In my April 9, 2013 blog, I spoke of how Mickey Kennedy, founder of eReleases, commended the field for its embrace of codes of ethics. What I hope didn’t get lost in his message is that he also suggests we actually use those codes in our work. Our own organization’s Code of Ethics is one of the most widely recognized in the industry. Our website’s ethics area is expansive and includes case studies, professional standards advisories and a rich resource area.
Kennedy suggests the vast majority of us are good, ethical professionals trying to help our bosses and clients tell their story. I agree. I think the vast majority of us are good people. However, as Alison Kenney recently blogged, there are shades of gray in the ethical lifestyle we lead as PR professionals.
The problem I’ve always had figuring out “ethics issues” is that I don’t always see the ethical dilemma until its almost too late. At that point, all I can say is, “I’m sorry,” which of course is never good enough. At what point am I supposed to say, “That’s it! That crosses the line!” How am I supposed to know I’m there? And, once I’m there how do I know what I am supposed to do about it?
What conditions existed that allowed Penn State to cover-up the Jerry Sandusky scandal for so long? How could leaders at the IRS not see the impact their operational decisions would have on public opinion about their organization?
Can the resources we have available to us at http://www.prsa.org/ethics (and other places) help us? Let’s start with our Code of Ethics. Have you looked at it lately? It’s not really all that long and boils nicely down to six concepts called our “Statement of Professional Values:”
Six concepts that are easy enough to remember.
I’ve had many discussions over the years about the concepts of advocacy and loyalty. Don’t they contravene the other four points? In my mind, there is not an inherent conflict among these six values. We are charged not just with advocating on behalf of our organizations or just being loyal to them. Rather, our Code charges us to advocate in a responsible manner and to be “…faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.” The information we provide into the marketplace of ideas is supposed to be accurate and truthful and further public debate on the issues. And, sometimes, loyalty to our organization means admitting we can do a better job of serving the public interest. Look to the Coca-Cola Company’s recent campaign about their—and their competitor’s—efforts to introduce reduced calorie soft drinks in schools. The campaign has taken some hits for being disingenuous, but if you take a look at the likes and dislikes and the comments at the YouTube page where the commercial resides, I think you will conclude that the campaign is furthering honest debate on the issue.
While the “Statement of Professional Values” is important, it doesn’t really provide the kind of guidance that can help you recognize when an ethical issue is about to hit you. I think the real meat of the Code lies in the next section, the “Code Provisions of Conduct.” It is here that you find the core principles upon which the Code of Ethics is based. These principles are:
- Free flow of information
- Disclosure of information
- Safeguarding confidences
- Conflicts of interest
- Enhancing the profession
I will be discussing these code provisions in upcoming blogs. Hopefully, we can discuss them in a way that helps us find a way to internalize them and use them as triggers that will better arm us to recognize ethical dilemmas before they become ethical issues.
Mitch Marovitz is the Treasurer and Ethics Committee Chair for the Public Relations Society of America’s National Capital Chapter.