The Case for Individual Morality, Responsibility and Tolerance

9 years, 2 months ago


The new IPRA Code of Conduct refers specifically to the rights of all parties to state their case and express their views. IPRA President Richard Linning assesses this in a historical context and also explores the implications in today’s world.

Some seek to persuade by making a case. Some by counter argument. The most persuasive respect what others believe and think. These represent the unique contribution of public relations: communication to reconcile our differences. Communication which promotes tolerance of what makes us different.

In principle everyone – whatever their belief, opinion or product – deserves their day in court. Public relations practice is after all about the right of everyone (as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1) puts it) to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The new IPRA Code of Conduct makes specific reference to the rights of all parties involved to state their case and express their views. Even the guilty have a right of representation in a court of law or the court of public opinion.

Worldwide tolerance

Acceptance of John Stuart Mill’s arguments(2) for the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas implies respect and tolerance of differences of opinions. Of what is celebrated on World Tolerance Day (16 November) every year: tolerance to guard against the politics of polarization, at a time when stereotypes, ignorance and hatred threaten to tear the delicate fabric of increasingly diverse societies.

In a world where there is a right to present a case, what responsibility does the public relations practitioner have for his/her advocacy role on behalf of others? The right of refusal if they disagree on moral grounds, the responsibility for the content of their advocacy? Responsibility for the outcome? Or none at all?

The origins of public relations lie in advocacy, by whom is a matter of debate. The Egyptian Pharoah Ramesses II for example, born around 1303 BC, is promoted by some(3) as the father of public relations or more accurately propaganda. Tricked by Hittite spies, Ramesses marched his men into a trap at Kadesh but upon his return home, he declared an overwhelmingly victory. Reliefs inside the Abu Simbel temple depict a chariot-bound Ramesses riding roughshod over decimated Hittite soldiers. He may have won at Kadesh, but if so it was a pyrrhic victory. His subsequent "spinning" of the event certainly shows a keen – and very early - understanding of public relations.

More recently Edward Bernays, generally regarded as the father of modern public relations, liked to say, "What I do is propaganda, and I just hope it’s not impropaganda."

The English term propaganda has its origins in the Latin propagare "to propagate", originally used in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV in setting up the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for Propagating the Faith. To borrow the terminology of Islam, what was required was taqlid not ijtihad: that is submissiveness, not an enquiring mind(4).

Segmentation amid diversity

As audiences become more segmented, the single individual the target and tweet messages constantly at risk of reductio ad absurdum we have to guard against the politics of polarization and stereotyping in our increasingly diverse societies. Against the temptation to revert to the techniques of propaganda: to actions targeted at specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages.

If public relations’ role is only that of a mere messenger – as in the Grunig two-way models – then the problem of ethical relativism does not arise because public relations is about process not outcome. It has long been argued that the public relations practitioner is only the messenger: "I had no responsibility for the facts and no duty beyond compiling them into the best form for publicity work"(5). Responsibility only for "gilding, with the appearance of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation."(6)

The anonymity of the third-party-endorsement puppet master is no longer a mask we can hide behind. We have to ask the hard questions: are we responsible for the consequences of the use of our (public relations) means to an end which we had not foreseen or even considered? Or, do we throw our hands up in the air and claim we been unwittingly or deliberately manipulated? A tool abused in the hands of others?

But if public relations aspires to be more? A profession? "(A)ccountability in a profession means that practitioners must face up to the consequences of their actions"(7), then the complementary question to that of Bernays’ "impropaganda" is will our actions result in harm?: the primum non nocere principle which is one of the principal precepts of medical ethics.

This question is particularly relevant today when (t)here are among us those who are striving to make this a new dark age of dogma(8)

In the words of Mohandas Gandhi, "Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding." Tolerance is what makes and keeps communities together. If we as the global community of public relations practitioners want to move beyond being just the advocate of this or that then we have to respect the right of others to disagree. The new IPRA code of ethics does provide the guidelines, Seek to establish the moral, cultural and intellectual conditions for dialogue, and recognise the rights of all parties involved to state their case and express their views but it is our own individual morality, sense of responsibility and tolerance which will determine how they are interpreted and implemented.

2. Andrew Puddephatt, Freedom of Expression, The essentials of Human Rights, Hodder Arnold, 2005, pg.128
3. Ramesses believed to be father of public relations Daily News Egypt (Egypt) 23 February 2010
4. Fundamentalist world – the new dark age of dogma Stuart Sim p133 Icon Books 2004
5. Ivy Lee testimony to US Commission on Industrial RelationsIvy Lee testimony to US Commission on Industrial Relations
6. George Washington, Farewell Address 1796
7. Effective Public Relations, Cutlip & Center1952
8. Fundamentalist world – the new dark age of dogma Stuart Sim Icon Books 2004 p224



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The Author

Richard Linning

Richard Linning, IPRA Board Member, Fellow Chartered Institute of Public Relations

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