Generally speaking, Public Relation’s is not seen as an ethical profession because of their influence and manipulation of the media. Despite the recent trends of attempts to make the profession appear more ethical by focusing on valuing honesty, fairness and loyalty; the persuasive functions strategic communicators have to use can be seen as manipulative. I believe conflicts of interest is one of the largest factors that affect the ethical perspectives public relation’s professionals face, because of the challenge between balancing loyalty simultaneously with the audience and the client, and the lack of understanding by the audience.
“Despite the pervasive influence of public relations, very little effort has gone into understanding its role in, and effects on, contemporary society,” Michael Karlberg writes in Remembering the Public in Public Relations Research.
This is evident in my personal life, from the moment I decided to pursue a career in public relations. When I share with friends and family what I am studying, more often than not I am responded with a “what?” or “do you want to work with celebrities?” Either or demonstrates, as Michael Karlberg explained as the asymmetrical agenda theory, that communications is taking place at the expense of other segments of the population. There is a lack of respect and information for the audience and publics, like withholding information and “greenwashing,” which is the entire stereotype public relations withholds. These practices encourage one-sided conversations intended to persuade the public, which ultimately creates an atmosphere of distrust, doubt and skepticism from the public in regards to the intentions of the entire public relations field.
I think it is necessary for the public to be educated and informed about the role strategic communicators play in society, the same way they have slowly started to understand the influences of advertising. This will be made possible beginning with the internal structure of public relations; the way strategic communicators view themselves and their ethical standing. Laws do not mandate public relations ethics but there is a code of ethics decided upon by members of the profession, it all started with the first written code by PRSA in 1950. Since then, there’s been an entire rewritten code with new sets of transformed values; exemplifying the changes public relations is aspiring to make in their profession. Compliance has turned into integrity, enforcement to inspiration, directive to educational, punishment to motivation, and secretive to open.
I believe public relations has had to make the transition into these new trends of valuing and applying advocacy, honesty, expertise, fairness and loyalty into their profession because of the openness and new sources of information created by the public in the 21st century. Audiences no longer just have the media to provide them with information and one-sided “truths,” there are hundreds of resources at their fingertips thanks to the invention of the internet and social media; people, industries, and strategic communicators don’t have much of an option to remain secretive and dishonest anymore.
Audiences can now identify the wrong ethical behavior from strategic communicators, journalists and public figures; like under-reporting and overlooking bad actions. Thus, fostering the correct ethical behaviors such as openness and truthfulness has been largely focused on and taught to aspiring public relation’s professionals; however, are they genuinely adopting these new preferable ethical practices or simply adopting the guise of acting ethical? That’s difficult to distinguish, but I would argue it’s a little bit of both. It’s challenging to consider oneself entirely ethical when your best interest and loyalty is to a client compared to where you stand with interests and loyalty to audiences. This dilemma and thought processing can be categorized under the consequential theory of utilitarianism and egoism. Under utilitarianism, the greater good for the greatest number can be seen as an asymmetrical agenda, and egoism applies to the public relations professional themselves; their job helps the greater good of the client, but helping themselves in the end with a paycheck.
As I have argued for the advertising industry, I too think there is a corporate social responsibility for the public relations industry; only then could I justify that strategic communications are genuinely adopting their new ethical practices. By recognizing their influence over the public through methods that can be used in advocating for social responsibilities such as human rights, economic development, business standards, environment and so on and so forth, I trust then that the public will believe that public relation’s are genuinely ethical. At the end of the day, despite the role and job we take on in society; we are all human. Understanding that and the social responsibility we owe to each other as human beings will help the public relations industry develop a more altruistic and amiable industry, resulting in a much more trusting and understanding audience.