In an ideal world a Public Relations person would be the liaison between the organization they represent and the community. The problem with that concept is that the community doesn’t pay the salary of a Public Relations person. If someone wishes to be paid in a PR career they have to serve the interests of the organization, not the community. In the world of publicly owned corporations the interests of an organization are always about profit, not what is right or wrong. The job of the PR person is to protect the public image of the corporation….sometimes even if it sacrifices a person’s ethics to do it, and there’s the rub.
Public Relations is not inherently evil. The purpose of PR in any organization should be to educate the public on the organization and address any misperceptions or misunderstandings that would put the company in a negative light. Unfortunately, corporate executives don’t always stop at misunderstandings. They want the company to look good even when they have screwed up. The pressure on the PR staff to cover up or mislead the public can be oppressive, including requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements that extend beyond employment (even though they may not be legally enforceable.)
The difference between ethical and unethical PR tactics is not always clear. In the case of criminal situations, such as a violent employee, an organization has an obligation to withhold certain information to protect the dignity and privacy of the victims and the rights of the accused. At the same time a company has an obligation to inform the community of any potential danger, even if it may reflect negatively on the company or reveals corporate negligence.
A good example of questionable ethics is the PR strategy that BP has used during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. They have clearly sought to minimize the scope of the spill and kept information closely guarded. It will be years before we know the truth, but the use of massive amounts of toxic oil dispersants seems more of an intent to hide long, black, visible oil slicks from news media cameras than a logical strategy to mitigate the problem. This is textbook example of an unethical PR tactic of deferring the bad news from being today’s feature story on CNN in the hope that it will be a footnote in history when the truth surfaces.
Many people may think that Tony Hayward is the bumbling fool responsible for the PR mess at BP; however, anyone in our field knows that the PR staff will be radioactive when they apply for a position at another company. For the person in Public Relations, how the organization responds to a major PR crisis could end her or his career. This may not seem fair, but it is appropriate. People who work with unethical executives always have the option of saying no, and if needed, resigning before they sacrifice the truth or the well-being of the public or their fellow workers.
How to Draw the Line
So how can you decide when your ethics are being compromised by your organization? Here are four tests used in Rotary to determine if what you are doing is ethical or not:
Is it the truth? – Truth can be elusive, but in this context it means are you not lying and you are not attempting to be deceptive by what you are saying or not saying.
Is it fair to all concerned? – A company wants to be treated fairly by the media and public, but there is an obligation for the company to do the same.
Will it build goodwill and better friendships? – This is the best part of public relations and should be the foundation of every organization’s efforts with the community. Goodwill and an offer of friendship may be interpreted as manipulation at first, but by being consistently genuine will eventually dispel the cynicism.
Will it be beneficial to all concerned? – This is not for the short-term, but for now and into the future. There is no reason that a difficult public relations issue cannot be made into a win-win for everyone…providing the company is willing to act responsibly and look out for the public’s interest as well as that of its shareholders.
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