Public relations puts ethics in the spotlight

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Public relations campaigns like the one that helped “sell” the Gulf War have been criticized for deliberately changing perceptions. Media and stakeholder groups have accused PR practitioners of being image specialists and of portraying a reality that suits their goals. This attitude is summed up in the descriptor that an activity is only a “public relations ploy”, a “public relations maneuver” or a “public relations effort”. Practices such as ‘flogging’ (fake blogging), ‘astroturfing’ (fake popular lobbying) and ‘stealth marketing’ (fake promotions with actors posing as private citizens) have been criticized. .

In addition to these types of covert PR initiatives under attack, aspects of everyday practice such as media skills training have been targeted. Media educators typically advise spokespersons not to answer questions, leading to an increasing number of executives “obscuring public discourse” in media interviews. This is incompatible with the role of public relations of facilitating the flow of essential information in the public interest.

Oversight and criticism from both outside and inside the public relations industry is watching the vast industry that public relations has become. This, in turn, makes practitioners and industry receptive to what constitutes appropriate conduct. Ethical public relations should not be aimed simply at confusing or causing equivocation, but should inform and honestly influence judgment based on good reasons that move the community forward. A necessary prerequisite for professionalism is ethically defensible behavior. Such a framework stems from philosophical and religious attitudes towards behavior and ethics, laws and regulations, corporate and industry codes of conduct, codes of ethics of public relations associations, values ​​and l professional ethics, training and personal integrity.

Growing concerns

In recent years, several high-profile corporate crises around the world have raised questions about the nature and content of public relations advice provided to companies. Public relations in the public sector have also come under scrutiny. Alistair Campbell, press secretary to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has resigned following a government investigation into misleading information presented in support of the Iraq war.

An independent evaluation of government communications is necessary due to the high collective communications expenditures at all levels of government. In addition, messages are often disseminated before elections to convince the public of the achievements of a particular government.

Ethics: standards of integrity

In short, ethics is a standard of integrity: it is about doing the right thing. The values ​​considered essential to an ethical life are honesty, integrity, respect for promises, loyalty, fairness, concern for others, respect for others, responsible citizenship, the pursuit of excellence and responsibility. Ethics refers to the personal values ​​or deeply held belief systems that underlie moral choices, which cause a person to react to a specific situation.

The three fundamental ethical doctrines are deontology, teleology and Aristotle’s golden mean:

  1. Deontology is the doctrine that ethics are based on duty and based on the moral obligation to tell the truth or keep promises. It does not take into account the consequences that could result – for example, serious harm to an innocent person. This system depends on moral principles and the self-discipline of the individual public relations practitioner; however, this will vary from person to person, depending on their cultural and traditional biases.
  2. Teleology is an ethical doctrine based on results where “the end justifies the means”. Teleologists believe that a good deed has good consequences. The correctness of an action is determined by its causes and effects. This system would apply to public relations techniques used by interest groups such as Greenpeace, which previously involved civil disobedience.
  3. Aristotle’s golden ratio is based on what is best for the majority and actions that represent moderation. This is generally the system used in a democracy where the minority sometimes has to sacrifice something of value if it is best for the country.

The basis of ethics lies in philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1726 – 1804) is considered one of the founders of modern ethics. He proposed a three-step process for resolving ethical dilemmas:

  1. When in doubt about the moral character or not of an act, apply the categorical imperative of asking the question: “What if everyone did this act?”
  2. Always treat everyone as an end in themselves and never exploit other humans.
  3. Always respect the dignity of human beings.

Role of ethics in public relations

Public relations ethics is the application of knowledge, understanding, and reasoning to issues of good and bad behavior in the professional practice of public relations. In public relations practice, ethical behavior concerns both the practitioner and the organization for which the work is performed, i.e. the ethical implications of the strategies and tactics used to solve problems or create opportunities. . Therefore, public relations practitioners should be concerned with their personal and professional ethics as well as the institutional ethics of the organization for which they work.

Ethical dilemmas are not easy; they are confusing situations involving decisions about what is right or wrong. Often these are situations requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives. For example, when an organization downsizes, public relations practitioners may find themselves having to develop communication strategies and materials for coworkers who will lose their jobs. Likewise, the CEO and the board have to make ethical decisions when the company might lose business and revenue, but they accept them as the cost of doing the right thing. One example is a recall of a product from supermarket shelves when an organization is not legally obliged to do so. In 1997, Arnott’s pulled all of its products from supermarket shelves at a cost of $ 35 million in a poison cookie scare. Making decisions in these situations is easier if the organization has a predetermined framework for resolving ethical issues.

Public relations professionals have five duties: self, employer, profession, client and society. These are not necessarily listed in order of ranking, but emphasize awareness of the multiple levels of ethical consideration that a public relations practitioner may face. The five assignments will guide decisions based on what the public relations practitioner believes is really right or wrong. Using this list as a guide, he or she may need to first examine their values ​​when faced with an ethical dilemma. Usually their subsequent loyalty will be to the client or the organization (except, of course, in whistle-blowing situations, where public engagement has already taken precedence). The public relations practitioner is required to assist and collaborate with his colleagues.

Of course, society is an essential element which contributes to ethical decisions. Public relations practitioners need to ask themselves the question: Will society benefit from my decision, even if I hurt myself, my employer, my profession or my client?

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