Wednesday, September 19, 2012

PR Ethics Month Matters

September is the annual PRSA "Ethics Awareness Month."  I have two anecdotes that illustrate why singling out a month to emphasize ethics matters.

This ethics emphasis has been going on for quite a few years. I recall nearly 10 years ago when a faculty colleague of mine was up for review and she mentioned some of the activities she had done with PR students related to this emphasis on ethics in their chosen profession. A colleague from photography scoffed: "you mean you PR people are only ethical for one month?"

I get this a lot even today from colleagues in other communications fields. In one breath they refer to something as "just PR" and then turn to me and ask for help promoting their next play or exhibit.

But back to the tenure review meeting and the haughty and ignorant photography professor. I pointed out that ethics month is when the PR profession places special emphasis on ethics; they don't abandon ethical considerations the rest of the year. In the same way that believers go to church on Sunday (or Saturday) to worship together but don't abandon their faith the rest of the year. And by the way, I noted, shouldn't my PR colleague be lauded for stressing ethics outside the classroom? Which of our other communications major programs or their related professional associations have an annual special emphasis on ethics, which includes components for students and aspiring professionals?

The tenure review meeting momentarily become a demonstration of nonverbal communication.

(Years later that same photography professor was delighted to bring a guest to campus to speak about photography. The title of his remarks: "The pleasures of deception?" Irony anyone?).

Fast forward to this past spring when I was at my local PRSA chapter's annual awards program. I was having a delightful conversation at my table with a man from a local media outlet. He was there to see a colleague collect an award for an effort  to promote the outlet. He had a mixed drink in front of him. I think it was a cocktail of ignorance and anger, because the conversation turned sour and his thinking was slurred.

We had been talking about all things media, and that led to my bringing up branded journalism, in which PR people increasingly are  creating their own content on web sites, mobile platforms, social media and other channels to get relevant information directly to their key publics. As part of this, I noted, PR people don't rely as much on conventional news media to share information, and they may provide content that is not always just about their own organizations but related industry information.

This was when he talk a long swallow of his fear on the rocks and belched out an expletive and a proclamation that such a model will never work because people will never trust such information. I mentioned that people long have and still do trust organizations with a record of providing honest information, and that sometimes getting it directly from an organization as  opposed to via a media filter is even more complete, relevant and timely to people. I also mentioned that his concerns are real for some practitioners, but most PR people I know provide truthful and relevant information that serves and does not deceive people.

I also mentioned the PRSA Code of Ethics, and how we stress it in every class in our PR program where I teach. I told him that, contrary to the stereotype and mind-numbing nonsense he was imbibing about PR people, most practitioners realize that in this era of transparency consistent ethics is sound strategy.

"Well," he sputtered (and I use the word "well" in place of his chosen utterance, which was a concise way of describing that which male cattle deposit on pastures) "you can teach ethics  all you want but if you get PAID to provide information...." He trailed off. Maybe because his thinking was slurred even more. Or maybe because someone was at the podium starting the program.

I later tried to turn to him to respond to his folly. First of all, his assertion that being paid leads to unethical behavior begs the question of media credibility for journalists like himself who are paid. You will search in vain for a statement in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for a prohibition of receiving pay to report the news. Secondly. the evidence to debunk him is overwhelming. My own research and that of other academics shows the public trusts information from PR sources, depending on reputation and other variables. Also, we could have looked around the room that night at all the PR professionals from our local chapter collecting awards for tactics and campaigns that were brilliant and successful....and ethical.

But when I turned in my chair to say all this, he was gone. His colleague had collected his own PR award and he took off. Maybe he needed to go cash his check. I wish he would have stayed. He could have learned what PR is, and practiced the first  statement of the SPJ Code of Ethics: "seek the truth and report it." Unfortunately he, like many, will persist in ignorant and hypocritical perpetuation of the myth that PR is unethical by definition.

So, yes, "Ethics Awareness Month" matters for the PR profession. But we shouldn't keep it to ourselves. There's a world of professors, journalists, and others out there who need to know that public relations is an inherently ethical profession. It often depends on PR professionals having knowledge of the Code of Ethics, which often is more likely when they have a degree in PR, membership in PRSA or the APR accreditation. If people practice PR as a profession stressing "mutually beneficial relationships" as our modern definition does, it's hard not to be ethical. If they practice it as something else, it just really isn't PR.

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