Ethical Public Relations: Not an Oxymoron
The PR desk can be a company's conscience.
by Steven R. Van Hook, PhD
The Public Relations department is frequently the ethical heart of an organization. Internal and external PR communications control of the flow of good and bad news to the staff and community. The PR team copes with company crises. PR pros sit at the elbows of top officers drafting a company's mission statements, its strategies, its vision.
PR people are often put on the spot — if not to determine the morality of a course, at least to help envision the fallout. Fortunately there are valuable touchstone tools for finding our way.
We might dive deep into pools of ethical thoughts by such as Bentham, Kant, Rawls and Machiavelli. Ethics theories range from Utilitarianism ("The greatest good for the greatest number") to Deontology ("Do what is right, though the world should perish").
Or, more to the point, we can examine codes of standards through public relations guilds such as the IABC. On a global scale, there's the International Public Relations Association Code of Conduct adopted in Venice in 1961.
The CSEP project gathered 850 codes of ethics culled from professional societies, corporations, government, and academic institutions. And we can exercise a quick reality check courtesy of PR Watch, a watchdog group combating "manipulative and misleading PR practices."
Throughout the many schools of ethics and conduct, there are some common threads.
For example: Don't lie. Ever. One thing we've learned well in recent decades is that the uncovered cover-up frequently incurs more wrath than the original offense. Even the highest potentates with all the levers at their power cannot keep a lid on a secret boiling over.
Many people perceive public relations as something less than respectable — as clever strategies to convince the public that what's wrong is right. Some see public relations professionals as manipulators of the public mind, rather than conveyors of truth.
That is likely the reason most every code of conduct, especially those targeted at the PR profession, stresses honesty above all else. Too often our conduct falls short of the code. Spin substitutes for truth. Perception substitutes for reality. Victory substitutes for success.
The shadings are subtle. The arguments are heated. The proponents are ostracized. But it does matter, both in the big picture and the bottom line.
Theologians say it. Physicists say it. Even squinty-eyed comptrollers now realize it. In our interconnected systems, everything matters to everything else. What we are is a composite of our daily decisions, thoughts and actions, large and small. As business writer John Ellis says, "The truth matters. Loyalty matters. Lies matter. Values matter. You know a Dilbert company the minute you walk into it. Dilbert-company employees know the exact calibration of corporate dishonesty."
An organization's ethics flow from the top down and back up again, and permeates throughout the company mindset. A stranger off the street can sniff it out just by walking in the door. Nothing is hidden, especially in this wired age where news — especially bad news — gushes in an instant.
These matters must preoccupy the devoted PR professional.
We might remember, too, that public relations is a two way street: not only do we represent our organization to the public, but we must also present the public back to our organization. We should help our colleagues understand how the public perceives our actions.
Just like little Jiminy Crickets, public relations professionals are often the conscience of a company. It’s not always a popular spot to be in, but it is our duty. It's what we're paid to do. And, as we sometimes confess to one another, it's what we largely love most about our job.