Monday, 8 March 2010

Public Relations Ethics: A risible oxymoron?

‘Public Relations’ as a term suggest different meanings for different people. For some, it’s fluffy, white-washing and all about lying, while for some, it’s a serious profession with a purpose. These different perceptions and images could be a result of individual experiences or knowledge about the profession; however, as a student of public relations, I strongly feel that the ethical decisions which public relations practitioners take are crucial to the profession’s credibility.

The next question which comes to the mind is, on what basis do public relations practitioners determine what is ethical and what’s not. Kevin Moloney in his book Rethinking Public Relations explain that these judgements are arrived at by a mixture of reasoning and emoting in unknown quantities. He also elaborates that the recipients of messages hope that the decisions taken by senders are based on reason, evidence and positive and nurturing emotion but in case they are not, then the observers get disappointed which results in erosion of trust and credibility. Similarly, PR practitioners need to make personal judgement based on morals and ethics before messages are sent to the target audience.

Moral development of PR practitioners

A recent study on the moral development of public relations practitioners: A comparison with other professions and influences on higher quality ethical reasoning by Renita Coleman, School of Journalism, University of Texas-Austin and Lee Wilkins, School of Journalism, University of Missouri suggested that public relations practitioner’s rank 7th highest on moral development among all professionals tested and that they performed significantly better when the ethical dilemmas were about public relations issues than when they were not which indicates domain expertise on ethical issues. Although this study signifies the strong moral development of PR practitioners but then why is it that the phrase ‘public relations ethics’ is subject to much amusement and paradoxical connotation.

What makes PR more accountable?

Moloney argues that, for PR professionals, the activity of themselves speaking the words of rightness or goodness or truth gives a particular personal dimension to their choices that is not present when the engineer, for example, sees another car leave the production line or when a marketing professional publishes a trends survey. When they send messages, PR people utter words that are right, good or true. So, can we say that the front facing role of PR practitioners could be one of the reasons why PR is held more accountable? In my opinion, the answer is yes, for example, take the case of Toyota recent crisis where customers started complaining about the quality of cars, bad crisis management affected the reputation of Toyota of being a leader in innovation and more questions were raised about reputational issues like Toyota engaging in drip-drip revelations for several weeks, keeping customers in the dark and playing a cat-and-mouse game. How many people blamed or accused the engineers for the fault in the production design? As most of us know, reputation management is a forte of public relations; hence, it is subject to much criticism and scrutiny from stakeholders. Parsons (2004, p. 7-8) says, ‘As the interface between the organisation and its public, arguably the keeper of the organisational reputation, the public relations function has even more important role as the social conscience of the organisation.’

Limitations of PR practitioners

Another point is the status of PR practitioners in an organisation, most PR people do not have the status to engage actively in the management decision process and only few enjoy that sort of power and authority. As Tedlow (1974, p. 201) explains PR people who have self-consciously set about to reform their employers as the first order of business…most likely meet with failure more often than success. This limits the scope of practicing ethical public relations.


Whatever the limitations or reasons could be, strong emphasis on ethics awareness and implementation will make PR a more credible profession. However, in reality how practical it is, still remains an argument. Atkinson in his survey of PR ethics (2004, pp. 427-35) has summed up accurately: The role of the corporate communicator remains challenging. There will continue to be a requirement to ‘soften’ or ‘control’ the effect of ‘bad’ news whether financial or otherwise. There will continue to be pressure to create the perception that all is fine even when it is not.

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