For those of us engaged in the public relations profession, ethical practice is...or should be...part and parcel of our daily work on behalf of clients or employers.
There. I’ve said it, and you’ve read it.
I would offer that the majority of us take the concept of ethical practice very seriously. But how successful have we been in ensuring that others, our co-workers as well as our clients or employers, recognize and adhere to ethical standards? And where can one turn for counsel when he or she is confronted by what appears to be an ethically-based issue?
Professional communication associations like IPRA, PRSA, IABC and others have and provide member education and information on ethical practice. There is even an association, The Ethics Initiative, whose mission is to help corporations and other entities come to grips with the growing demand for ethical business practice.
As the Initiative states in its History, "Business ethics is not new. Efforts to apply ethical theories and values to commerce can be found throughout history and in the works of the great philosophers. But until recently, business ethics was largely an academic affair."
Taking the initiative
Today, though, that emphasis has shifted. The public’s attention is now focused on the business aspects of ethical practice, and our job as the public relations professional responsible for communicating our client’s or our employer’s actions and intentions has taken on a more critical role as the eyes, the ears, and the conscience of our client or employer. And it falls more and more on our shoulders to be proactive in emphasizing the importance of ethical thought and action.
Public relations is built upon trust...trust in the actions of the individuals providing the services, and trust in the intents of the organization on whose behalf a public relations initiative is being conducted. But this trust will only exist if both the practitioners and the organization are perceived by the public as acting in the best interests of all...acting ethically.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to find examples on the front pages of our newspapers and in the lead stories on the evening news that seem to fly in the face of this responsibility. Whether it be multinational companies working feverishly to divert global, very public attention away from millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into once pristine gulf waters or major public relations firms billing clients for work hours amassed by unpaid interns, the concept of open and honest communication as espoused in 1906 by Ivy Ledbetter Lee in his seminal Declaration of Principles twists and turns in the wind.
Yet another thorny issue is the hotly-debated and widely-misunderstood concept of "native advertising." While the primary responsibility lies heavily on the shoulders of the medium in which a native ad appears, the question still emerges: "How objective can that medium be if it is accepting payment for content that is not readily-apparent advertising?"
The public jury is out, but the challenge is definitely there for communicators. Guidelines are available, however, including PRSA’s Code of Ethics which contains, among many, a Core Principle that clearly states, "A member shall...Avoid deceptive practices."
Again, "public trust" hovers overhead as we create innovative programs for clients or employers intended to cut through the clutter and thrust our message squarely in the public’s eye.
Challenges in today’s multinational, mega-connected business environment are many and varied. Competition is intense; cultural norms are diverse. The practitioner finds himself torn between "this is how we think/act/do here" and "that is how they think/act/do there." Arriving at a resolution that satisfies both sides can often be an arduous as well as perilous process.
Public relations firms with offices scattered across the globe are particularly challenged as they find themselves confronting local media practices. Expectations of the client are, quite naturally, that favorable mention will be achieved; expectations of the media in some regions are, conversely, "make it worth my while." How does one find a happy medium?
Although the temptation is that "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," we can’t forget that actions taken in one part of the world no longer are seen and reported in that region alone. As many "soft drink" manufacturers have discovered, news spreads...and public opinion forms...with lightning speed in today’s hyper-wired environment. Statements are parsed and actions scrutinized by thousands of consumers and consumer groups. As the age-old saying goes, "You can run, but you can’t hide"!
Fortunately, public relations professionals are not left to fend for themselves when it comes to addressing current-day issues. IPRA is very clear on matters of Integrity in its Code of Conduct
. And the Public Relations Society of America, for example, dedicates one month each year, September, to what it terms "Ethics Month," and the Society’s Board of Ethics & Professional Standards (BEPS) fills the calendar with activities ranging from twitter chats to webinars to blog posts and newspaper articles. In addition, BEPS members offer their services as subject-matter experts to PRSA regional districts and individual chapters.
The goal of this intense effort is to educate (or remind) members and non-members of the vital need for ethical practice and to inspire them to take a more proactive role as an "ethical champion" as they interact with clients, employers, or concerned stakeholders.
"Ethics Month" is just one of the twelve months that comprise our work-year, however. It falls on our shoulders as individual practitioners or as members of teams to ensure that the message comes through loud and clear: "Ethics is an everyday consideration for all."
About the author
Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, Member, PRSA Board of Ethics & Professional Standards; Associate Professor, Communication/Public Relations, Curry College.