One morning as I was walking to class I noticed I was walking the same pace as a young man headed in the same direction. We smiled awkwardly and continued on. Finally he looked over my way, laughed and introduced himself. After I introduced myself to him he asked what my major is. I was not expecting what happened next.
“Public relations? People like you are the reason the government and media are so corrupt,” he yelled. “I hope you have fun making the world a worse place someday,” and he stormed off (After throwing in a few expletives).
The rest of the day I sat at my desk wrestling with his harsh words. Although there’s a chance he had no idea what he was talking about, he has a point. Ironically, pubic relations needs better public relations.
The reason PR is lacking a positive reputation boils down to one word: Ethics.
Ethics are capable of building up someone’s identity in a positive way or capsizing it, drowning any hopes of a successful future. Poor ethical choices can tear away a person’s privacy and swap a tailored Armani suit for an orange jumpsuit. Even if the poor decision never comes to the surface, the guilty person or party will suffer a clouded conscience and live in fear of being found out. Misguided ethics can lead to joblessness and in some cases, infamy. There is tremendous power in choices.
PR crises are a dime a dozen and many ex-professionals (or current pros who have managed to salvage what’s left of their reputation) are victims of their own poor ethical choices. Identity is a delicate thing.
I admit…many of the real-life ethical breaches brought up in my ethics and media law class happened well before my time. I was not as familiar with some of them as I knew I should be. I decided to research more about each case. As I began, I noticed something interesting. Before the name of the company/person was fully spelled out in the Google search bar, I knew almost exactly what area of ethics had been violated.
When an individual makes unethical choices that are brought to light, they weave new words into their identity. Personal branding is a real thing and when someone’s identity is paired with words such as “scandal,” and “plagiarism,” I think it’s safe to say that the outcome isn’t good.
Ethical practice not only helps businesses stay out of trouble, but it also allows for peace of mind that comes with a clear conscience. Pubic relations can only be properly practiced with credibility, which is reinforced by good ethics. If there’s no credibility, there’s no business.
Proceed With Caution
Although there are situations where ethics are black and white, oftentimes there’s a grey area between what is ethical and unethical.
The diagram to the right illustrates that what is ethical, credible and legal are connected but separate. Just because something is legal does not mean that it is ethical, and just because something is ethical does not mean it’s also credible. It is not uncommon for PR practitioners to be asked to do something questionable by persons of authority. It’s important to have a plan for these situations to ensure that the ethical, legal and credible decision will be made. Sometimes this can involve standing up for what is right—maybe even at the expense of your job.
A decision-making model from Trust, Inc. advises the following steps when confronting an ethical dilemma:
L- Learn everything you can
- What are the key facts and data?
- What outcome is important?
- Which laws/policies/codes apply? (Always keep the PRSA Code of Ethics handy)
- What raises an ethical red flag?
- Who are the stakeholders?
E- Evaluate your options
- Level 1: If all stakeholders agree, move ahead
- Level 2: When it’ s not that simple…
- Consult a mentor for a fresh perspective
- Identify key consequences
A- Access your intuition
- Can you sleep at night knowing you made a certain decision?
- What would your mother think about said decision?
- As my professor says, “how would you feel if your decisions today were tomorrow’s headlines?”
P- Put your decision into action
- Time to act
No matter what decision you make, always:
- Be honest
- Be respectful
- Be transparent
It’s important to be educated on ethics because a snap decision during a crisis can have negative consequences. Stay up to date on current issues and put yourself in the shoes of professionals in crisis. In addition, it’s important to be educated on the code of ethics for your company or industry to have an idea of, and prepare for, issues that could arise.
With my college graduation on the horizon, I am working hard to be prepared to face anything that might come my way during my professional career. I know PR has a long way to go when it comes to having a positive reputation in the public eye, but I fully intend to do my part in reversing the stigma. This might be a challenge, but in the end I hope I can say I’ve left a positive mark on the profession.