Saturday, January 19, 2008

On Giving Ethical Counsel

Many PR practitioners say they are more than publicists, that they provide counsel to management or clients.

But, what is the nature of that counsel? Is it win at all costs strategy? Or is it consistent with the concept that public relations is about building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships? In the latter case, which is consistent with Grunig's typology of PR and with the way PR is taught in colleges and universities across the country, PR counsel should be inherently ethical. That's because we advise management not only with regard to an organization's best interest, but balance the interests of our various publics--consumers, employees, community, government, investors, etc.

That's the ideal, the normative view of public relations. But, how DO PR people counsel?

I've done several studies on this myself. In one, I interviewed a business editor and PR practitioners about news releases that had been published as business news stories. In justifying why the information was news, both parties--journalists and PR--had organizational interests in mind. It was either to sell papers or product. Ethical considerations emerged only after repeated questions, and then the ethics of the matter--people's right to know versus an organization wanting them to know something--was secondary.

Well, now there's a broader overview of PR professionals and their ethical counsel. Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland offers an overview of current research-based knowledge on ethics and public relations practice in a new paper published online by the Institute for Public Relations (IPR). IPR is a good organization that brings together PR educators and practitioners. I presented a paper at one of their conferences and fielded questions from veteran professors from the University of Florida as well as the PR director for Goodyear.

Bowen's paper is appropriately interesting for both academics and professionals. She provides a good history of PR ethics, and provides recommendations for those working in the trenches to prepare for ethical issues. Finally, she invites a dialogue on this important subject in a blog hosted by IPR.

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