PR is what PR does – a question of ethics

Not surprisingly there’s been a great deal of discussion of ethics in relation to the News Corp phone-hacking scandal.  Although journalism and corporate governance are facing the real ethical questions, public relations has been brought into the mix by many commentators.  Indeed, the Vancouver Sun attributes any ethical lapses in journalism to the practice of PR, whilst the UK’s Guardian newspaper drags out the lazy PR disaster label.

We’ve also seen the usual implications that News Corp would not have strayed into this disaster if only it had had PR counsel at the top table – with Reuters praising “the PR elite”, including senior practitioners from Edelman for executing a crisis communications recovery strategy.

One PR practitioner (or publicist to be precise) drawn into the heart of the crisis is Max Clifford – named the most influential PR person by MediaGuardian and defender of lying in PR – who won extensive damages as a victim of the News of the World.

But a more interesting practitioner is Dick Fedorcio OBE, director of public affairs and internal communication for the Metropolitan Police Service, who appeared before the Houses of Commons Select Committee.  A Fellow and former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, Dick has chaired its Professional Practices committee, so is no stranger to ethical considerations.  His situation raises some of the ethical difficulties faced by those working even at the strategic end of PR; such as:

  1. Are you aware of operational issues that are ethically questionable?
  2. If your bosses give you specific instructions, are you able to question these?
  3. Do you have evidence to substantiate any conflict of opinion over decisions made?
  4. What weight do legal or voluntary restrictions on behaviour have in practice?
  5. How will decisions taken that are normally unremarkable, appear in the context of any arising crisis?

It is debatable whether codes of conduct (as seen in most PR professional bodies) offer sufficient guidance to answer such questions.  A shift from a rules based approach to ethical practice should be replaced by virtue ethics according to Harrison  and Galloway (2005); although this has issues being connected to the notion of PR serving the “public interest”.

The virtue approach also raises the problem of connecting your personal values to those for whom you work.  Not only does this present a simplistic perspective in respect of “good” and “bad” organizations, but it can lead to actions that are “unethical” (ie rule breaking).  This can be seen in the case of those who work for activist organizations such as Greenpeace, where laws may be broken and truths twisted to further a cause that is perceived to be justifiable.

Bowen’s comprehensive overview of ethics and public relations at the Institute for Public Relations website (2007) reports a woeful lack of ethical training among practitioners; making them ill equipped to adopt the role of “ethical guardian” – a position L’Etang (2004) calls a myth.  However, Bowen advocates:

Using one of the rigorous, analytical means of ethical analysis available in moral philosophy allows decisions to be articulated to the media and others in defensible terms. Further, those who had no ethics study could be unintentionally limiting their career opportunities or their suitability to be promoted into senior management. The qualitative data in this study revealed that practitioners saw advising on ethical dilemmas as a main route to higher levels of responsibility within their organizations.

Education or training in ethical decision making in itself is not enough as there is a world of difference between confronting a hypothetical (or real world) issue and the reality of work.  Nevertheless, it is tempting to envisage being able to counsel executives on ethical matters; especially with the lure of gaining their approval for doing so.  In a similar way, Holtzhausen (2000) has argued for PR to act as an internal activist; being able to challenge management decisions – although this approach cautions PR against a seat on the board which may make an objective perspective difficult to achieve.

It is perhaps the issue of subjectivity that lies at the heart of the challenge for PR and ethics.  Ira Basen debates the issue of transparency and objectivity in a recent post, in relation to journalistic ethics.  But we are all inherently subjective – journalist and PR practitioner alike have agendas (whether explicit or not).

Of course, allegiance to an employer is a fairly obvious way in which it is hard to be objective, but there are other considerations.  Basen notes difficulties in personal relationships as well as professional ones gained from becoming an expert in a field.  This has added friction in PR, where we seek to develop relationships with those who have influence on others or can affect achievement of an organization’s goals.  Our aim in building relationships is not neutral; but neither is that of those who either reciprocate or avoid our contact.

Everyone has a position or an opinion; seeks to persuade or otherwise have an impact.  No communications are truly objective; the very act of selecting words or images conveys meaning, deliberately or otherwise.

Does this mean that being ethical is impossible or beyond the capabilities of PR practitioners?  Well, there are no easy answers as debate around ethical communications dates back at least to the 5th century BC.  Perhaps it is there we can turn for the lessons for PR practice, particularly in terms of adopting the Socratic method as a form of critical thinking to illuminate understanding and self-knowledge.

It is also cautionary to remember, that the more we know, the more we should realise that we actually know very little – and that certainly applies to ethical practice.  When it comes to PR and the ethical question, it is behaviour that counts and knowing the right thing to do is only part of the challenge.  Ultimately, PR is judged by what it does.  On current form, we are portrayed as unethical in what we say, what we do and what others say about us.

Surely it is time for improving self-awareness of practitioners of the ethical dilemmas they routinely face, equipping them with knowledge of ethical principles and decision-making, and debating public issues affecting PR’s ethical behaviour in a more reflective manner than simply berating those we feel have not lived up to standards that are espoused without reference to research, education or reality?

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9 Replies to “PR is what PR does – a question of ethics

  1. Great post Heather. Thank you. Interested to learn more about a point you raised in response to Bill’s comment re: “PR is primarily damage control in the News Corp case – and I’m not convinced it could be otherwise with such a dominant culture controlled by family interests.” More specifically, is there a reason why you think the challenge is made difficult by a culture controlled by family interests? Not that I have a specific opinion on this but as I say just interested to learn why.

    1. Satyen – thanks. I’ve worked with and for a number of family companies and experienced good and bad outcomes. However, you can never forget that family comes first in such organizations and in many cases, family members are not in their posts as a result of competency but convenience. Such organizations can be benevolent and take a long term view, which is great. But they can also be dogmatic, stuck in the past, or suffer from poor management as later generations of a family often lack the entrepreneurship and vision that the founders evidenced. In the case of the Murdochs, the family interests seemed to affect the culture negatively, with fear and favourtism for anyone with the family name, and their appointees. My experience in those cases (and anecdotal reports from colleagues in similar organizations) is that the understanding of PR is often as a dogsbody function that is at the beck and call of the family to do whatever they wish. Makes it hard to be able to give objective, strategic counsel – especially if that would be unwelcome, when you are likely to find yourself soon out of the inner circle and looking for a new job.

      1. Got it. Thanks again Heather. Think my ideals would have led me to the opposite view i.e. where you’ve seen family businesses being benevolent and taking a long term view. However, I do agree with your overall observation.

  2. Good post. I wish I had read it before I wrote my own. Two things strike me. The hacking scandal exposed wider problems: the over-blown estimation of the media’s influence and the over-blown obsession with PR and image. Good PR should not be seen. What’s gone missing is authenticity. The primary concern should be the core business or core purpose: in the case of the police, that means policing. I say that we PRs have much to apologise for; almost as much as News International. We led firms and public institutions down the wrong paths. Rather than helping leaders lead, we taught them to flaunt themselves in front of the media on the media’s terms. We foolishly told our clients that they could be “governors” of the media and of the message, not to mention controllers of “ideologies”. We told them to put communication at the centre of everything. That was just nonsense. It was very poor advice. It led to the multiple humiliations – and much more – that the British police now suffer from. It led to PR becoming the story instead of helping communicate it. The time has come come for PR to put its own house in order.

    1. Paul – I agree the notion of “controlling” the media and the message was nonsense and seemed to come from the school of Alistair Campbell. He elevated tactical PR to strategic status which was a huge mistake. When I started in PR it was always recognised that you earned media coverage by the story and professional relationships (with friendship a byproduct); and that these were driven by supporting the organization achieve its strategic aims. Now the relationships seem to often be more like an encounter in sado-masochism! We also talk about writing “content” which is a factory term to me as it lacks any notion of human discourse. And as you say, there’s more focus on the PR or communications (often used pjeoratively) rather than on the core purpose.

  3. Bill – you highlight an interesting point, but I think the idea of disciplinary focus is not exclusive to PR and perhaps a trend we all need to engage with more openly. If we look at areas such as human resources and even finance, there’s been a move towards those with a specialist functional title acting as facilitators with general staff (including managers) taking on responsibility operationally. Same has to be true for PR function, and to a large extent, a lot of marketing communications too. What were once areas of expertise are now routine operations undertaken throughout an organization.

    I believe this means a lot of the tactical PR work will be increasingly spread throughout organizations (as you say communications is not really an exclusive discipline) or outsourced, I suggest to “communication factories” in lower cost economies.

    That leaves the question – as with other organizational functions – of the strategic input and value of specialist PR. I do believe there is a unique role to be provided – someone recently proposed it as the court jester if we view PR as the only function without a vested interest who is able to tell it like it is (possibly a big IF).

    Nevertheless, no matter how good our understanding of ethics and other relevant competencies required to fulfil this role, the ethical buck will, and should, always stop with those who have ultimate responsibility. PR is primarily damage control in the News Corp case – and I’m not convinced it could be otherwise with such a dominant culture controlled by family interests. However, I do believe in other organizations, PR can contribute towards damage prevention.

  4. Once again, PR’s principal weakness comes to the fore: A lack of disciplinary focus. Marketing support to ethics to crisis management to lobbying to special events.

    “Communications” can’t cover it, because communications isn’t really a discipline either.

    The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that James Murdoch was told about the phone hacking a good long while prior to what he copped to before the parliamentary committee last week, so the ethics buck stops with him. PR is primarily damage control in the News Corp case.

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