There was a time when people did not associate public relations with matters of conscience or ethical behaviour. Today, both practitioners and the public take a more sophisticated view and acknowledge that ethical considerations are part of the job. But not surprisingly, there still isn’t any agreement on exactly what part of the job ethics in public relations represents.
Recently, I was part of a panel of public relations experts asked to address a group of college students who, it turned out, had decided ideas about how they would practice public relations. One of our panellists was vilified by the audience when he began to describe working with a company whose environmental record is debatable, while another of the panellists was lauded when she revealed she had been a ‘whistleblower’ at one point in her career. The conversation became quite heated as many of the students asked the practitioner with the environmental client, “How could you represent someone like that?” in tones of horror, incredulity and distain. Several other students were openly admiring of the ‘whistleblower’ and vowed they would always do the same if they found themselves working for an organization involved in illegal or unsavoury behaviours. Though admirable in many ways, most of the students’ remarks indicate they believe that a public relations professional’s role is that of ‘conscience’ of the organization. Is it?
I, too, have experienced the challenge of working with clients or employers with whom I disagreed on ethical matters. I took the challenges very much to heart and made tough decisions – including resignations – when I could not stomach what I was being asked to do. But I viewed it as a matter of personal and professional ethics for me, and not as my job as arbiter of ethics for the organization. I saw my resignation, once as an employee and a few times as a consultant, as strictly my decision and since the issues were ethical and not illegal, there was no further obligation or action necessary. It was up to my conscience alone.
Over the years, I’ve had interesting debates with other public relations professionals who’ve taken various stances on our obligations to our clients or employers. One colleague is adamant that we have the same responsibility to our clients that lawyers do: we must represent them zealously to the best of our ability and not let personal beliefs get in the way of providing the best service and counsel possible. I don’t agree. Legal representation is codified in our Charter and someone accused of a crime is entitled to it, but to my knowledge, nowhere in law is the right to the best communications advice available. I think many of my colleagues agree with me; look at the Toronto PR firm’s firing of Jian Ghomeshi when they felt he was dishonest with them. On the other hand, there are lots of public relations practitioners happy to work with clients who want ‘spin’ not strategic counsel and who are only happy using the word ‘transparent’ but not really being so.
None of us really knows how we will react until we are tested. Do you see yourself as the ‘conscience’ of your organization or for your clients? Is it part of the role of the public relations professional at the table to provide ethic counsel or to guide the discussion about ethical behaviour? I think it varies for both the organization and the individual. The only thing that is the same is having the conversation in advance of an ethical issue and even then, you’re only a little ahead of the game. Once you’re in an ethically challenging situation, ah, the game is afoot.