Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Public Relations: Is the Customer Always Right?

By Jessica Silliman

Paula Eng was a junior partner at a Bay Area public relations firm when she was asked to assist in publicizing an event for one of the firm's top clients. The client, a large-scale software company, was sponsoring a talent competition where local men and women would compete for the chance to win a fourteen-day cruise for two. The company hoped the event would be a huge success so that the media attention would give wide mention to its name.

After nearly five months of preparation, Paula thought she had it all planned to perfection. She had secured celebrity judges, contacted all the local news organizations and could already envision the press release she would write and the broadcast coverage it would gain after the competition. It was going to be great publicity for the software company.

When the talent competition was finished, Paula was behind stage tallying the votes to determine the winner when the head of the software company, Mr. Johnson, frantically approached her. It was a close competition and two contestants-one "average Joe" and one up-and-coming actor-were the final two left. When the votes were tallied the actor won, but Mr. Johnson wasn't pleased-he wanted the "average Joe" to win because he thought that it would make for a better news story and, hence, more publicity for his company. Mr. Johnson asked Paula to take "creative liberties" in determining the winner. The fine print in the rules said the final decision was ultimately up to the company and not the judging panel and he made it clear who the winner should be.

"I had spent four and a half months preparing for this event and the decision was reduced to 1 Ø minutes," said Paula.

Paula's manager was the one in charge of deciding whether to honor Mr. Johnson's request or to go with the judges' choice. Her manager chose to side with Mr. Johnson and announce the "average Joe" as the winner, but did verbally express disapproval of the process and disappointment of being put in such an uncomfortable and compromising position. But they did settle on somewhat of a compromise-while the "average Joe" was named the winner, both received the cruise package prize to recognize both of their talents. Though Paula strongly disagreed with the decision, she didn't have much control as a junior partner. She was never asked her opinion and she never offered it.

"If I were in charge, things would be different," she said. "We weren' t doing the right thing by rewarding the person who didn't actually win. But we settled on a compromise that was as good as it could have been and that tried to appease all people involved."

The press release mentioned that the "average Joe" was the single winner; news of the other "unofficial" winner was not mentioned, however he was named as the first runner-up. The actor wasn't featured as prominently and he didn 't get some of the local media coverage that the "average Joe" received, however he did receive media coverage in his hometown.

"It felt a little rigged," said Paula. Even the judges seemed surprised with the outcome, but none raised serious complaints.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think Mr. Johnson's request to favor the "average Joe" is unethical? Why or why not?
  • Publicists represent the client's interests, but is the customer always right? Where should the line be drawn?
  • Should Paula have spoken up at the time of the decision to alter the results of the contest?
  • Could Paula have avoided the situation in the planning process of the event? How or how not?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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