In January of 2001 I began a five-year stint as the monthly ethics columnist for the now-defunct online publication PR Canada. Sometimes it still amazes me that I found enough material to pen that column almost every month for those five years. But, sadly, there are enough ethical challenges in public communication to last a lifetime, or so it seems.
When I look back on those early columns, I’m struck by how little has changed. As I prepare for my final on-campus term prior to early retirement, I thought I’d share with you my first column – only slightly updated…
It’s September. The air is filled with anticipation. I watch the new students eagerly file into a classroom of higher learning, every one of them with a slightly different belief about their chosen field of study – public relations – often a hard one to explain to family and friends. But, you know, you have to be a people person, right?
Well… I tell them they’ll be spending a lot more time writing and relating to their computers and their deadlines in the early years of their careers. Then I ask these neophyte public relations practitioners to rate a series of personal characteristics according to how important they believe each one is in the successful practice of public relations – intelligence, flexibility, personality, maturity, creativity, sophistication, courage and integrity are on the list.
I gather the papers to tabulate their responses which rarely vary from year to year. With few exceptions, integrity rates on the lower end of the scale of importance. Does this mean that we can expect public relations practitioners of the future to have the moral scruples of Attila the Hun? Or does it mean that in the grand scheme of things, they haven’t given much conscious thought to how personal integrity and character fit into their dream job? Perhaps you’re a bit like they are.
So, how do you rate in the integrity department? Have you ever written and issued a news release that was less than truthful? Misleading? Would you do it if your boss asked you to? Have you ever tried to bribe a reporter? Or would you? (It wasn’t really a bribe, you say .It was just a pair of concert tickets.) Are you even aware when you cross the line? Would you know an ethical dilemma when you see one? Do you have the personal tools for solving these everyday moral dilemmas you face? Do you care?
There is little doubt that our publics including employees, the media, our clients and consumers to name a few are already highly skeptical of what’s communicated to them on a daily basis. We can’t really afford to contribute any more to this mistrust which leads us to the question: just how important is ethics in PR?
You may remember Ivy Lee as the so-called father of modern public relations. But you are probably less familiar with his partner Tommy Ross. He is reported to have said, “Unless you are willing to resign an account or a job over a matter of principle, it is no use to call yourself a member of the world’s newest profession, you’re already a member of the world’s oldest.” Ouch.
More than one public relations practitioner has had to defend the occupation when confronted by a hostile skeptic who suggests that “public relations ethics” is an oxymoron. Indeed, critics can provide us with chapter and verse on the more unsavory aspects of this advocacy field. Consider Canadian media critic Joyce Nelson’s 1989 description of public relations in her book The Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media: “The power of the PR industry is demonstrated by its…remarkable ability to function as a virtually invisible “grey eminence” behind the scenes, gliding in and out of troubled situations with the ease of a Cardinal Richelieu and the conscience of a mercenary.” Perhaps we need to take a more careful look at what ethics is and how we convey that to the public.
Ethics is not merely what has become accepted practice within the industry, nor is it what you can get away with and still keep the public quiet. Indeed, it’s more than simply following the letter of the law. Philosophers define ethics as the study of moral rightness or wrongness which is limited by the human ability to reason. In practical terms, someone once defined ethics as drawing a black line through a grey area. There are few clear-cut solutions to ethical dilemmas.
Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering how we defined integrity in that first-year public relations class. It’s “doing the right thing even when no one’s looking.”
…and in September 2013, we’ll begin our classroom discussions of ethics with just that definition of integrity. Not a lot has changed.
[Material from this and all my PR Canada columns has made its way into my book Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice.]