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Ethical public relations is not an oxymoron

legendre-glenda-col-sig-1Public relations is an import part of any organization’s marketing strategy. In fact, PR professionals help organizational leaders maintain an ethical mindset. There are constant issues that corporations and non- profits need to address and a capable PR person can serve as a sounding board and help significantly if included in strategic discussions early on, best if before any potential crisis.

I have worked in several industries, both corporate and nonprofit, and am pleased to report that despite some serious organizational challenges, I have never been asked to engage in unethical behavior. Most of my colleagues report similarly and state they would resign rather than compromise their integrity.

Clearly there are numerous unethical practices to avoid — including the temptation to spin information so a story is more accepted to the consumer; intentional omission of key information; engagement in clear conflicts of interest; and of course, sharing out-and-out lies to the media or other publics.

Spins and cover-ups are not ethical behavior and asking PR professionals to participate in such activities is generally a time for them to rethink their roles and employment. News media are particularly adept at ferreting out news suppression or distortion of facts, and it is a lot more difficult to regain any positive messaging once your business reputation is questioned.

PRSA Code of Ethics

Since there is a reported and concerning trend for unethical behavior of some spokespeople, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) developed a formal PR code of ethics for its members as a “starting point for ethically responsible decision-making.” In the words of the professional group, compliance with its code of ethics is the single most important obligation of PRSA members.

The PRSA Board maintains the right to expel members from the society for government sanctions or court of law convictions related to its canon of ethics. One such case occurred in 2020 when a so-called “dark PR campaign” to create false content was spread across social media by a PR firm. Buzzfeed News reported the story. The firm is now dissolved, but ethical lapses can sadly erode public trust overall in the value of PR practitioners.

The detailed PRSA Code of Ethics can be found at www.prsa.org. The code reviews the role of its professional members as honest advocates with expertise and independence and offering both fairness and loyalty.

The guidelines therein are pretty clear. Examples of improper conduct include gifts to columnists to obtain favorable columns, expensive meals with government officials, spreading malicious rumors about competitors, exposing intellectual property information and so on. Additionally, members are expected to report or correct any inaccurate information they see posted by their clients or employers.

PR practitioners are expected to stay on top of ethics issues in their areas of practice. For example, the American Bar Association and state bar associations have active directives for lawyers who advertise that require ethical knowledge and a means of staying up to date on any annual changes. Banking, accounting and other highly regulated arenas have their own changing sets of rules and requirement that may impact PR ethical issues.

Advanced degree programs or courses on PR ethics are available to students at George Washington University and other colleges. PRSA itself features ongoing online member discussions on this topic and frequent columns in its newsletter. Organizations who hire PR firms or individuals should seek out qualified professionals to help maintain an ethical presence and mindset.

Glenda LeGendre is principal of Marketing & Strategic Communications and can be reached at glegendre@comcast.net.

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