The Necessity of Ethics

An article regarding public relations and its history of not-so-ethical practices brings about an interesting point of discussion for us aspiring public relations practitioners. In PRFuel’s article, public relations practitioners have a reputation for spinning anything into good light. For example, Justin Bieber’s publicity manager could make a public service announcement via telephone or email to a celebrity magazine that Bieber was simply being a goofy 19-year-old kid and has some growing up to do. Cue the ‘aww’s from the naïve, and the eye-rolling from the people who see right through it. Perception is everything, and some PR professionals use it to her or his advantage. 
How about that recent debacle with Gov. Chris Christie? What could be said to alleviate the scandal coming from New Jersey? Very bad timing, too; the situation will certainly create a difference in voting regarding the 2016 polling. His deputy chief of staff definitely did a number on him and his publicity. Federal lawsuits from the George Washington Bridge are coming at him and the government left and right for “deliberate actions.”
The governor did made a good move in apologizing to the public and firing his chief of staff, however. It is all he can do to try and earn the public’s trust back. Now there will be theories on whether Christie knew all along (and when an enemy’s involved, this makes the theory that much stronger).

Continuing on in PRFuel’s article, there are more general ways public relations folk are seen with a bad reputation. Pay-for-play is a common practice among practitioners who just want to get their client seen and heard, in whatever way they can. According to the PRSA Code of Ethics, which I will discuss later, pay-for-play is unethical, and for good reason: the writing skills and publicity skills a practitioner must have should merit whether their client, company, etc. is shown and advertised, not how much money they have in their pockets.
But this sneaky tactic stems into an issue that practitioners must face daily: Because it’s legal, does it mean the practitioner should do it? We are torn between the interest of our clients and the interest of the public.

Although legalities can get a little tangled in the ropes of our profession, if we were to do something unethical, like being sneaky and manipulative, the reputation of the company and the clients we represent go down with us once we are caught. Unethical practice simply does not bode well in business-making and in our profession. When your career deals with publicity and the public eye, it is crucial to be right as opposed to wrong. It is crucial to be honest as opposed to dishonest. It is crucial to be loyal as opposed to disloyal.

It is common sense, yet people in our profession (and any other profession) still do it. Why?

As discussed earlier, the confusion between legal and ethical practices. When Rosa Parks sat in bus wherever she pleased unethical because it was illegal at the time? We all know the answer to this question. Because these two terms are interwoven so tightly, it is important for the practitioner to understand that the law is not always regarded as right.
As mentioned before, public relations professionals are stuck between loyalties. We are the middlemen of the public and our client. A lot of professionals go toward their client because that is where the money is. It does not matter to some professionals whether the publicity is good or bad, because publicity in any way is money and more awareness of their client, company, brand, what have you. No matter what, our writing and the way we publicize who or what we represent must be objective.
Another simple conflict is that entry-level PR folk are over-worked. Given the 40+ hours a week, it sounds pretty reasonable (but still wrong) for a PR practitioner to feel stressed and feeling the need to rush to meet that deadline, so some might plagiarize, or cheat their way through.
Sometimes, it is the simple fact that PR folk do not get proper ethical training. Some do not take an ethics course in college to at least be aware of it, or look at the PRSA Code of Ethics.

The PRSA Code of Ethics defines these six words as the necessity to ethical practice: Advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. Members of PRSA sign a pledge to hold this code to mind as they work within their profession. It helps reduce the stereotype of PR folks being ‘manipulative press agents’ and holds more integrity to our profession.

There is always going to be consistent argument as to what holds as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ However, I believe the PRSA Code of Ethics does a fine job generalizing what the public opinion might expect and regard as ethical for a public relations professional. It certainly does not hurt it, anyway.  If we are to work to change the public’s perception of who we are, it is necessary to follow an ethical path, and always remember it when we make that final, drastic decision.

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Learn From the Best

 

“If you don’t learn your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

This quote rings true, as the topic for this blog revolves around none other than Edward Bernays: The Father of PR (Sorry Ivy, we’ll talk about you in another blog post). Edward Bernays should be known by all budding public relations practitioners and at least mentioned once in their blogs.

Bernays is regarded the Father of PR for many reasons. To only list a few, he helped form the perception of what we do as a profession, the psychology behind public opinion (one of his psychological inspirations is Sigmund Freud, go figure…) and established the ethics of what we do (he didn’t exactly practice what he preached, but hey, we’re all human, right?).

His famous works include “Crystallizing Public Opinion” and “Propaganda”, among others. To really establish where he comes from, it’s always nice to have a little blast from the past. 

Edward Louis Bernays hails from Vienna and was born in 1891. He is the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays later moved to New York City with his family in 1892. 1912 was his graduation year from Cornell University, with a degree in… agriculture? Strange, but nonetheless, we all know where his true career aspirations eventually led him.

Bernays would soon go on throughout the years to establish his name, his philosophy and his work. He worked primarily in the liberal arts area, such as theaters, ballets and concerts. He worked with Woodrow Wilson on the Committee on Public Information during World War I, worked with Walter Lippman extensively (a famous political columnist) and is even quoted in his books, and was the public relations practitioner for a number of famous clients, such as: Dodge Motors, President Calvin Coolidge, CBS, Procter & Gamble, and more.

Now back to the present.

Edward Bernays can be a man of heavy criticism, no doubt. His famous smoking campaign for women, “Torches of Freedom” in the 1920s, comes to mind. (Interestingly enough though, in the 1960s while in retirement, Bernays helped form anti-smoking campaigns with various groups). He also had quite the ego; we call him “America’s No. 1 Publicist” because he gave himself this title: How’s that for modesty?

Despite the criticism, people cannot, in my opinion, ignore the extensive knowledge of group psychology and public opinion that Bernays knew. The people that helped contribute to Bernays’ philosophies are Walter Lippman, Sigmund Freud and Gustave LeBon, the man who established “crowd psychology.”

Through his own knowledge, experience and the philosophies of these people, Edward Bernays established public relations and enlightened the public as to what a public relations practitioner does and why the public relations profession is so important and crucial to our society.

 Regarding the quote stated above, I think it is important to not agree line-for-line Bernays’ philosophies. For one thing, Bernays did not live up to his reputation regarding ethical practices, and his arrogance is certainly not a good reputation for our profession. I was once told the best practitioners are the ones hardly noticed, but control everything that happens behind the scenes. We are the masters of persuasion.

Take the rewards and fall-outs of our “predecessors” and learn from them, do better from them.

Sources:
“Edward Bernays, ‘Father of Public Relations’ And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103.” The New York             Times 10 Mar. 1995. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.             <http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/16/specials/bernays-obit.html&gt;.

Bernays, Edward L. Crystallizing Public Opinion. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 1923. N. pag. Print.

Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing, 1928. N. pag. Print.

“Edward Bernays.” NNDB. Soylent Communications, 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.             <http://www.nndb.com/people/802/000113463/&gt;.

Winter’s Biggest PR Disaster: The Duck Calls Got Heated

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Source: Cfm-online.com

Here is a scenario: A public relations professor attempts to teach crisis communication to her students. Instead of explaining what the term crisis communication is, the issues a crisis PR firm must face and how they can handle it, just show the tabloids that popped up not even a month ago:  Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, GQ magazine, emotional critics on both sides of the argument, and a bowl of popcorn can have the PR newbie learn the word crisis within a total of five minutes. 

Drew Magary of GQ Magazine published an article in January about Phil Robertson and his family, with whom their “duck call” (a hunting instrument, or a process, that lures waterfowl), became famous and thus started a reality-TV show.
The bible-thumping statements by Phil in Magary’s story was what first started the controversial uproar. Controversy part two occurred when A&E, the network that sponsors the Duck Dynasty show, suspended Robertson indefinitely for his rather strong, Bible-oriented (or at least his version of the Bible), beliefs. 

The #IStandWithPhil petition, with more than 250,000 signers currently, is an example of how strongly people abhorred the decision from A&E. So of course, Robertson is back on the show after a few weeks of suspending him.

Crisis public relations expert Glen Selig was head of a panel this morning in Tampa, Florida at the TBO.com building to address the crisis, and how the PR disaster could have been prevented, or at least make the issue a little more alleviated to the public. 

Given that this controversy has a lot of relevancy to my major, I thought it appropriate to analyze this PR crisis that has sparked such intense and emotional debate from the public.

What would have happened if Phil Robertson hired a PR practitioner for this interview and told Robertson to say “politically correct” statements (for today’s society) regarding certain religious beliefs? Duck Dynasty should be rejoicing over their new haul of publicity. Regardless of ethics (sadly), the reality TV show would probably have gotten even more viewers curious about the show, more clicks on websites related to the show and more merchandise sold through angry protesters.

Wrong. At least for the first one.

Duck Dynasty brought in only 8.5 million viewers for the fifth season premiere, as opposed to the 12 million viewers from the fourth season’s.

Members of the LGBT community, and plenty others, were outraged over Robertson’s choice of words. If a PR practitioner had been present to assist Robertson, it is unclear how the situation would have been taken then.
In a hypothetical situation, if Robertson did take the practitioner’s advice of being politically correct, and he did not say controversial things publically, perhaps the show would have had its 12 million viewers back.

But then Robertson would not be portraying a true image of himself he wishes to show to the public. He fairly stated his opinion. A&E slapped his wrists, as one article mentioned, and threw him right back into the show.

Time will tell whether the show will thrive through this controversy or not. Knowing America and its constant wish for dramatization, I think we all know what the answer is.