Today I’d like to expand upon ethics in Public Relations with comparisons of how seriously certain types of PR firms approach ethical practices and policies. PR agencies have notably less presence of ethics codes on websites than other industries (Kim & Ki, 2010). The PRSA, or Public Relations Society of America, has guidelines posted on its website that include the need for all communication to be honest, not taking on clients who have values contrary to the PRSA ethics code, and to accurately represent current clients (Potter, 2013). While the rules and expectations are a nice thought, actually implementing them to a firm, especially a large one, can be problematic (Skinner, Mersham & Valin, 2003).
Huge PR companies, and really any other large organization, tend to be task-oriented; this means that one employee may be doing a seemingly meaningless job that actually contributes to violation of ethics without realizing it (Skinner, Mersham & Valin, 2003). An example of this could be creating infographics that report data skewed by unethical research practices as facts. Furthermore, low to mid level employees don’t create policy; I could be on the phone with a customer service representative asking for a refund or rebate that I know is my right to have, and the representative’s mantra would probably be “I’m sorry, ma’am, but there’s nothing I can do, it’s against policy”. While the conversation would be extraordinarily frustrating, the person on the other line can either go along with company policy and anger customers or get fired for cutting me a break (Skinner, Mersham & Valin, 2003).
Obviously, proper ethical code would be far easier to maintain in a smaller firm where each employee surely plays a more integral role than simply data entry or filing (Ki & Kim, 2010). While the PRSA’s code is important for PR people to follow, developing individual ethical guidelines for firms garners better results. It allows for more personal discussion of right and wrong when the rules in question were developed by the people implementing them (Ki & Kim, 2010). PR credibility is constantly being questioned, and the obvious solution is making ethics codes public and following those codes with enthusiasm. It’s also noteworthy that with the public’s growing cynicism about advertising since the 1980’s, the importance of ethics has grown as well (Kim & Ki, 2010). Newer firms demonstrate higher value of ethical practices than agencies established before the ’80’s, most definitely in response to the demand for ethics. (Kim & Ki, 2010).
Greater accountability for PR agencies would no doubt be the ultimate enforcer of ethical guidelines; while in the US a tarnished reputation may be the greatest harm done following a PR scandal, Brazil revokes licenses (they are required to practice PR in Brazil) from disreputable PR professionals (Potter, 2013). I hope that the Public Relations industry here in the States is moving in the right direction toward ethical practices becoming an integral component of every firm and agency out there; Brazil’s had that attitude since 1967! (Potter, 2013).
Potter, W. (2010, November 29). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://wendellpotter.com/2010/11/must-ethical-pr-be-an-oxymoron-richard-edelman/
Ki, E., & Kim, S. (2010). Ethics statements of public relations firms: What do they say?. Journal of Business Ethics, 91(2), 223-236.
Skinner, C., Mersham, G., & Valin, J. (2003). Global protocol on ethics in public relations. Journal of Communication Management, 8(1), 13-28.