I once asked him what ethical principle guided him in his work and he told me, "To never write anything I'd be criticized for on the front page of the New York Times." When I asked what ethical principle he thought public relations people follow, he said, "Not to get caught."
I don't think he realized the two principles are functionally equivalent.
Actually, I suspect he put his finger on the reason for current interest in public relations ethics. No one wants to get caught doing something wrong and, in recent years, the papers have been full of examples 0f just that.
But public relations practitioners should be motivated by more than the risk of being caught. Because public relations by definition involves some kind of exchange between two parties, it's an inherently ethical undertaking. So everything we do involves some kind of ethical choice, whether being truthful, respecting the human dignity of others, or fulfilling our duties as citizens and practitioners.
Those happen to be the drivers of three major ethical theories-- considerations of virtue, consequences, and duty. Most recently, a feminist approach to ethics has put additional emphasis considerations of care. But whatever ethical theory you follow, applying it to life in the real world is a challenge.
For example, what do you do when duties conflict, as they almost always do? Which consequences matter more, those affecting the client or those affecting customers or society as a whole? Is it better to be caring or fair? And, to quote an acient Roman, what is truth? Isn't it a public relations person's job to present the client's conception of truth?
The PRSA, IABC, and other professional associations have done a pretty good job of articulating the practical implications of those ethical theories. They all admonish practitioners to serve the public interest, for example. But practitioners are pretty much on their own to define just what the "public interest" means and what to do when client and public interests collide.
Navigating ethical questions like those require more than memorizing codes of conduct, as thoughtful as they may be. It requires understanding the thinking behind them.
As I've discovered in ethics workshops I've conducted over the years, almost every practitioner knows it's wrong to lie, but when pressed the only reason many can offer is because that's what they were brought up to believe. Unfortunately, if you don't know why something is wrong, the chances of recognizing it when it presents itself diminish rapidly. And knowing what to do is even more problematic.
But according to a recent report on public relations education, "Overall, educators perceive ethics instruction to be very important for PR students, but few programs require an ethics course or recommend one as an elective." Instead, ethical considerations are supposedly woven into discussions of current events. That non-systematic approach is almost guaranteed to be incomplete and makes assessing students' actual knowledge of ethics quite difficult.
That's why my friend Don Wright and I wrote Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul.
Don is Harold Burson Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and has written broadly on the topic over his 40-year career. We both hope our book contributes to the study and practice of ethics within public relations.
Of course, no book can pretend to be the last word on the subject so we've also created a website to update the cases covered in the book and to make other observations that illustrate the concepts it covers.
Take a look for yourself at Updates.PRethics.com. And join the conversation by commenting on the posts already on the site.