In one of my public relations classes at Eastern Michigan University the following questions were posed by a student in an online discussion: “Is it important for PR practitioners to know their personal ethical guidelines to be able to be unbiased when working with a client’s personal ethical guidelines as well? In crisis situations which ethical standards should you represent?”
It is very important for public relations practitioners to know their personal ethical guidelines to able to be unbiased when working with a client’s personal ethical guidelines. The
\Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that the field of ethics, “Also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.”
Many people associate public relations as doing all things unethical, including lying, spinning and manipulating the public to benefit the company or client that they work for. According to the Institute for PR, “Many critics argue that there can be no ethical public relations because the practice itself is akin to manipulation and propaganda.”
There are multiple sets of ethical codes across the world that attempt to uphold the core values of the ethical practice of public relations, ranging from advocacy, honesty, loyalty, professional development and objectivity in the Public Relations Society of America, attempting to identify general moral principles of ethical behavior such as dignity, respect and human rights in the Code of Athens, and other ethical codes for public relations organizations.
At the end of the day these guides are rudimentary tools to help budding public relations practitioners discover their own ethical code, because everything is subjective to the individual. By developing a specific ethical code and defining boundaries that a PR practitioner won’t cross to perform the duties, this ensures that they match with the proper client in a synergistic fashion for both parties.
However, these personal ethical guidelines are based entirely in optimism and a person’s moral compass may be skewed when faced with decisions that might affect their employment. What happens if a client asks them to do something unethical and they refuse, only to lose their job? When faced with accruing bills and debt, financial security may influence practitioners to do things they normally wouldn’t do in optimal circumstances. Or if there is financial reward for doing unethical things, some may prioritize a raise or a bonus over their morality and ethical code.
Majority of practitioners have no ethical training
In a study from the International Association of Business Communicators, the majority of participants reported they had little to no academic training in the study of ethics; “30 percent had no academic ethics study of any kind and another 40 percent of the practitioners in the study said they ‘had a few lectures or readings on ethics.'”
The development of ethics has been shown to come from professional experience rather than via academia, but younger practitioners are often at a disadvantage due to lack of experience. In the IABC study, “65 percent received no ethics training from an employer…35 percent reporting some ethics training…70 percent of the sample have never studied ethics and about 65 percent have no on-the-job ethics training.”
So optimistically public relations practitioners should never compromise their personal ethical code when working for an organization or a client. A practitioner’s brand and self-image will always be more important than a paycheck, as damaging both will irreparably prove to the public that they are untrustworthy. No amount of commiseration will be able to change that image and some clients/organizations may blacklist a public relations practitioner based on unethical action and deviation from the personal code of ethics. It’s simply better to walk away from the client and organization, although that’s an optimistic mindset when bills and financial security are important factors in everyday life.
What ethics to represent when facing crisis situation
Speaking of commiseration, apologizing to the public is one of the most important things to do when faced with a crisis situation. A certain level of concern and sympathy for the victims of a crisis should be shown rather than apathy or the company openly stating that it wasn’t their fault. There is a line to be drawn as there are legal ramifications, as some lawyers may see apology and concern/sympathy for the victims of a crisis situation as an admission of guilt. According to IPR, if too many executives in an organization show concern, it might also lose its effect; however, there is more to be lost from not showing concern/sympathy than for showing too much concern/sympathy.
Accuracy, transparency, haste and consistency are also important when acting in a crisis situation. According to the article “Crisis Management and Communications” by the Institute for Public Relations, a concept stolen from the field of law includes “stealing thunder,” in which a company identifies a flaw or discloses negative information about a crisis. This may seem counterintuitive, but when a company is the first to disclose negative information it lessens the blow compared to if news media is the first to report negative information. Not disclosing information creates the impression that a company doesn’t care about the public or its stakeholders. I’ve actually posted before on how companies should handle crisis situations, looking at the BP Oil Spill as a fantastic example of what NOT to do when faced with a crisis.