In my view

I recently visited my homecountry Kenya in East Africa and had some rather interesting encounters (save for the post election ethnic violence). One of them was to explain what I'm studying and why. I could see the lost look on people's faces as they tried to make out what I meant by Public Relations and some of the reactions I got were: 'oh you mean Marketing?' Others thought PR meant 'event management' while others didn't have the slightest clue what I was doing in England.

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?

PR Ethics on an individual level

Every Public Relations organisation has a code of ethics which the members are expected to abide. The primary objective of this code of ethics is to form guidelines to educate members on how they should conduct themselves in their professional lives.

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.

Withholding information: The Firestone Tyre Recall Case Study

In the year 2000, the US government began investigating a report which indicated that more than 300 car accidents that had occurred in the country were directly linked to Firestone’s tyre problems. In the meantime the company had made assurances that ‘nothing is more important to us than safety of our customers’ and maintained that they were working closely with the relevant bodies to try and identify the problem. Three months into the government’s investigation the company was forced to recall 6.5 million tyres. Public Relations experts blamed the company for being too slow in acknowledging the problem in the first place because there was evidence on complaints and lawsuits as early as 1994. Firestone then committed another blunder where they blamed the consumer saying the tyres shredded and peeled because the consumers didn’t maintain proper inflation and drove on poor roads.

This case raised ethical questions about a company’s failure to take action until the glare of publicity forced them to admit there was a problem. It led to the public concluding that the company was more interested in preserving their image than in saving lives. Consequently this damaged Firestone's reputation and saw a drastic loss of revenue due to reduced sales and lawsuits which amounted to a tune of $50 million.
Withholding information is common amongst PR professionals and is perhaps one of the greatest malpractice of the industry. The question as to how long you can withhold information from the public arises here. It took Firestone 6 years to admit that there was indeed something wrong witht their tyres and it is only when the government intervened that the company recalled the batch of tyres that were reported to have a problem. In the meantime hundreds of lives were lost and livelihoods destroyed.
True sometimes PR professionals withhold information in order for them to investigate and clarify certain issues but how long they withhold information and the damage that will be caused in the meantime is what will determine the outcome of that crisis. The longer you withhold information the more people start speculating and guessing and the more you lose credibility.

The role of Public Relations is misunderstood

Do employers really understand the role of PR?

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.

To quit or not to quit?

Will I lie for my employer to promote a product that I am certain cannot do what it is perpetuated to do?
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?