Published On: Sun, Feb 21st, 2010

Ethics: the Cornerstone of PR

Over the last couple of weeks the topic of ethics in the PR industry has once again come to prominence; however I’ve only just managed to jot down my thoughts and have my two pennyworth.

The catalyst for the debate once again seems to be PR Week and it continues to be a good forum for industry colleagues to have their say. Stuart Bruce of Wolfstar has also penned a blog with a poll and the consensus, thankfully seems to be that it is wrong to behave unethically on behalf of a client.

It is important to make a clear distinction, namely the difference between unethical behaviours (astroturfing, lack of disclosure, lieing etc) and moral decisions, for instance working on accounts that people may find morally questionable, such as tobacco.

It comes down to rights and responsibilities: I believe we all have the right to opt out of an account for moral reasons, but we also have a responsibility to ourselves, our employer, clients and the PR industry to behave ethically.

Fortunately, all good agencies allow staff to opt out of accounts on moral grounds and I feel empowered that my employer’s position is clear as Robert Phillips stated ‘at Edelman, everyone has the right not to work on a piece of business if they find it ethically or morally challenging.’

I think the sensible approach seems to be that, yes – we should all work in an ethical manner, but from a moral standpoint it is less clear cut what industries are the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ones to work with. The issues are often far more complex than to simply be branded ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Everyone has a different set of values and the question is: where do you draw the line? Is there a line? Arms, gambling, alcohol, pornography, fast food? Sweatshops, carbon footprints, industrial relations? In fact, under the surface I imagine someone, somewhere has a moral objection to every corporation. However, I firmly believe it is possible for organisations to behave in an ethical and responsible way, whilst carrying out work that some may find morally objectionable.

Indeed, it is these more challenging industries that provide us, as practitioners with the greatest opportunity to demonstrate how PR can be used for social good. We live in a stakeholder society and PR agencies can work in partnership with organisations to devise strategies that engage with these communities and create understanding.

Our end goals are trust and credibility and the most effective way to achieve these aims is through openness, honesty and transparency. Behaving unethically is short-sighted and ultimately, self-defeating. Whilst, I’m loath to make judgments on morality, it is not difficult to make ethical ones. Ethics has to be the cornerstone of the PR industry.

I’d be interested to hear what industries (rather than companies) you would find it hard to work with on ethical or moral ground.

About the Author

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Marketing Manager with a passion for inbound at HubSpot, Founder of Growth Hack Talks, Blogger at Ben-Cotton.com and Chief Quaffer at CraftySwine.org .

Displaying 6 Comments
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  1. It’s interesting that alot of the younger practitioners i’ve met seem to be more reactionary than many older PRs i’ve met.

    When I say reactionary, I don’t mean in the Libertarian sense of the word, I mean that they are far more likely to react against something they don’t agree with. I think this is largely to do with the current group of individuals coming into this side of the comms industry.

    There is a lot of research into millenials which says, and i’m paraphrasing here, that the Y generation will not be satisfied to work for something they don’t believe in – if there is a chance to change something for the better, then it will be changed.

    I believe that this way of thinking is potentially of great benefit for some of the more ethically challenging brands who might be looking into using digital as a part of their comms strategy.

    Digital is, to me, a mindset, not necessarily a silo. I think it is a behavioural trait that we will see become more prominent as each generation grows up with different iterations of the Internet.

    So when I say digital comms, I mean the digital way of thinking.

    The transparency afforded online is part of this behaviour, and brands will find themselves emplying PRs who are of this mindset, whether the PR wants to be on a challenging account or not.

    This is a massive opportunity for Institutional change on a huge scale. If this group of new digital PRs can instill their values onto large corporations who are perceived by many to be the bad guys, there is a huge shift that could happen for brands who will find themselves being scrutinised at a deeper level than before by their comms teams and will need to find a way to combat this: transparency.

    The more transparent a brand is, I’d argue the more ethical they will be. We al know that oil companioes dig holes in the ground and are causing a lot of damage to the planet, yet we still need petrol and plastic. If these companies can do their work in an open and honest way, it’ll make the whole process, if not a wonderfully clear experience, a little easier to bear.

    It is upto the latest and future grads to try and instil their ethics onto the brands they will find themselves working with – how cool is that?

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bencotton: Ethics: the cornerstone of PR: http://wp.me/pEMSR-57

  3. Hello,

    Matt, I agree that the companies with a higher degree of transparency make ethical decisions; however, I’ve noticed a trend of false transparency that deceives the public. For example, the new show by CBS “Undercover Boss” reveals a limited amount about the company and I imagine uses editing to its advantage: http://bit.ly/atcw0N. But, they still claim to be 100 percent transparent and open.

    As PR practitioners, I think it remains crucial to evaluate the intent of the campaign or company. Ask: What kind of behavior am I encouraging, and do I support that?

    Really interesting topic that I intend to explore more before I start my first job!

  4. Ben Cotton says:

    Firstly, apologies for the delay in replying Matt!

    I hear what you’re saying – Y Gens typically want to work for an organisation they believe in – by this I mean people want to feel proud of where they work and pride can be fostered if organisations operate in an ethical manner. However, I would go further and suggest Millenials want to ‘live’ the organisation they work for – Y Gens want meaningful, varied and fulfilling experiences over careers. Quite simply: where you work says a lot about you.

    The internet has created an unprecedented level of scrutiny which has forced many organisations to be more transparent and thankfully, this level of openness is becoming the norm – indeed for the next generation it will be all they know.

    If this Millenial mindset holds companies to account and instigates change for social good, namely openness, honesty and transparency: long may it continue. I think the proof will be in the pudding when today’s group of Y Gens become the directors and board members of tomorrow.

    It comes down to the bottom line…and fortunately being ethical and trustworthy is now a line of business.

  5. Ben Cotton says:

    Thanks for the interesting comments, Katelyn.

    You raise some really good points – all successful companies realise they operate in a stakeholder society, which thankfully holds them to a degree of accountably, whilst ensuring they operate in an ethical and transparent manner, or at least appear to.

    Whilst, most companies are not going to shout about their major failings or the environmental damage they cause – the fact they are being forced to appreciate the wider picture and act upon it, is a step in the right direction.

    There is the problem of organisations that are merely paying lip service and creating a false transparency; however it is my firm belief that those businesses will not be able to keep up the charade for much longer. Whilst, companies can always do more – we should also not be afraid to appreciate the strides that have been made.

  6. Jak zbudować silną markę Reklama PR…

    Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: OMMA Social: Building brands with Social Media….

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