sign indicating right and wrong

At 360 Integrated PR, we often talk about “ethically-focused reputation management and public relations”. Ethical? How do we justify that? I have read ‘Public Relations Ethics – The Real-World Guide’ by PR expert and academics Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy. I also had the privilege to chair a CIPR Wessex Working Lunch session on public relations ethics with Trevor. The discussions caused me to question my use of the word in our marketing, but, ultimately, to retain it.

This is why.

Ethical challenges in what public relations people do

In terms of practice, public relations ethics go far beyond a decision on ‘what kind of clients am I willing to work for’. Many of us draw the line at tobacco companies, some object to network marketing firms; in future, who knows whether oil companies will become a no-go area for agencies. These, ultimately, are personal decisions of the agency owners however they are dressed up as ethical choices.

No, what Morris and Goldsworthy got me thinking about were the daily, tactical decisions all PR people face. PR is about creating a narrative. That means, inherently, we select. Which statistics to quote, which experts to choose to support our case, which pictures to send to the media, how we construct our case studies or frame our research questions.

Many people would say it is unethical to give only some of the information, one side of the story. On reflection, I disagree. Every organisation has a right to tell its story as long as it learns from and adapts to circumstances which contradict that narrative.

Once we have the bones of our stories, we then work on ‘the angle’. What will draw people to the story, make it compelling, persuade an editor to publish? We all know that simply reciting facts will not cut through. We turn, more often than not, to human emotion.

But, is it ethical to cause fear, enhance a sense of guilt amongst our stakeholders, sensationalise a cause? Recent controversy over the film Seaspiracy shows it is not just corporations who indulge in these manipulations of human emotions.

Is this ethical? There is no simple answer. Public relations tries to inform and listen, we hold our clients to account, but there is no avoiding the fact that, as Morris and Goldsworthy write, “PR people are paid by the organisations they work for in order to get across their desired messages and maximise the positive … No one really expects PR people to be objective.”

That perspective is vital. Personally, I have more trouble with businesses’ use of the word transparency than I do with ethically. Can any business ever be totally transparent? There is an inherent contradiction between confidentiality (which we all owe to our clients and our staff) and transparency. Businesses are transparent about those aspects of their business they are happy to highlight (sustainability, maybe even investments) and opaque about those they aren’t (like executive pay).

Do NGOs care about public relations ethics?

There are many difficulties with setting global standards for PR behaviour (or anything else for that matter). What is ethical to me might not be ethical to you. And how far should one go to pursue the truth? For instance, one theory of ethics depends on utilitarian principles; if the end is good, then moral rules, even laws may be broken.

All revolutionaries think like this. And so do many NGOs and activists. Indeed, the organisations most likely to break the law in pursuit of coverage are single-issue groups. Campaigns from organisations like Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and The Quakers acknowledge that law-breaking and civil disobedience are justifiable public relations tactics.

The codes of the world’s leading professional public relations organisations – the Chartered Institute of Public Relations or the Public Relations and Communications Association for example – all insist that PR people must not break the law. Morris asks the question, can someone be an Extinction Rebellion activist and a member of the PRCA – moral in my cause and ethical in my professional life? I asked him. He said he was glad it was not his decision.

Are public relations ethics worth the websites they are written on?

Ethics matter. Much of what we take for granted as ethical behaviour – don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t oppress others – has at its heart principles derived from the Bible. Whether or not we have a faith, most of us acknowledge that the principles behind the Ten Commandments are a vital component of civilised living.

But, you cannot legislate for ethics. Homo sapiens is a social animal; we observe, we interact, we learn, we change. Ethics are influenced by one’s faith, one’s politics, one’s circumstances and one’s experience. To that degree, the underlying issue is that determining ethical behaviour is always a subjective choice not an absolute.

What matters more to me is hypocrisy. Saying one thing and behaving differently. I have no issue with a business putting its shareholders first if that is what it tells me it is doing. I have no issue with a business deciding that it is more ethical to support developing world workers at low wages because to pay more would make their merchandise uncompetitive as long as they say that is their decision.

Then I am free to buy or not to buy according to my own ethical standards.

Ethics come down to my personal choices

By guarding against hypocrisy (and its subsequent impact on corporate reputation) public relations does have an ethical dimension. Good PR people need to speak human – to the engineers, financiers, logistics people in those organisations and to those outside. You cannot argue with Morris and Goldsworthy that “While it would be a claim too far to say that PR people are more moral than others, they have to be in the business of understanding very different audiences. That takes empathy and emotional intelligence.”

Everyone uses PR. We all persuade. The evidence we use is always selective. Maybe the gospel writers picked it up correctly – ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” More listening, more self-awareness, less condemnation? Certainly. But that’s a subject for a completely different blog.

So, ultimately, we come full circle. A public relations team tells the story that organisation wants to tell. Its values are those of the organisation it represents. As practitioners, we need to be comfortable with the stories we tell, bold enough to expose any cover ups and strong enough to point out when the board’s rhetoric does not match its behaviour. And if we cannot change things, we should be prepared to walk away.

This is my public relations ethics benchmark: if challenged, will I be prepared to defend the choices I have made?

Because as a PR person, the reputation of public relations is my reputation.