Public Relations and Ethics

By Mitch Marovitz, APR

As the chapter’s Ethics committee lead, it seems appropriate to begin a discussion by posting the question of why do we devote so much time and effort to the topic? To what end? Does it help the bottom line?

We like to call our business a profession even though we do not meet several key requirements to be a “profession.” For example, a self-governing body does not license us. Also, while we do have ethical standards, they are not universal. And, there is not a single governing body to adjudicate infractions. There are some good reasons for this I’m told, and they stem from our First Amendment right to free speech. I’m not sure I understand how standards of conduct impede free speech, but I’ll take it as a point of faith in people much smarter than me that it is so.

The history of our practice in America is replete with examples of unsavory behavior, especially during PR’s early history that focused on press agentry and publicity. Those first exposures to our work resulted in lasting impressions and a generalized characterization of our work as spin-doctoring or propagandizing; not so much concerned with the truth as with the well-being of our clients.

Check out this clip about Edward Bernays on the subject of propaganda.

Of course, we’ve come a long way from those early days. The profession—or craft—has moved on and grown. There is now a body of research on public relations and practitioners now focus on developing “mutually beneficial,” or two-way relationships between our clients and their stakeholders. Key among the conditions required for two-way relationships to work, I believe, is trust. For it is only with trust that the organizations we represent and the stakeholders upon whom our organizations depend can move forward together. And trust, I submit, requires ethical behavior in order to grow and flourish.

If you accept the premise of two-way communications as foundational to the success of public relations programs today, then ethical behavior becomes necessary to the success of our work and adds to the bottom line of our firms and our client’s firms. Also, in the midst of a crisis, our clients and managers can’t be wondering if we are telling the truth: too much is riding on the outcomes of our communications. They must trust in our messages and strategies. Conversely, not being ethical has cost many millions of dollars over the years due to court cases and even—for some–jail time.

I certainly understand we always want to have good news for our clients and our stakeholders. But, I also know the news is not always good. It’s hard to tell our clients (or their stakeholders) they may be in the wrong. But, we have to do it…for everyone’s sake. In fact, telling your client bad news may, in fact, gain you more favor in their eyes than if you tried to hide or sugar-coat the truth.) A firm grounding in ethics helps us do the right thing and maintain balance in the relationship between stakeholder and client.

While September is Ethics month, our conversations about ethics should be ongoing. How can it guide us as we guide our clients? How can it help us cope with difficult situations where shades of gray seem the rule? What might we do in specific situations?

It is best to consider these questions before a crisis actually occurs. I’ll look for examples that will help us discuss the shades of gray we often face in the practice of our profession. I’d also like to hear from you about your experiences with ethical issues. Did you consult with peers when you faced such issues? Did you find help in the PRSA Code of Ethics? Let’s discuss these topics together now so we’re all on the “same page” in terms of how we might be expected to respond when the time comes.

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One thought on “Public Relations and Ethics

  1. Mitch: I fully support your efforts to raise awareness of the importance of ethical practice in PRSA-NCC. As I’ve often said, “Let’s face it–the words ‘public relations’ and ‘ethics’ are words that aren’t frequently used in the same sentence!”

    Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to communicate the importance we place on ethics to the greater community. Perhaps the chapter might conduct a workshop or seminar on ethical practice for which each attendee would receive a certificate? I’d be pleased to help with the idea.

    -Fred Whiting, APR, Fellow PRSA

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