Last month was PRSA’s Ethics Month and throughout the 30 days of September, the organization has hosted a series of awareness activities to enforce its importance. Though public relations pros set aside a month to acknowledge ethics, it is essential for practitioners to recognize a code of moral standards all year long.
“Why?” you might ask. Well, according to the PRSA Code of Ethics, “…our professional values are vital to the integrity of the profession as a whole.” As with any career there are boundaries and the reputation of your company can depend on your ability to act ethically when challenged with a dilemma. Though there are clients who feel that a public relations practitioner’s sole duty is to represent them in a positive light, practitioners have an obligation to their publics as well. Plus, public relations firms have their own policies and rights—if the client will compromise the integrity of your firm, you can choose not to represent them.
In my short career as a public relations professional, I have already been exposed to many difficult decisions that have had to be made using an ethical standpoint—not in my own experience, but from observing the decisions of my own companies, as well as others.
Here are a couple issues that public relations firms frequently encounter:
- Tobacco Companies: The decision on whether or not to represent a tobacco company cannot always be characterized as either black or white, ethical or unethical. While some firms find it unethical to promote a product that is dangerous to consumers (also stated in the Code), others believe that the decision to buy solely lies with the consumer. Choices also become blurred when a tobacco company is represented under a large conglomerate that sells household and food items as well. The decision lies with the professional, but it is commonly a difficult one to make.
- Front Groups: Front groups are organizations that support a cause without revealing their financial supporters. They are commonly found in politics to support a new legislation. As the Code states: professionals should be open and honest with their publics. For this reason, supporting or promoting front groups can put you or your organization in an ethical dilemma
- Integrity of news media: As public relations professionals, we all understand the importance of publicity for our clients, however, that publicity should never be a result of a gift sent to a journalist. From an ethical standpoint, it would be impossible for a client to measure the effectiveness of our work if we were always guaranteed a media slot due to bribery. Not to mention the importance of staying credible to clients and followers.
Personally, I believe that the Code is a helpful resource in handling tough decisions because it indirectly covers a multitude of situations. Understanding and following it’s guidelines gives me a better understanding of what is expected of myself as a public relations professional, which in turn makes decision-making a much easier process.
As public relations professionals and members of PRSA, we are always in the public eye; rarely do our actions go unnoticed. One definite way to maintain a credible reputation as a professional, as well as uphold the standards of the PR profession is to practice ethical decision-making.
While the industry may be ever changing, our love for ethical public relations will always stay the same. The most basic of public relations lesson remains “Act Ethically and Carry On.”