It’s no small irony that public relations has a reputation problem. At times PR agencies run afoul of ethical standards by trafficking in false or misleading information, hiding conflicts of interest, or working with a lack of transparency. Then there’s what one report calls “defense of malicious behavior” where a PR team chooses to represent a bad actor. This last is actually the most complex – and fascinating – situation to me, as I outline here. My view is that good PR people can ethically represent bad clients – but only if they’re doing so in an effort to change or redeem the harm done. But assessing motivation, let alone outcomes, is hard to do.
The topic of ethics in PR surfaced again recently in a lively Twitter discussion after an announcement by 5W PR seemed to signal that its deposed founder has not truly stepped down as previously announced. I don’t know much about that particular case, but I do know that industry ethical breaches pop up as regularly as Covid outbreaks. And like a virus, unethical behavior can signal a trend.
The good news is that awareness of the role of ethical practices is relatively high among the rank and file at PR firms. PRSA has a code of ethics. So does The PR Council, whose corporate members must certify that they will abide by its statement of principles. Reports on ethics in PR and communications show that those entering our field prioritize ethical behavior. Younger practitioners predict that the industry’s ethical underpinnings will grow stronger.
Everyday media relations work has a way of policing itself, too. Fear of violating the PRSA code might not prevent someone from hyperbolizing a client’s announcement as “one-of-a-kind,” but an editor’s scorn will. Research shows that most practitioners feel confident in their own judgment when it comes to such everyday decisions.
The knottier challenge lies in the systemic breaches that make us all look bad. At a time when paid influencers and branded content are common, and social bots are everywhere, distrust is high. Transparency is not incentivized. Edelman, the industry’s largest independent PR company, publicly pledged to fight climate change but was found to be taking millions in fees from fossil-fuel groups. When pressed, it struggled to explain the apparent contradiction, finally issuing a statement about helping such clients engage in “open dialogue” and make “meaningful progress on shared global challenges.” A weak and disappointing response to say the least.
The toughest question is, how can ethical principles be enforced? There’s fear of public exposure for lapses, of course, but that’s an unreliable guardrail. Some suggest licensing for PR professionals, similar to that for accounting or other professions. Presumably ethical breaches would result in financial penalties or even forfeiture of one’s professional license. It’s a great idea in theory, but fraught with obstacles. Public relations isn’t actually that much like law or accounting, and its low barrier to entry is a virtue as well as a problem. And in my mind a licensing exam works better to assure a level of professional competence than it does for maintaining integrity.
One passionate articulation of our reputation challenge and a possible solution is the recent call-to-action by PRCA Ethics Council Co-Chair Mary Beth West. She makes the key point that our obligation as honest practitioners is not just to deliver forthright information but to influence our clients or employers to behave ethically. That’s a greater challenge, but a more rewarding one for all parties. And in a dose of tough love for the industry, West advises us to take the role rather than wait for it to be bestowed. PR practitioners, she writes, should be “acting as the voice of conscience for their organisations.”
If PR practitioners can assume a mantle of authority underpinned by a robust command of business and operational ethics — and not simply of communications ethics — then our ability to elbow our way into decision-making circles and have our counsel not only heard but valued will cash in a fundamental shift in how PR is perceived, as possessing and delivering quantifiable benefit.
In other words, we communicators must assume the role of corporate conscience. That means speaking out privately to powerful people. It may also mean speaking out publicly and risking whistleblower status. More often it means turning down lucrative opportunities on principle. When an organization doesn’t act in good faith, there are hard decisions to be taken.
Above all, ethical professional behavior is about a mindset. That’s why I like the “voice of conscience” analogy. It elevates the communications role from one of a mouthpiece for an organization to something more vital — a sherpa and potential change agent for a complicated and chaotic time. There has never been a better or more important moment for our industry. For PR professionals, it’s time to step up.