When the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, I was a 37-year-old grad student studying social change. Hey, I was a late bloomer!
Each week, as our seminar convened, my classmates found something exciting to discuss as we dutifully applied our sociological theories to the events unfolding in Europe.
Two decades later, I don’t remember much about those theories. But I do remember wondering precisely what prompted the citizens of East and West Berlin to grab their hammers and tear down the wall. Surely, a small group of activists triggered the action in much the same way rebel colonists arranged to toss tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.
Behind most social movements is a core of committed souls who, depending on their actions, become the heroes or villains of history. The effective ones use tools of public relations to influence opinion and drive action.
Unless you spend time with the literature of sociology, you probably don’t think of PR professionals as “change agents.” But that’s precisely our role: to influence and ultimately change human behavior to the benefit of our clients. When it works, it’s a powerful thing to behold, but comes with great responsibility.
Enter the role of ethics. If you believe PR people are, in fact, “professionals,” it follows that you must believe in a strong code of ethics. Ethical conduct is the imperative of every “professional,” by definition. And nearly every professional code of ethics stipulates a duty to client, but also a duty to society and its rules.
As we support those who pay our salaries and fees, how can we ensure the plans we implement serve both client and public? Or is it simply not our problem? And what happens when client interests conflict with public interest, as they so often do — like here:
Marketing the Boffo Burger. Would you resist if asked to promote the newest double bacon burger deluxe? After all, no one forces customers to eat these artery-clogging monsters, right? But have you studied the statistics relating to heart disease and obesity lately? I’m a libertarian at heart, and I like a good burger, too. But I also know that fast-food burgers have a negative impact on public heath. How much information does the client owe the public? And what price will society eventually pay for this gluttony?
Community relations. Imagine opening a new store that offers low prices (always) and a range of choices to serve low-income shoppers. Great economic news? Perhaps. But you know the impact Big Wally’s will have on the smaller merchants in the community. They can’t compete. You also know how a “low prices always” philosophy drives manufacturing jobs off shore. Does having another Big Wally’s down the street really serve the public interest? I’m not so sure, and I wonder if Wally’s PR firms ever raise such questions.
Public affairs. Tomorrow is Election Day, and I’m betting Ohioans approve casino gambling. PR and marketing types working for Issue #3 say it’s all about jobs. And since our rustbelt economy is in the crapper, voters are listening. The body of evidence showing the negative impact of casinos on families and communities has been cast aside this time around. I couldn’t work on behalf of Issue #3, as the long-term negatives outweigh the positives. But then again, I have a job.
Considering consequences of our work. Ethics wasn’t part of our discussions in Dr. Stone’s “Theories of Social Change” class. I brought that baggage with me. In public relations, our work sometimes has real and lasting impact on society. But I wonder how many of us think about those consequences when we collect our fees. Or do we simply shrug our shoulders and do the client’s bidding? How about you?
If you’re among those who insist that PR is a “profession,” then you’re obligated to consider the impact of your work on the public interest. We won’t all agree that a Boffo Burger is a threat to society or that a casino in Cleveland is the devil’s work. But we all know that both will have plenty of negative impact down the line. Does it matter?