Public relations ethics — in 5 minutes

If you had just 5 minutes to summarize the major ethical issues facing public relations professionals, what would you say?

It happened last week when Lauren, a PR major at West Virginia University, contacted me via email for input on a paper she was writing. She was on deadline; I had a class to teach. If I didn’t answer her immediately, I knew I never would. Besides, it’s good PR for Kent State. Here’s my 5-minute response to a semester-long question, edited slightly to tighten copy and fix typos. What would you have said in your 5 minutes?

Lauren asked: What current ethical issues do you think are important (in public relations) and why?

My 5-minute response:

We could turn this into a long list, Lauren. Instead, you get my top three:

1. Greed. It leads executives (our clients) to make bad decisions. And those bad decisions destroy companies, reputations and lives (Ken Lay/Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, etc.). The fundamental rule in ethics is simple: Do the right thing. If you do, you will most often be rewarded — at least in the long term. Our capitalist system, for all its attributes, seems to foster a culture that works in the opposite direction. It’s way, way too focused on the bottom line. PR folks can’t “PR” (verb) their way out of bad behavior.

2. Transparency — or lack of it. This is a HUGE issue today, especially in the age of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Management needs to be open, honest and above reproach. Management needs to make its decisions and implement its policies as though all the world is sitting in on the process. Management should have nothing to hide (save important info you don’t want the competition to have, like the designs for your new cars!). American managers all too frequently are unwilling to open their process to public scrutiny, and all too reluctant to carry on meaningful conversations with key constituents (customers, employees, community, etc.) and even more reluctant to act on the concerns of those groups. It’s this culture of secrecy that makes U.S. consumers (and investors as well) unwilling to trust the business establishment.

I can think of many exceptions, to be sure. Not all American business executives are bad apples, but they’re the ones we read about in the Wall St. Journal.

3. Courage — or lack of it — on the part of PR people. When the heroic whistle-blowers brought down Enron, I really had hoped to see a PR professional among them. I believe it’s incumbent upon PR, as guardian of corporate reputation, to point out the wrongdoing and stand up against it. It’s our professional duty.

That isn’t to say we run to the papers every time we disagree with corporate policy or leak stories about corporate wrongdoing. We have an obligation to be loyal to our clients. But dang it, we need to be pounding our fists on the table in every boardroom and reminding management just what happens to executives (and companies) who operate on the “dark side.” We need to serve as the corporate conscience…the chief ethical officers (CEO…hmm. Has a nice ring to it!)


2 Responses to Public relations ethics — in 5 minutes

  1. Jon H says:

    Spot on. Courage is the one trait that is often over-looked. Corporations need PR people with backbones participating in key executive decisions. The horrendous spy scandal at HP provides a lesson for the corporate world – lawyers alone will not protect your reputation if you do not have a wise and resolute PR head at your company’s executive table. Latest on this, including HP’s rebuttal, at:

  2. […] I’ve written before on this site, it takes courage to do ethical public relations. It requires that we do battle with […]

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