Ethics is concerned with the moral conduct of how we should live our lives. Being ethical means doing the ‘right’ thing. At an organisational level, most companies have a formal or informal ethical code which is shaped by their corporate culture, their values and the laws as laid out in their respective regions.
When it comes to public relations, ethics is all about earning credibility by being transparent, having integrity and telling the truth.
Many people perceive public relations as a clever way to convince the public about the value of a product or service, regardless of the actual reality. In extremis, public relations companies have been accused of withholding certain information from the public and – in some cases – even lying. Ethical issues can arise when agencies accept clients whose products or services are deemed to have a negative impact on society, such as a tobacco companies, alcohol brands and even pharmaceutical companies. If their intention is to remain ethical, agencies accepting such clients need to find a way to disclose uncomfortable issues to the public and announce the strategy behind this.
Because public relations has an impact well beyond that of client servicing and obtaining coverage, individual practitioners should be concerned with both the intended and the unintended consequence of their functions. PR professionals should adhere to a high standard of professional ethics, with truth as a key element of their behaviour.
Being unethical can have extremely harmful consequences for a public relations organisation. People place a high value on the truth and agencies subsequently found to have used subterfuge or covered up unsavoury aspects of their client’s operations can cause themselves significant damage through developing a negative reputation. This can be difficult to shake. Unethical behaviour can affect both the agency and its individuals in terms of winning new accounts and attracting new talent.
Education about the importance of ethical behaviour is an important tool to optimise behaviour. A corporate philosophy and mission statement that frames key moral principles is fundamental fr a public relations organisation, with every employee encouraged to learn them and keep them front-of-mind during their professional activities. Having strong principles and a strict moral code is not only the right thing to do, the high regard and respect that such a stance engenders in the wider public makes it a sound business practice as well.