This Week in PR Ethics (5/28/20) – Data, Accuracy and Disclosure

One of the most common areas of ethical failure (in my opinion) revolves around data. The four articles I share this week highlight different elements of this – from cutting corners and misrepresenting data, to data privacy, disclosure and the misrepresentation of old data. Data has the power to shape opinions and actions, and we all need to uphold the highest standards when gathering, using and sharing it.

  • States accused of manipulating COVID data –I first saw this on NBC, but Marlene Neill brought this article to the fore of this post by bringing another link to my attention. Last week the AP reported that states are accused of fudging or bungling COVID-19 testing data. The article states that “The risk is that politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans who are making decisions about lockdowns, reopenings and other day-to-day matters could be left with the impression that the virus is under more control than it actually is.” This is a serious issue and one that transcends the current pandemic. If communicators or others manipulate data to say what they want it violates research ethics and undermines trust. There are so many layers to this. I publicly called out how some inflated concern by not using per capita numbers earlier in the pandemic, but now there are new issues with classification. This is worthy of debate in summer school and when classes resume in the fall.


  • Ethics and contact tracing – Full disclosure, I have a client involved in this topic, but even before I began working with them, I was fascinated by the ethics of contact tracing and the balance of privacy and health risks. This article from Johns Hopkins University is a good snapshot of the ethical challenges around the use of data and who needs access to it.


  • Disclosure and influence in medical testing – This article from Stat highlights ethics questions around a Parkinson’s experiment. Basically, in a medical first, neurosurgeons transplanted brain cells into a patient with Parkinson’s disease. The ethical issues come into play because the funding for the research was provided by the patient and they kept it secret for a while. In some ways this has parallels to Varsity Blues and highlights the ethical issues with funding and skirting public processes.


  • Trust but verify – Garland Stansell, 2020 PRSA National Chair bought this ethical issue to my attention on Facebook. Some people are using an outdated video clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci on social media — giving the false impression he is currently advising the public not to wear face masks. Fauci was correct at the time, but the CDC changed his guidance and he evolved his position. This is a challenge all communicators face and it is important to not just check the source, but also if the data is recent. The other issue this highlights is how do we treat people who evolve their positions over time? Too often they are labeled as flip-floppers when many of us change our minds on issues and activities over the years.
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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