Public relation firms are hired to do a very distinct job: bring publicity to their clients. But sometimes the means of doing so—or the client themselves—cross ethical boundaries. The public relations industry, and the agents who work in it, have sometimes garnered a reputation for ruthless promotion, and are often vilified for their practices. But when it’s your job to bring publicity to a person, group, brand, or idea, how do you know what’s out of line, and how do you ensure your ethics remain intact?
Much like news agencies, care must be paid not just to the intended consequences of a campaign, but the unintended consequences as well. This is an important distinction to make, because when your goal is to spread a message as widely and thoroughly as you can, and when your career depends on your ability to do so, it can be easy and tempting to take unprincipled shortcuts.
PR Pros Aren't Tied to a Specific Set of Ethics
In general, ethics in public relations has a few distinct, accepted cornerstones that dictate best practices. Unlike a doctor or lawyer’s code of ethics, PR professionals aren’t legally bound to sign a document swearing to adhere to ethical practices. Adherence must come from their own integrity and their own devotion to doing the right thing.
Though there certainly are accepted codes of conduct and many do follow them, a PR professional is not necessarily going to lose their right to practice in their career if they go against them, though they may have trouble finding a job.
Ethics in Public Relations
Ryan Holiday is one of our hero's. He's the author of Trust Me I'm Lying. In that book he communicates remorse at some of his more aggressive PR decisions as he blatantly took advantage of holes in the PR "ethicsphere". An ethical PR agent or firm won’t necessarily knowingly create a ripple effect of negativity as a common practice - though some will. Actions have consequences both intended and unintended, and it is the mark of ethical public relations to avoid intentionally causing harm.
Another key area of ethics in public relations is transparency and the direct avoidance of conflicts of interest. An agency may not want to agree to take on a client while standing to gain from their opposition. For example, it wouldn’t be wise to represent a restaurant when a partner in the PR firm is also part owner of a local competing restaurant. Nor would it be OK for our firm (Reputation X) to take on both sides of a political race. In this case, we, and all such firms should gracefully bow out.
Team Buy In
This applies to individual PR professionals as well. If you strongly believe in the safety and efficacy of vaccines, it’s against your own and the industry’s ethics for you to take on a client who is vocally anti-vaccination. At our firm we poll the team prior to taking on a client. If the team doesn't agree, we don't take them. This makes good business sense if you think about it because an understaffed project won't perform well anyway.
Confidentiality in PR
Confidentiality is also a big deal in public relations ethics. Information from clients should be considered privileged and subsequently safeguarded. If an agent picks up a new client that is in some way counter to a previous client, he or she can’t use information about that previous client to assist in enhancing the current client’s standing. A level of mutual respect must exist among the industry and its clients to ensure that information is used wisely and protected with care.
The Importance of Honesty
Accuracy and truth are lauded concepts in the public relations industry, especially as they relate to interactions with the public. Reputations are built on public trust, and destroyed by public mistrust. At the heart of honesty is good character, which any professional should attempt to display in their chosen field.
And yet, there is always going to be an inherent attraction in the PR industry of using misinformation or deceit to further a cause or clean up a public mess. Sometimes the power of rationalization gets the best of people; it's part of the human condition.
Dishonesty is often easy to prove, putting a stain on the PR individual who perpetuated it, the firm that they work for, the client that they are representing, and even the other clients that the firm represents.
You Are Who You Represent: Examples of Unethical Public Relations
Agencies aren’t people (but apparently corporations are), and yet they do collectively represent the views and values of the people who they are composed of. From the company leaders to the individual agents, everyone should be cognizant of only taking on clients that everybody feels comfortable with and can support.
This means that if real estate heir and alleged murderer Robert Durst wants to invest millions of dollars in a campaign that paints him as a kind, trustworthy man, a respectable agency may want to politely turn away that client. If a cigarette company wants to convince the public that secondhand smoke is safe for kids, it would reflect poorly on an agency to take this client on.
There’s another level of damage that occurs when PR agencies don’t choose clients responsibly: they’re also hurting their past and future clients. Imagine if you hired a PR agency to help promote your business, only to learn later that they had defended the reputation of a known child molester. Not only would this be personally devastating, but if the public became aware that you were associated with this person, it could be extremely damaging to your business as well.
You are judged by the company you keep, and in some cases, the company your company keeps. There’s a reason Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton didn’t work with the same PR firms—a single firm wouldn’t be able to do an efficient or honest job for one client while doing the same for their opposition. That said, we have a high amount of regard for both of their various agencies as they worked from the heart.
A Commitment to Expertise
Most industries have standards of conduct either written or unwritten. Consider the standards of traditional journalism, which dictate that all stories should be fact-checked, objective, and devoid of ulterior motives. A good journalist doesn’t just follow these standards, but he or she believes in them and their merit. But of course not all "journalists" adhere to this ideal - it simply isn't profitable enough for everyone.
Similarly, a PR professional shouldn’t just do their best to follow best practices and adhere to honesty—they should believe in those practices and follow them because it’s what gives credence to their industry, and to the credibility and success of their agency.
Examples of Codes of Ethics in PR
Though not legally binding, there are some accepted codes of ethics that many public relations professionals abide by. These are important for maintaining the reputation of the industry as a whole and ensuring that serious PR professionals are operating on even ground.
In the early 1990s, the George Bush administration used information that was later discredited to build support for the assault on the Persian Gulf. It was later found that this testimony was orchestrated by Washington’s biggest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, on behalf of Citizens for a Free Kuwait. This organization had paid millions of dollars to the PR firm, and contributed to a war in the process.
The hit that the PR industry took due to the actions of Hill & Knowlton led to further support for agents to adhere to a set code of ethics. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which represents the largest group of PR professionals, has a set code of ethics which members are required to adhere to, and for which they are expected to report violations of. Violation of the code can mean expulsion of a professional’s membership in PRSA, but unlike the Bar Association for lawyers, you don’t have to be a PRSA member in order to work as a PR agent.
Instilling Ethical Behavior
Most individuals don’t enter public relations with a distinct intent to practice unethical behaviors. But ethical challenges do arise, and making sure professionals are prepared to handle them is part of the goal of PRSA and other PR membership groups. Many argue that it’s just as important to teach these ethical concerns in school, long before individuals have to face real world scenarios with real consequences.
Academic settings provide a safe environment for future members of the PR industry to practice their skills in the face of tricky situations. Having classes or seminars on the subject can go a long way toward ensuring they act in the best interest of their clients and colleagues.
A 2006 report from the Commission of Public Relations Education echoes this sentiment, stating that teaching ethics to PR students gives them a basis of knowledge in ethical decision making and sets them up with critical thinking skills that will enable them to resolve dilemmas “in a way that results in an ethical outcome.”
This all goes to say that a dedication to ethics in PR begins long before taking on that first client. It doesn’t happen naturally—it has to be nurtured through education, setting up future professionals to succeed in real world situations. Codes of ethics then become not rules that must be adhered to, but general practices that are understood and expected by everyone.
Reversing PR’s Bad Reputation
Public relations is not an inherently villainous field, but it’s painted that way by skeptics. No individual firm, or even a handful of firms, can represent an entire industry, but much like the widespread assumption that most politicians lie to serve their own agendas, PR firms have gained a reputation for dishonesty because the ones that make the news are notorious for bad behavior.
The remedy for this rests in ethics. Maintaining industry-wide standards, including honesty, confidentiality, and transparency, ensure the public that the information they are being told is well-researched and understood to be true. PR firms will always be on the side of their clients, but ethics dictate that they are not working for them to the detriment of the general good.
Of course, like online reputation management, reversing a bad reputation for PR agencies is tough. People would rather read (and click on) negative news stories much of the time.
Though it is ultimately up to the industry to instill and enforce ethical practices among public relations professionals, the general public is right to hold an expectation of PR ethics as well. Respect for the public, respect for clients, and respect for the integrity of the public relations industry will repair the negative reputation they have built. Such practices will serve to benefit the industry as a whole, inspiring future generations of ethical PR professionals, and a field guided by truth and integrity.