‘Would I lie for you?’ Ethics & Moral challenges in Public Relations

WikicommonsEthicsWhich PR professional would openly disagree with the absolute rule of public relations – never lie?  Adherence to our ethical code is our principle claim to professional status. Some even believe its universal application might help PR survive in a world where corporate reputation is at an all-time low and there’s no such thing as a secret.

So I applaud CIPR’s debate about ethics. But all this can sometimes seem like flimsy armoury in the face of a real ethical dilemma in the workplace.

A few years ago, I was instructed to lie. Preparing to communicate information on a sensitive matter to stakeholders, I could see no commercial, legal or other reason to withhold it. Transparency was a cornerstone of our trustworthiness. My superior disagreed, accusing me of naivety, demanding that I remove any reference to the information and ‘tough it out’.

I left work that evening knowing I was facing my first big PR moral dilemma. Alone and unsupported, real-life ethical decision-making is wracked with confusion, fear and doubt. How far was I prepared to go in defence of a principle? Resign, plunging my family into financial uncertainty, making them victims of my high-mindedness? I rationalised that not all lies are ‘bad’ and I was quite sure my superior’s motive was more misguided paternalism than nefariousness.

Hadn’t I allowed my judgement to be clouded by getting close to the audience in question? Serving the public interest can seem a lofty ideal when the paymaster is questioning your loyalties. Isolated in the symbolic space between an organisation and its publics, PRs often risk identification with their audiences. Harder to lie to people you know. And what about the transcendent values of upbringing and my sense of self? Contradicting them to pacify an out-of-depth leader would be a betrayal too far.

The next morning, I skirted a confrontation by showing him how I would manage the consequences of the ‘truth telling’ and argued that while lying might win some respite, it risked damaging trust. I believed a pragmatic approach would best address the fears and doubts driving his decision-making. I judged that he would resist my waving (or hiding behind?) an ‘ethical code’ though its tenets shaped my advice. Reluctantly he agreed to my approach.

So what lessons do I draw from this PR parable?

  • Psychopaths aside, most leaders usually feel compelled to lie when they are under enormous pressure, grasping the illusion of control. Practical PR advice should address these fears as much as the case in hand;
  • Some pundits claim PRs need to become the ‘moral conscience’ of their organisations, but ethical decision-making is a team sport that benefits from diverse input. We can’t bear the responsibility alone;
  • Invest at least as much time on ethics as you do fire drills. Get leaders or clients to stress test those elegantly worded core values with messy ethical ‘scenarios’. Better that pressure points emerge during a dress rehearsal than the real thing, when emotions are raw.

Ethical behaviour isn’t intrinsic to the operative value of PR as it is to, say, the medical professions. It is possible to function, even prosper, by lying and spinning on behalf of our paymasters. Being held accountable as individuals for our ethical turpitude is as unlikely as being applauded for our rectitude.

So doing the right thing remains almost solely an individual choice and a lonely one at that. Don’t expect thanks. Just an easier conscience. And another tiny dent in the corporate mask.

The CIPR recently published a series of short articles on professional ethics in public relations. The articles focus on ethical conduct relating to internal communications, lobbying, media relations and social media. CIPR members can access the articles here.

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