PR is one of the most misunderstood professions and is probably top on the list amongst the professions with the most definitions. It is difficult to define PR not just from a layman's perspective but also within the industry itself. So then how can people understand and uphold PR ethics if the profession is not understood?
Despite these guidelines, ethics in individual practice is deeply troubling for PR professionals and consistent violation has been a matter of debate for years. Most critics have complained that the ethics ‘have no teeth’ and one cynic as quoted by PR Sourcewatch says,
‘real ethical behavior is expensive, and that's where the PR industry's ethical dilemma
originates. All of the major public relations firms routinely engage in unethical practices and they don't do it because they are evil people. They do it because their wealthy clients have problems, and cleaning up their image is often easier and cheaper than cleaning up their mess’.
True, real ethical behaviour is expensive not just in PR but in every profession. Mc Donalds' management for instance has been trying to distance themselves from claims that they promote junk food which is unhealthy and causes obesity. They have tried to cover up the crisis by introducing healthy meals which doesn't really solve the problem in the first place as most of their food is still classified as junk food. But is there an ethical way of trying to increase profits for a company that makes unhealthy food that causes disease and even death?
This is a practical example of some of the questions that a true PR professional should address before venturing into a career. Ethics in PR must begin with the individual. They must be true to themselves and adhere to their own morals and principles. Only then will the industry be in a position for regulation.
Perhaps the greatest pressure for most PR practitioners comes from the management’s misunderstanding of the role of Public Relations. Most employers believe that PR is supposed to represent their company in a positive light at all times but is this the true definition of the role of Public Relations as a profession? If that’s the case then it means that lies, propaganda and manipulation become inevitable because no matter how good a company is problems do occur sometimes and it is the duty of the PR professional to handle the crisis in a way that balances their loyalty to the employer and to the public.
PR is a profession that is grossly misunderstood across board and is perhaps one of the professions with the most definitions. People often tend to define the role of PR by it's most visible techniques and tactics but what they fail to understand is that PR is a process that involves research, analysis and feedback from the public. PR thus operates on two levels:
- Giving advise to employers or clients
- Communicating to the public
But it is not always easy to say to your boss: I'm right. You're wrong. Bosses don't understand PR better that the PR professionals. They understand profit margins and company image. This doesn't make them unethical. It just means they think differently.
Will I trash the competition in order to promote my client?
Will I issue a news release with only half the truth?
Will I quit my job rather than participate in a questionable activity?
In short how far can a PR professional compromise their personal morals whilst on duty?
These are some of the questions that plague the lives of many Public Relations professionals and whereas it may be argued that the true PR professional has an absolute obligation to quit any client who is unethical. It is not often that easy. Faced with problems such as mortgage and children to educate practitioners may be strongly tempted to become yes men or women and decline to express their honest views to an employer. So if quitting is not an option what do you do when you represent an organization that has a strategy that clashes with your personal morals?