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Public Relations Bring Ethics Under the Spotlight

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Public relations campaigns like the one that helped “sell” the Gulf War have gained criticism for deliberately altering perceptions. Media and stakeholder groups have accused public relations practitioners of being spin doctors and describing a reality that suits their purposes. This attitude is encapsulated in the descriptor that an activity is merely a “PR ploy”, a “PR maneuver” or a “PR effort”. Practices such as “flogging” (fake blogging), “astroturfing” (fake grassroots lobbying) and “stealth marketing” (fake promotions with actors masquerading as private citizens) have come under criticism.

In addition to these types of covert public relations initiatives coming under attack, aspects of everyday practices such as media skills training have been targeted. Media trainers commonly advise spokespersons not to answer questions, leading to an increasing number of executives who “cloud public discourse” in media interviews. This is inconsistent with the public relations role of helping facilitate a flow of essential information in the public’s interest.

Monitoring and criticism from outside and inside the public relations industry keep a watch on the vast industry that public relations has become. This, in turn, makes practitioners and the industry responsive to what constitutes appropriate conduct. Ethical public relations should not aim merely to confuse or cause equivocation but should inform and honestly influence judgment based on good reasons that advance the community. A necessary precondition of professionalism is ethically defensible behavior. Such a framework derives from philosophical and religious attitudes to behavior and ethics, laws and regulations, corporate and industry codes of conduct, public relations association codes of ethics, professional values and ethics, training and personal integrity.

Rising concerns

In recent years, several high-profile corporate crises around the world have raised questions about the nature and content of public relations advice being provided to companies. PR in the government sector has also come under scrutiny. Alistair Campbell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary, resigned following a government inquiry into misleading information presented in support of the Iraq War.

An independent assessment of government communications is needed due to the collective high expenditure on communications across government of all levels. Also, messages are often put out ahead of elections to convince the public of a particular government’s achievements.

Ethics: standards of integrity

In short, ethics are standards of integrity: They are about doing the right thing. Values considered essential to an ethical life are honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, fidelity, fairness, caring for others, respect for others, responsible citizenship, the pursuit of excellence and accountability. Ethics refer to the personal values or deeply held belief systems that underpin the moral choices, which make someone respond to a specific situation.

The three fundamental ethical doctrines are deontology, teleology and Aristotle’s Golden Mean:

  1. Deontology is the doctrine that ethics is duty-based and relies on the moral obligation to tell the truth or keep promises. It does not consider any consequences that may follow – for example, serious harm to an innocent person. This system depends on the moral principles and self-discipline of the individual public relations practitioner; however, it will change from person to person, depending on their cultural and traditional biases.
  2. Teleology is an outcome-based ethics doctrine where “the ends justify the means”. Teleologists believe that the right action has good consequences. The rightness of an action is determined by its causes and effects. This system would apply to public relations techniques used by special-interest groups such as Greenpeace, which previously involved civil disobedience.
  3. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is based on what is best for the majority and on actions that represent moderation. This is generally the system used in a democracy where the minority sometimes must sacrifice something of value if it is best for the country.

The basis of ethics lies in philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1726 – 1804) is credited as being a founder of modern ethics. He proposed a three-step process for solving ethical dilemmas:

  1. When in doubt as to whether an act is moral or not, apply the categorical imperative, which is to ask the question: “What if everyone did this deed?”
  2. Always treat all people as ends in themselves and never exploit other humans.
  3. Always respect the dignity of human beings.

Role of ethics in PR

Public relations ethics is the application of knowledge, understanding and reasoning to questions of right and wrong behavior in the professional practice of public relations. In PR practice, ethical behavior relates both to the practitioner and the organization for whom the work is being carried out — that is, the ethical implications of the strategies and tactics used to solve challenges or create opportunities. Therefore, public relations practitioners need to be concerned with their personal and professional ethics as well as the institutional ethics of the organization for which they work.

Ethical dilemmas are not easy; they are perplexing situations involving decisions about what is right or wrong. Often, they are situations requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives. For example, when an organization downsizes, public relations practitioners can find themselves having to develop communications strategies and materials directed at colleagues who will lose their jobs. Similarly, the CEO and the board of directors must make ethical decisions where the corporation could lose business and earnings, but they accept these as the cost of doing the right thing. Recalling a product from supermarket shelves when an organization is not legally obliged to do so is one example of this. In 1997, Arnott’s took all its products off supermarket shelves at the cost of $35 million during a poison-biscuit scare. Making decisions in these situations is easier if the organization has a predetermined framework for resolving ethical issues.

There are five duties of public relations professionals: oneself, the employer, profession, client and society. These are not necessarily listed in rank order but emphasize awareness of the multiple levels of ethical consideration a PR practitioner may face. The five duties will guide decisions based on what the PR practitioner truly believes is right or wrong. Using this list as a guide, he or she may first need to look at their values when faced with an ethical dilemma. Generally, their subsequent loyalty will be to the client or organization (except, of course, in whistleblowing situations, when commitment to the public has already taken precedence). The PR practitioner is obligated to assist and collaborate with his colleagues.

Naturally, society is an essential element that contributes to ethical decisions. PR practitioners need to ask the question: Will society benefit from my decision, although I harm myself, my employer, profession or client?