The importance of ethics in public relations

My first-ever PR textbook, the ‘Manual of Public Relations’, wasted no time in getting to the subject of ethics in public relations. It was section 1.5.

In those days, PR was perhaps a more staid profession. Now, we are in an era when public relations is widely seen as “spin” and where hype can often eclipse reality. In these circumstances, you might be forgiven for thinking that the term “ethical public relations” is actually an oxymoron.

Ethics in PR

Some people within the profession have not exactly helped to assert the ethical image. One executive in a top international public relations company apparently reminded his staff that: “We’d represent Satan if he paid”!

So, I may not be in tune with everyone in today’s PR world when I assert my belief in the importance of ethics in public relations practice. For me, the reason is fundamental. Public relations is all about building trust and enhancing reputation.

When building a client relationship, trust becomes immediately critical. The client has to trust that the PR consultant can do a job of work for them. They have to trust the consultant will provide value for money. They also have to trust that they can share all relevant information when briefing a PR campaign – even information that may be commercially sensitive.

My belief is that public relations is at its best when the interface with a client is at the highest level in the organisation and where the PR consultant knows and understands the client’s corporate strategy. At that level there are bound to be many instances of information that must be treated in confidence.

In my previous business, as one of the leading independent PR companies in Scotland we inevitably handled accounts for a number of competing businesses. In these circumstances, our clients had to be very confident that we not share confidential or commercially-sensitive information.

When the PR strategy gets under way the recipients of PR information have to have trust in its veracity. A politician or civil servant must be able to trust the information in a briefing document. The consumer must trust the information in a product information pack, or a blog post. A journalist must know and trust the information in a press release.

Ethics in Public relations
A version of this blog appears in the IoD Scotland Magazine Winter 2014

I always remember the story told to me by a property freelance for one of Scotland’s national dalies. He had filed a story from our press release about people camping out overnight to put their names down for the first homes at a new development. It happened that this story was during a recession, when the housing market was in the doldrums.

As the paper was about to go to print, he got a panic call from the sub-editors protesting this story could not be true as people were simply not queuing for new homes at that time. The journalist was able to reassure the sub-editor that he knew and trusted his source and there was no need to call us to double-check. The story duly appeared in the next day’s paper.

Another important aspect of “ethical public relations” is social responsibility. In addition to honesty and fair dealing, social responsibility is about not condoning practices that are contrary to the general good. An example could be promoting a product or service that was hazardous or contrary to the public interest. Here, I will admit to past work that still troubles me today.

One was working on the cigarette brand sponsorship of a sports event. In my defence, smoking was more acceptable at the time. The second was producing copy for a company of what would probably now be called “loan sharks”. I rationalise this one by saying that we were only producing the words for a leaflet and were working through a third party and not direct with the client.

Ethics is also about avoiding misrepresentation.

In this era where the word “awesome” is rapidly being downgraded to the point where it effectively means “not bad”, it is important to avoid exaggerated language and claims. The presentation of a product or service should be honest and without deception.

Yes, I believe in the importance of ethical public relations. Trust and reputation are both surprisingly fragile commodities. Once lost, they are very difficult to re-establish. An ethical stance should help to safeguard against finding that out the hard way.
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