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.