Public relations campaigns, such as the one that helped to “sell” the Gulf War, have come under fire for purposefully altering public perceptions of reality. In addition to that, public relations agencies have been accused countless times of being spin doctors by all manner of media stakeholders and media groups. Such attitudes to public relations are encapsulated in how people describe certain PR practices with phrases like PR ploy, PR maneuver, and PR effort, all of which tend to be associated with insincerity and deception.
However, views like these are not necessarily a bad thing. According to public relations experts from Bravo Group, criticism coming from both the inside and the outside of the public relations industry helps to keep public relations practitioners responsive to what is perceived to be appropriate and ethical conduct. And ethically defensible behavior is a prerequisite to professionalism. Such a way of thinking is derived from religious and philosophical attitudes to laws, regulations, industry and corporate codes of conduct, professional values, personal integrity, and public relations associations’ codes of ethics.
What PR Practices Are Heavily Criticized?
Fake blogging, which is sometimes shortened to flogging or referred to as flack blogging, is a practice that involves creating a blog that looks like an independent, unbiased, and credible source. However, in reality, such a blog is run by an organization or a company with the intention of marketing a specific political viewpoint, service, or product.
Astroturfing is a public relations practice that is based on making it seem like an organization, a company, or a message originates from legitimate grassroots participants. In reality, it originates from sponsors, a fact that conveniently gets covered up. The practice means positioning the views or practices of the organization as viewpoints from the general public.
Stealth marketing is also known as undercover marketing. It is a marketing practice where a company or an organization markets a given product, service, or political viewpoint in a subtle way so that the consumers do not realize that they are being marketed to. While it might pretty effective, it is heavily criticized as deceptive and misleading.
Media Skills Training
Media skills training is a special type of communication training meant for people who are planning on having interactions with the media. In theory, it teaches individuals how to represent themselves in a professional and engaging way. In reality, it often boils down to public figures using lies and half-truths and advice not to answer questions. As a result, media skills training ends regarded as something that just clouds public discourse. Beyond that, it prevents the public from receiving important information in a clear and concise manner.
What Are Ethics?
In a nutshell, ethics are standards of integrity designed to help people recognize what is right and what is wrong. They are the deeply held beliefs and personal values that dictate what choices do people make in specific situations. Values that are perceived to be essential to living an ethical life include honesty, fairness, care, respect, and accountability, as well as the pursuit of self-actualization. The fundamental doctrines of ethics are Aristotle’s Golden Mean, deontology, and teleology.
Aristotle’s Golden Mean
Aristotle’s Golden Mean is centered around actions that represent moderation and are best for the majority of people. It’s a system used in democracy. It often requires the minority to sacrifice something valuable for the greater good of the general population.
Deontology is a doctrine according to which ethics are duty-based and rely on one’s moral obligation to keep promises and tell the truth. It does not take into account the potential consequences of doing that, such as serious harm to an innocent individual. As such, it is entirely dependent on the self-discipline and moral principles of an individual public relations specialist. It can change from person to person based on one’s traditional and cultural biases.
Teleology is an ethical doctrine that focuses on the outcomes of one’s actions. According to teleologists, the right action has good consequences, with the rightness of a given action determined by its causes and effects. This is a system that would apply to public relations practices utilized by groups with special interests. A good example of such a group is Greenpeace, an organization that used to be heavily reliant on civil disobedience.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is thought to be the founder of modern ethics. He came up with a three-step process built to solve ethical dilemmas.
The first step concerns questioning whether an act is moral or not. In such a scenario, you are supposed to apply the categorical imperative and imagine everyone performing the said act.
The second step is to think about an action and determine whether it is exploitative. If so, it is not morally permissible, as Kant believes that we should not exploit other human beings.
Last but not least, the third step is to look at a given act through the lens of respect for the dignity of all human beings. If an act is morally right, it will not violate another person’s dignity.
Role of Ethics in PR
Ethics in public relations are all about making use of knowledge, reasoning, and understanding to answer questions of right and wrong behaviors in the sphere of public relations. In practice, ethical behavior relates to both the public relations specialist and the organization that the said specialist is working for. To put it simply, all public relations specialists should be concerned with both the institutional ethics of the organization that they are working for and their professional and personal ethics.
There are a few different duties of public relations professionals, namely the duty to oneself, profession, employers, clients, and society as a whole. It is worth noting that all these duties are not listed in decreasing rank order. Instead, they meant to put an emphasis on a public relations specialist’s awareness of the number of levels of ethical consideration they might face. When faced with an ethical dilemma, they can use this list as a guide that will help them to make the right choice.
To sum up, the public relations industry has a long way to go to convince the public that it is an ethical profession. However, it is clear that thousands of public relations practitioners are committed to bringing ethics under the spotlight.
Now, with the guidance of such practitioners, the industry must continue to strive to uphold the highest ethical standards and to educate the public about what public relations is and what it is not. PR specialists should also promote the importance of ethics in public relations through campaigns, articles, and books, as well as seminars organized during public relations conferences.