This Week in PR Ethics 1/30/20: Cancel Culture, Too Soon, Public Health and Trust

There were almost too many PR and communication ethics stories to discuss this week. My PR Ethics class discussed the following topics for more than an hour last night. We addressed cancel culture, Kobe Bryant, bad pitches, public health and trust. Following are some of the most interesting stories of the week.  

  • Should Google stop incentivizing climate change misinformation on YouTube – reported that Kathy Castor, the chairperson of the US House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Monday which says YouTube’s algorithm is sending people to climate denial videos that also receive ad revenue. She urges Google to stop promoting and monetizing these videos, and add climate misinformation to its list of “borderline content,” similar to how the platform handled anti-vaccination videos.

    There are a number of ethical issues to discuss around this topic. Is this an appropriate request for government to make? Are those that deny manmade climate change in the same category as anti-vaxxers? Is it ethical for Google to segment like this? How does this relate to the broader deplatforming and cancel culture discussions?


  • Ethics and Kobe Bryant coverage– There are quite a few ethics and communication issues that have come up in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death.



  • When is it appropriate to pitch around the death of Kobe Bryant? – John Bernoff, a former Forrester analyst, author of Groundswell and Withoutbullshit blogger, shared a pitch on Facebook and his blog that he found to be absolutely disgusting. A PR firm offered a trauma therapist and LCP to discuss the issues Kobe’s wife and family will have to deal with in the wake of his death. The comments on his post were overwhelmingly that is was ghoulish and inappropriate.

    The class discussion on this was heated. While I tend to be conservative in my approach around accidents and tragedies, I could see the firm offering a real subject matter expert on a topic that people are discussing. My wife, an editor, agrees. I do think they could have made it more general about what people will face, as they don’t know the specifics of the family situation.  Additionally, Kobe’s wife has a name. It is Vanessa. Use it. She is much more than his wife.

    What I do find horrible and stupid, but not unethical, is blasting this pitch out. It should be targeted if it is done at all. Josh is an influential blogger but this is not a topic he covers. And the pitch was poor to say the least. By the way, if a helicopter company was pitching on safety features of their new helicopter, that would be way too far.

    Inappropriate Kobe Bryant Pitch Shared By Josh Bernoff
    Inappropriate Kobe Bryant Pitch Shared By Josh Bernoff

    (Image used with permission of Josh Bernoff – with the names of the PR firm removed)
  • Ethics and Public Health – The Corona virus was one of the key news stories of the week as well. This is a significant public health issue and one that will likely touch many communicators and the executives they advise. Is it good and ethical to restrict freedoms and travel? What about when employees want to work from home or do not want to travel to a pitch because they are afraid? How would you balance your duties to your clients, employees and society? How do healthcare communicators correct all the false information being spread?


  • You probably won’t trust this article – I covered the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 last week, but it is worth repeating. This interesting article from South Africa really drilled into the decline in trust and that “in the majority of markets, less than half of the mass population trust their institutions to do what is right.” This has a huge impact of brand reputation and communication for organizations of all types. If people don’t trust your company, how can you best engage or fight false information and rumors?

What other PR and communication ethics issues did you see this week?


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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