PR Ethics Lessons From 'Roman Holiday'
Among my favorite films is Roman Holiday, an enduring classic and spiritual forerunner to today’s rom-coms, released this month in 1953. In the event you’re not familiar with it, Roman Holiday is the story of a royal who decides to be bad. Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a monarch from an unnamed, exotic country on a state visit to Rome who decides to sneak away and embark on a voyage of discovery in the Eternal City. Hepburn’s character even claims that her father is in public relations! But in fact, he’s royalty!
While out adventuring, she encounters Gregory Peck’s character, Joe Bradley, an American reporter. During their first encounter, Joe doesn’t recognize the princess, but after an unlikely and chaste night together, he soon does. As the morning headlines scream about a missing princess, Joe realizes that he has stumbled across the year’s biggest scoop. Instead of admitting that he is a reporter, Joe claims to be a fertilizer salesman, joining Hepburn’s character on a whirlwind romantic adventure around Rome. Much joy and adventure ensue.
In the event you haven’t seen the film, I will try not to spoil it entirely. But the hero journalist, having worked his way so close to the story under initially accidental and then utterly false pretenses, begins to have doubts about using fraudulent access to write a story that will advance his career. Joe Bradley’s character is joined by Eddie Albert, playing a sort of beatnik photographer, Irving Radovich, who is following the princess’s story as well as chasing a big payday, offering a devil’s advocate sort of perspective. And in a way, this set of circumstances is precisely why Roman Holiday is a metaphor for instances when public relations professionals – or even clients – and journalists become too close.
Reporters being too chummy with their subjects has long been an issue in journalistic and PR ethics. Such closeness can lead to unintended consequences. Facts can become blurred, and both parties’ desire for a favorable outcome, in most cases positive coverage, can mean that tough and fair reporting isn’t likely or even possible. Inaccuracies are often ignored, and “softball” coverage can occur in the name of loyalty. Or, the inverse happens, and negative news about a client can be published without corrections or any sort of forceful rebuttal from PR, because they’re hoping to preserve editorial relationships.
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However, there is simply a time to walk away, particularly when the relationship with the subject (or in the case of PR, the subject’s advocate) is going to cloud ethical waters or let key facts or other issues “slide.” This might include the passage of insider or confidential information between reporters and PR people. In many cases, even what seems like a positive story can do longer-term harm, including creating potential long-range consequences for valuation.
Knowing when to walk away from a story based on too much-shared information is a key skill for PR people. This is especially important given that many people who call themselves journalists these days are in fact, opinion writers and wannabe pundits. The integrity of these types is usually suspect, as are the media outlets that they work for.
Furthermore, not walking away from a potentially negative or controversial story can have the effect of lumping a client in a group with unsavory other subjects, creating unpleasant comparisons across the marketplace and tarnishing a firm’s brand image. It is also acceptable to walk away from stories that take up too many company or agency resources or stories that move forward even when the reporter has the wrong premise. It is also highly acceptable to walk away when the story goes against company values and/or hurts client allies.
In case you’re itching to know what happens in the film, Gregory Peck’s character does choose the honorable path and sacrifices a large payday in the name of romance and honor. Stoically, his character leaves the big scoop unpublished, ultimately assuring the princess that no negative coverage will come as a result of their “Roman holiday” together, and they part ways.
His honorable act in the film echoes the sort of ethics and good judgment that PR people should practice when it comes to overly-cozy relationships with the press and deciding whether or not to walk away from a story.