September is Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). So before the month runs out, I wanted to chime in on the subject.
If the headline got you to come here, well good. I used the ethically questionable “click bait” tactics of using a number and offering a list, and the word “shocking” probably had you expecting something negative and therefore compelling.
But what actually will shock you is the four things I will impact here about PR and ethics are largely positive. Read on:
1. PR is inherently ethical. Many people associate PR as “spin” or deception or mere image gloss. And, to be sure, there are some practicing PR that do that. But when their bad deeds come to light the media and others call it a “PR” scandal. This itself is untrue, unfair, uninformed and unethical to paint an entire profession with a broad brush to imply that PR is by definition unethical. That’s the shocker: PR, if properly understood and practiced the way it is taught, is ethical by definition. It is impossible to be unethical if PR is done as,what academics call the “two-way symmetrical” model of PR practice. That means that the essence of the field is to build and maintain relationships of mutual benefit, to balance an organization’s interest with the interests of society. Some might say that’s easy to say but it doesn’t happen that way all the time. No, it is aspirational or normative theory. But it also is empirical–it has been observed that PR professionals DO counsel management and co-workers and clients according to this view of the field. Every profession has bad examples; but bad examples are violating professional standards, not defining them.
2. PR is the ethical conscience of the whole organization. Because the public relations function is the only one that considers all publics and works to build positive relationships with all of them, it is best suited to ensure an ethical conscience and culture not just in the PR department or function but throughout the whole organization. An educated PR professional is well trained to listen to all publics, see the big picture, and advise management of all functional areas in ways that ensure ethical considerations are put in practice. If so, crises are prevented, operations are productive, employee retention is enhanced, and profit is achieved.
3. PR problems are most often caused by other people. When an organization is caught in activity that is seen as unethical by a reasonable public, it is called a ‘PR scandal,’ as mentioned previously. But closer examination of situations reveals that often and even most of the time the deed was done by a CEO, someone in marketing, someone in law, or any other functional area. They may not have sought or did not listen to advice from a “real” PR person. If they had, the ethical lapse is less likely to have happened because, as noted in number 1, the public interest would have been considered.
4. PR as a profession contributes as much positive to society as medicine, law and technology. Ethicists talk about a profession’s “role morality,” or what is it that the profession contributes to society. Some think that an occupation does not deserve to be called a “profession” unless it has a positive and vital benefit to society. Public health and civil management of disputes are why medicine and law are considered as obvious professions. As for PR, it is all about enabling informed decision making in a democratic society. Whether promoting a product or advocating a point of view on a cause, the public is well served if they have information representing all views. If PR people practice ethically according to a code of ethics and do not manipulate or hide information, they are fulling not just their occupational role but a necessary social one as well.