By Simon Goldsworthy and Trevor Morris, authors of Public Relations Ethics: The Real- World Guide.
‘PR people are professional liars. And that’s what they’re paid for.’
So says a top PR insider with considerable international experience whom we interviewed for our new guide to PR ethics.
Of course, they spoke to us on condition of anonymity. Few people in the industry want to put their names to some of the things they themselves say in private (and then denounce in public). But these remarks would strike a chord with how some outsiders – not least journalists – view PR.
PR’s never-ending search for a more ethical image is partly an understandable response to these reputational problems.
However, it has to be said that the fact that the industry is seen as being glamorous, racy and even occasionally sinister seems to have done it little harm: plenty of people want to work in it.
Moreover, when people have a product to sell, a cause to promote or a crisis to manage, everyone, even its staunchest critics, wants PR for themselves – though they often avoid the term PR and call what they do ‘communications’ or ‘campaigning’.
PR ethics boil down to two main issues – whom you’re prepared to work for, and what you’re prepared to do when you’re working for them.
The first raises a forest of issues on which opposing groups of people, all of whom no doubt consider themselves ethical, will never agree. And the ground is constantly shifting – how do you balance the mounting concerns about fossil fuels with the environmental and sometimes human damage caused by the extraction of rare metals to make electric car batteries. What if being ethical means forgoing huge business opportunities and fewer jobs? All the major agencies seem to want to work in China. Presumably the temptations of such a massive market overriding concerns about human rights.
Even if the client or employer seems uncontroversial, the do’s and don’ts while working for them can still be hard to resolve. For example, many people reading this post might be indignant about the opening quote. But pause for a moment. If pressed by journalist, would you – indeed can you – admit to every dispute and difficulty faced by the organisation that has hired you?
Is a ‘little white-lie’ acceptable in defence of a client’s privacy? Is it ethical to cherry pick the facts that best make your case? Is it ethical to arrange a photoshoot to make an event look more crowded than it is? Is it ethical to give a negative off the record briefing to a journalist about a competitor? Our book is full of such real-world PR challenges and dilemmas.
It would be impossible and arrogant to try and impose a moral straightjacket on practitioners who work in very different cultures and in an enormous range of circumstances, but we conclude our book with a ten-point checklist. By reading the book and using the checklist practitioners can at least think through the ethical issues they confront.
You can pick up a copy here.