Some time ago, I witnessed an extremely interesting class debate, entitled:
The only way to practice ethical PR is to work in the not for profit sector; everything else is just corporate, political or consumer propaganda.
Interestingly, it is the people who opposed the notion that won massively. My classmates made a lot of valid points, but what interested me most about what they were saying was a big discrepancy both about public perceptions of PR and the reality of the profession, as well as about the inherent nature of NGO communications and their relation to “ethics”.
Let’s face it – the public image of PR is… not ideal. A lot of my friends, upon hearing about my career choice laughed and said “so, you’ll be lying for a living?”. It’s a deeply upsetting misconception, which I witness from time to time (similar remarks have been made in a BBC documentary I have recently seen, entitled “Music Moguls” – I have written about it more in my previous post). Why?
- PR is not inherently unethical
PR is (widely speaking) – communications. And communications is about connecting with audiences, getting across a message and showing sides to a story which can change perceptions. Lying can (but shouldn’t and doesn’t have to) be a part of it. I don’t remember seeing a PR campaign recently that would present a great lie for people to believe in. I’d say PR is becoming more and more about engaging in an open, honest and TRUTHFUL conversation with audiences. And those types of campaigns are the most successful (check out Dove’s Real Beauty or more recent – Always’s Like a Girl Emojis). They can even be beautiful and inspiring.
- There are numerous codes of conduct in the industry
PRSA, CIPR or PRCA – you choose. All big associations have codes of conduct that they require their members to abide by. Some agencies have their own ones as well. Although they are not greatly enforceable (and enforced), they set out standards and goals for self-development. Those who do not abide, loose accreditation and it becomes widely known for other professionals and clients that they do not operate according to outlined ethical procedures. So for PR professionals who are members of professional bodies and are subscribed to codes of conduct, it’s a matter of reputation to be ethical.
- It ultimately comes down to own choices
It’s the individual that ultimately takes actions and makes decisions. It is not unknown for PR professionals or agencies to refuse to work with someone whom they think they shouldn’t because of ethical reasons.
- Unethical behaviour undermines trust which is essential these days
Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows it clearly – trust is essential for communications. Without ethics… there is no public trust, be it in a company, individual or PR agency. Therefore, honesty and ethics become an expectation, not an option.
“It does not matter with whom a PR professional is speaking – they are expected to comport themselves in an honest and ethical manner. Period.”(Corbett, 2012)
I think it’s deeply unfair to say that the only way to practice ethical PR is to work for an NGO. My classmates used famous examples of PETA’s unethical practices or a little bit older, shocking and deemed by many as unethical, Barnardo’s Heroin Baby. They have good intentions at heart, but there is a lot to be said about their ethical stance.
It does not matter, I believe, whether one works for an NGO, in-house or in an agency. It’s all about our personal choices, motivations and people around us that should guide us. If we follow our best judgement, and get advice at times we’re not sure what is good and what is wrong, I think we will greatly contribute to PR’s rising ethical standards and help combat the misconceptions surrounding the profession.
CIPR. Professionalism and ethics. Available from: http://www.cipr.co.uk/content/our-organisation/professionalism-and-ethics
Corbett, G. F. (2012). All public relations professionals are liars? – that is not the case in America. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/mar/09/public-relations-liars-blog-ethics
IPR (2007). Ethics and Public Relations. IPR. Available from: http://www.instituteforpr.org/ethics-and-public-relations/
Header image: HERE