by Matthew Anderson
[This is the eleventh article in a series of twelve guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of their graduate programs.]
As a fresh or even seasoned public relations (PR) practitioner, how would you define your professional ethics? Have you ever been asked? Do you even have any?
Public relations and ethics have a long history, as intertwined as the stripes on a candy cane, although the relationship is far from sweet. Scandals, cover-ups, environmental disasters and questionable business practices all cling to PR when shoved into the public eye. And what of the practitioner in such ethical vices? Undoubtedly, the goal of the field is to improve relationships, but how effective can the modern practitioner be as organizational conscience when confined by management objectives?
Many years ago, I wrote a paper entitled Ethically Ethic-less: Operating Effectively Without a Code. My argument was rather Machiavellian, believing most practitioners would do what was in their own best interests, personal or career-wise, that a set of guidelines was impractical since every scenario could not be covered, and that interpretation of any guidelines was subjective in any case. As you can imagine, the paper was not very well received by the professor! However, looking back I’m not convinced I was too far off, perhaps just missing a piece – the relative ethics of public relations practitioner.
Tools are only as good as hands that yield them. With that in mind, it would seem that ethics should be part of the educational foundation for all public relations practitioners – and for all senior managers and decision makers for that matter – as education is a powerful tool, and the study of ethics has been shown to aid in the identification and analysis of ethical situations. However, this only addresses half of the issue, leaving us with the hands, or in other words, the practitioner.
Despite having the right tool, proper use, or interpretation, becomes the next professional hurdle. Assuming a set of well-established and accepted ethics rules, guidelines, or codes of practice existed, they’re still subject to interpretation, and therefore only as good as the character of the individual. You’d assume an education in ethics would lead to a more ethical individual, but can you?
We’re all taught the rules of the road, however, how many people pin the speedometer on the posted limit? If you do, how long before frustration sets in from being tailgated and passed as though you’re standing still, so you speed up to move with the flow of traffic? Despite being illegal, the action becomes acceptable based on the similar actions of others. With this in mind, it’s clear that ethics are relative to the individual, and if that’s the case, how can they be consistent across a field? Perhaps they can be in written form; however they’re still subject interpretation in their application, which can have varied outcomes.
So the modern public relations practitioner is left with a dilemma. Although the desire may be to have a solid set of ethical standards and the power to enforce them, reality may not be so rigid. With education and interpretation as variables, perhaps that’s what we’re left with in the field – squishy, moldable, gray play-doh ethics: solid in the can, but forced through the not-so-fun-factory of work to meet the bottom line.
Are your ethics being reluctantly molded by the organization? I’d like to believe that’s the case, and that the modern PR practitioner is trying to be the ethical conscience of the organization, despite being repeatedly reshaped and shoved through the shape of management objectives.
For example, a recent full-page advertisement in a local newspaper paper featured a large school bell image accompanied by a paragraph on the importance of children, education, and funding for the school system. However the closing line revealed the true purpose of the ad – to endorse a pipeline that would subsequently bring funding to accomplish what the children deserved. Your PR glasses should see right through the non-existent veil of the ad, but the question is this: Was it intended to support the pipeline using the school funding as an angle, or was the true intent to support schools through the pipeline?
There’s a lot of gray beyond the print in such an ad, but the hope is that it’s the best the ethical practitioner could do with what they were given within the confines of the organization. And perhaps that’s justification for having moldable ethics in the field of public relations – you can only be as ethical as your organizational mold allows, and in the end, despite the shape, it’s still ethics.
A Bachelor of Public Relations and Marketing grad from Mount Saint Vincent University and current MSVU graduate student, Matthew Anderson has held a variety of PR practitioner roles in the private, post-secondary and government fields for the past seven years.
 Gale, K & Bunton, K. (2005). Assessing the impact of ethics instruction on advertising and public relations graduates. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 60(3), 272-285.
 Scott, E. & Jehn, K. (2003). About face: How employee dishonesty influences a stakeholder’s image of an organization. Business&Society,42(2),234-266.