who work hard to uphold high ethical standards of honesty, fairness and advocacy. With a single lazy – and sleazy – tactic, he affirmed the false assumptions I used to hold and that many still do: “See what I mean? You just can’t trust those guys.”

And that’s a shame. Let this episode serve as a good reminder for the very few of us who need it: Ethics matter.