Flashback Friday: Public relations ethics — in 5 minutes

This summer, I’m reposting some of my personal favorites from the early days of ToughSledding. This one appeared on Sept. 14, 2006, when the blog was just 3  days old. I did edit slightly to enhance clarity. Can’t help myself.


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, helping her is good PR for Kent State, right?

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 ethical issues do you think are important (in public relations) otday 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 (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 must be open, honest and above reproach. Management must make its decisions and implement 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!). Too often, American managers are unwilling to open their processes to public scrutiny, and 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 exceptions, to be sure. Not all American business executives are bad apples, but they’re the ones we read about on the front page.

3. Courage — or lack of it — on the part of PR people. When the heroic whistle-blowers brought down Enron, I’d to see a PR professional among them. It is  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 should be pounding our fists on the table in every boardroom and reminding management what happens to executives (and companies) who operate on the “dark side.” We must serve as the corporate conscience — the chief ethical officers (CEO…hmm. Has a nice ring to it!)

One Response to Flashback Friday: Public relations ethics — in 5 minutes

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