Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Ethical PR - a reality for the entire industry?

“The only way to practice ethical PR is to work in the NGO or voluntary sector, all the rest is corporate propaganda or spin

Today's debate, which I was a part of, brought forward the ever burning question of ethics in public relations: is ethics in PR an oxymoron? Is ethical behaviour the goal that the entire industry is in pursuit of or is it just a reality in certain sectors?

The debate's statement was based on an assumption that is, in my opinion, unrealistic and over generalised: if the only way to practice ethical PR is to work in NGO's, then all for profit organisations or corporations practicing PR are fundamentally unethical in their activity.

There is no sustainable evidence to support such an assumption, unless we consider that making money is an unethical act. And in that case, why would we even bother with matters of ethics in PR is the entire global economy was a ramp for unethical behaviours?

The ability to engage in ethical reasoning in public relations is growing in demand, in importance and in responsibility. Academic research, university education, and professional practice are all paying attention more than ever to matters of ethics. Careful and consistent ethical analyses facilitate trust, which enhances the building and maintenance of relationships – which is the ultimate purpose of the public relations function.

First thing to look at in such a debate is the fact that ethics varies with culture: we can't compare western standards of ethics with, for example eastern ones. We can't compare eastern business practices with western ones and pass judgement on their morality. What may constitute an unethical behaviour in a Western Europe country - presenting your business partner with an expensive gift - can represents a standard practice in an Eastern culture like China. So before we can even start to judge a practice as being ethical or not, we need to consider the underlying cultural traditions and beliefs of the particular society in which it occurred.

This further extends to sectors of PR: what may constitute a faulty PR practice in the Third Sector could be a perfectible acceptable strategy in the, let's say, fashion sector.

Like in absolutely every industry or profession, there are examples of unethical practices in public relations. They exists, are well known, and no one is denying them. However, they exist in every sector, this including NGO and voluntary. To emphasise that NGOs can be very unethical just take a look at cases such as Greenpeace, Brest Cancer NGOs worldwide, Haiti relief NGOs or Amnesty International. They have all faced accusations of money laundering, hiding information of public interest, harassing for-profit companies and so on.

Another example to emphasise the point above is CharityComms. This is a professional organisation for people working in communication in the NGO sector. This organisation does not have, until today, a code of ethics, thus being incapable of offering a minimum ethical guideline for its members to follow.

Furthermore, there is no proof that PR organisations - such as the CIPR or PRSA - have more members from the voluntary sector or that more of these practitioners abide by the codes of ethics of these societies.

The idea of unethical PR has been fuelled by journalists as part of a decades' long feud between the professions. Cases such as those of Enron (Bowen & Heath, 2005) or Hill & Knowlton (among other things they represented 'Citizens for a Free Kuwait' who created false testimony delivered to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus) stand out because they keep getting cited with every opportunity and because negative examples always attract more attention and are long lasting. But the truth is that cases of corporate propaganda or spin are only a handful. They just are more memorable, as their happenings get repeated to the public with every occasion. However, we must keep in mind that the cases of ethical PR behaviours - such as those promoted by The Body Shop, Lush, New Look or Sainsbury's, are truly the ones at a majority and they define practices within all sectors of PR.

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Anonymous said...

Great writing! I really liked your style and the arguments brought.
My opinion on this matter is that ethics is equivalent to law: if a business action doesn't brake the law, than it can not be called unethical..(Andreea)

Roxana said...

Ethical values and legal principles are usually closely relate and overlap in certain of areas. However, in my opinion, ethical obligations due tend to exceed legal duties. But then again, it all comes down to cultural norms within societies and even personal ethical frameworks.
Thank you for your comment and input, Andreea. It was great to see your opinion on the matter.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point of view. I fully agree.

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