Looking Back: Ethics & Law

Throughout the spring semester of 2014 at the University of North Texas, I learned a lot about ethics, the U.S. law, ethical codes from organizations in advertising and public relations and well-known case studies surrounding ethically dubious activity or praising a sense of ethical establishment within a business environment. All of these subjects revolved around the political and business world of public relations and advertising. A lot of people perceive this type of business as a questionably moral career path. I feel that this class helps to break that old myth of PR practitioners and advertisers being sneaky and doing whatever possible, whether it be ethically dubious or not, to get the more bang for their buck. That is not to say there are NO PR people or ad people that commit these crimes (thanks P.T. Barnum…) I am simply arguing that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that generalizing a certain group of people is not the smartest opinion to have. Instead, we should be judged for ideas that develop our choices as an individual, such as our moral character, or our sense of judgment in business-like settings. America is based on individualism after all.

At the beginning of the semester, we learned about ethical theories that have guided humanity into an understanding of our morals and sense of ethics since humans could develop the ability of rhetoric. We learned the differences between morals, values and ethics. In a very general way of speaking, we also learned about Kantian ethics from Emmanuel Kant, utilitarianism theories from Jeremy Bentham and everything in-between and beyond these two well-established figures of philosophy in our ethical code as humans. Tying these theories together to present them in a way that relates to the business world, I have learned that it is crucial to keep in mind all of the theories, and educationally and rationally come to a justifiable position when it comes to ethical dilemmas in the workplace.

The textbook by Thomas Bivins was also a great read.The author has great credibility, and I felt that it was very insightful to read his input on ethics in the workplace for journalists, reporters, public relations practitioners and advertisers. In other words, this book really helps people involved with jobs relating to the mass media, whether they are people just starting out in a career, or a well-developed practitioner trying to hone his or her craft in a more ethical way.

The class also went over the different ethical codes for reporters, public relations practitioners, marketers and advertisers. I was surprised that some professions had ethical codes established, but it was a very nice surprise. It is encouraging to see groups dedicated to solving ethical dilemmas in the best way possible that is rationally justified. I have the PRSA app on my phone just in case I need to look over some tips in certain situations or look over the most important ethical values that PRSA places on its members: advocacy, honesty, fairness, expertise, independence and loyalty.

All in all, I have gained very important information from this class as I make my way in the world as a young and budding public relations practitioner. It is always inspiring to see classes and professors keeping the code of ethics alive, and trying to squash the annoying myth that all practitioners and advertisers are complete sleaze balls in the industry.

It’s time to go make a difference!

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Public Relations and Its Rights

The First Amendment of the United States is as follows: “[It] prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”

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via prwatch.com

As an up-and-coming public relations practitioner, it is important to remember and uphold these rights as U.S. citizens, and a person within a business that represents not only their client, but its public. Like some professionals are entitled to their job pertaining to the law, public relations practitioners are entitled to their job pertaining to the public. Some companies overthrow their rights as an American citizen by breaking the First Amendment and getting into some ethical and legal trouble for it.

Anyone remember Walmart’s “Trip Round the Nation” blog?

By knowingly sending out journalists to pretend to be a traveling couple visiting Walmarts around the nation, Walmart infringed upon their right to free speech by lying to its public. Behind the veil was Edelman PR, a well-known firm. This publicity campaign eventually was found out as a flunk, and therefore received a level of mistrust between the public and Walmart.

This is one out of plenty of cases where companies have misguided the public, and outright lied to them. Fake grassroots campaigns, for example, are called astroturfing. Edelman PR, a prestigious, well-known PR firm, has been found to be astroturfing before (for a Walmart, of course). This kind of situation puts a lot of public relations practitioners into the hands of a negative public image. What many firms seem to forget, and even Edelman does apparently, is that public relations practitioners do not just serve their client: they service the public as well. When a publicist, a PR firm, a corporate organization and even a college student realize this, numbers of ethical dilemmas like this would not be so high.

Things like astroturfing are a deliberate breach of our U.S. Constitution, by lying to the public and misguiding them on a corporation, a product, a brand or anything else that is tangible that the public is interested in.

Ethical organizations such as the PRSA strive to implement a new level of trust from public relations folks to the common public through their theories and definition of workplace morals. If public relations firms, companies, organizations, and individuals learn ethics and our rights as U.S. citizens, we would become a better image for our profession.

Ethics in Advertising?

Advertisements decades ago oozed of sexual, racist and downright eye-opening themes and images that might cause one to wonder how someone OK’d it in the first place. Racial imagery, sexualized women and exaggerated stereotypes of the LGBT community were what shaped a lot of advertisements back then. The advertisements for cigarettes and alcohol were around a lot as well, and children could easily just turn on the television and see them. Fat shaming was a popular theme, too. Restaurants, food brands and any other line of business associated with commercials for food were quite blatant with their opinion on plus-size people. There was little to no regard for ethics or a moral code when doing business in advertising. Advertisers just wanted to catch the public’s eye, and they succeeded.

But why?

When America is comprised of a hegemonic society, that is, of a masculine normative that has shaped our history and societal expectations, advertisements like these are aplenty.  When America is comprised of a culturally narrow society where racism is still abound, just type in a quick Google search on 21st Century advertisements and you will find a lot of the ad firms playing into the same game of discriminatory practice that they have been doing since the beginning stages of advertising.

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Whatitsayswhatitmeans.blogspot.com

Advertising firms may play a utilitarianism role with no hint of distributive justice, since advertisements still blatantly show, even if they are subtle, hints of racism, sexism and homophobia. Distributive justice means that there may be no justice to the people who do not have their voices heard in the mainstream media as much, as compared to, say, a white, middle-class, heterosexual man. Advertising firms play the utilitarianism role because they like to cater more to the majority voice. America’s normative society is exactly what I listed earlier: White men. If they are not happy, then advertising business isn’t happy.

A code of ethics in advertising is questionable. Advertising firms cater to the majority of our society. What does that say about America’s code of ethics then?

I think if we were to look at the advertisement’s view of ethics, we will see society’s code of ethics.  Eye-opening, questionable, raw, dirty themes and messages are everywhere, because these kinds of advertisements are what gets the public’s attention, not one that plays by the rules. Advertisers, to me, are just issuing out what we as a society expect to want when we seek entertainment. It may not be the code of ethics in advertising that we must consider, but the code of ethics in U.S. culture. 

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.