Opinion: Ethical public relations: The right stuff

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IN the 40-plus years that I have practiced public relations, the one never-changing discussion that I have heard, and been a part of numerous times, revolves around the topic of ethical public relations practice, writes Kirk Hazlett. The theme is usually “They just don’t understand what I do for a living”.

Edward L Bernays, arguably the pioneer of public relations, had this to say more than half-a-century ago in Your Future in Public Relations (Richards Rosen Press,1961): “The general attitude toward public relations, now only four decades old, is often characterised by ignorance, prejudice, scepticism, apathy and confusion.”

Wow! Not exactly the billboard advertising one would hope for when talking about one’s chosen profession! But Mr Bernays had a valid point back then which we, as public relations practitioners, are challenged to defend even today. And, since our profession, unlike real estate agents or lawyers, is unregulated and unlicensed (another focal point for Mr Bernays who advocated vigorously for implementation of licensing for PR practitioners), consistent assurance of ethical practice is by-and-large unenforceable. It’s entirely up to the individual how he or she wishes to do business.

Fortunately, we have professional associations including the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), and others with clearly-worded, constantly-updated ethical codes that strongly encourage members to adhere to ethical practice and behaviour.

Each organisation works diligently to educate its members and, to some extent, the general public on the whys and wherefores of the importance to all of open, honest communication and action. Unfortunately, the guidelines are only enforceable in the sense that a member can be expelled from the association – he or she can continue to conduct business as usual and clients, for the most part, will be unaware of the situation.

But that’s just one step in the process. The reality is that it is our responsibility as individual practitioners to act ethically and equally speak out when we encounter sceptical or downright negative public opinion. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and mutter “someone else will deal with this”. As ethics officer for the Tampa Bay Chapter, PRSA, and now having taught both graduate and undergraduate public relations courses at a half-dozen colleges and universities in Massachusetts and Florida, I have made PR ethics awareness and compliance a key theme in virtually everything I do and say.

I’m admittedly prejudiced in this area, but I firmly believe that constant internal and external messaging should be coming both from the national organisations and the local chapters reminding members of the underlying ethical responsibilities of their profession. 

So what can be done? The piece missing at both levels in my opinion is that of a concerted effort to educate the lay public. These are our current and prospective clients or employers. And odds are they hold an opinion of our profession like that described by Mr Bernays or, if we’re lucky, they have no idea what we’re all about. 

Constant, public-focused education and awareness is one step. September is ethics month and professional bodies undertake various activities to engage with members and other stakeholders. 

Next, we individually, as public relations professionals, must emphasise our commitment to ethical business practice as part of our own messaging. Conversations with current and prospective clients or employers should include reinforcement of our conviction that ethical thought and action is non-negotiable.

Ivy Ledbetter Lee, in my opinion, said it best in his Declaration of Principles more than 100 years ago: “This is not a secret press bureau. All of our work is done in the open. We aim to supply news… In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States, prompt and accurate information concerning subjects which it is of value and interest to the public to know about.”

Mr Lee recognised the realities of our budding profession even then and took this definitive action to set the public and the media straight. The torch has now been passed numerous times, and it is on us, today’s PR professionals, to continue the crusade.

KIRK Hazlett APR, Fellow PRSA, is adjunct professor of Communication at the University of Tampa (FL). He serves as PRSA Tampa Bay’s ethics officer and is also Ethics Committee chair, Global Listening Centre. Before moving into academia, Hazlett practiced nonprofit and government public relations for more than 35 years managing communication programmes for healthcare and member services organisations as well as the US Army and US Air Force in Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States.