“There’s a hole in the moral ozone and it’s getting bigger”- Michael Josephson, American ethicist.
Following on from my previous post, it became apparent that the majority of people perceive PR and propaganda as two different entities, and that PR only becomes propaganda when it is done in an unethical manner. Whether you agree with that statement or not, you can’t ignore that both PR and propaganda equally have ethical issues which need to be addressed.
Why is ethics so important?
As noted by Canadian practitioner Guy Versailles ”public relations without ethics open the door to lies and manipulation”. He goes on to say how important it is for PR practitioners to sit back and think about their personal values. It is ”important for experienced public relations professionals not only to deepen their training on the effective use of tools and methods, but also to take the time to reflect on their values and to form a strong ethical conscience”.
It is down to ourselves and the organisation we work for as to whether we comply to them. Just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it is ethical. Starbucks and the tax-avoidance story is a great example. The company has paid just £8.6m UK tax in 14 years. An investigation by news agency Reuters also found that they hadn’t paid any tax in the past 3 years. Campaigner Richard Murphy from Tax Research UK told BBC Radio 5 live ”this is tax avoidance, they’re doing nothing illegal. That doesn’t mean to say it’s right“. I find it ironic that the company has an whole section on corporate social responsibility (CSR) on their website, focusing on how they are an ‘ethically responsible company’ (obviously not that responsible!). Do companies just use CSR to maximise profits and buy their way out of bad behaviour?
I think the case for propaganda can be made when PR companies focus on asymmetrical communication. Grunig offers an ideal approach to PR and how companies should strive for two-way symmetrical communication instead. It is based on a relationship of give-and-take, focusing on mutual respect and understanding.
Although Bernays thought of PR as propaganda he does note that PR practitioners should not ”fool or hoodwink the public” (Bernays, 1928). He also believes that honest PR practitioners when sending out PR material must make sure it is ”clearly labelled as to source. The editor knows from whom it comes and what its purpose is, and accepts or rejects it on its merits as news”. Therefore implying to me, that journalists have as much as an ethical role to consider as PR practitioners do when it comes to the dissemination of news.
One blog I find most beneficial when studying ethics in PR is ‘Public relations and managing reputation‘ by PR practitioner Craig Pearce. He questions whether there are certain areas where PR shouldn’t belong, such as gambling, nuclear waste, smoking etc. In such controversial cases, we may be helping to portray a company in a positive light regardless of whether we believe in their ideas or not. Is their a point when we need to stand back and say ‘enough is enough’?
A great example is the use of real animal fur in fashion, particularly among famous designers such as Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Dolce and Gabbana. Personally for me, I would not be able to work for such an organisation which believes that using real fur is OK. However, other people may be perfectly happy to work for said designers.
We all have our own ethical conscience which differs from person to person. Some have strict views which will not be changed, whereas others may be prepared to bend their values slightly. In my PR lecture a few weeks ago, journalism ethics Professor Richard Keeble spoke to us about the four types of people who look at ethics in different ways:
- Cynical/Amoral Approach – Pretending to be ethical but only for self-interest.
- Own Sense – A person who is not going to be influenced
- Professionalism Approach – A person who rigorously follows the codes of conduct.
- Radical Response – Promotes idea that ethics is problematic in itself. Ethics evades the origins of PR.
Personally, I’m the ‘Own Sense’. I don’t feel as though I need codes to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. It’s just using common sense and knowing when it is appropriate or inappropriate to do something. Yet, it doesn’t mean that I know exactly how to behave in certain situations.
Is it ever acceptable to hide something from the public to stop a moral panic? Is it ever OK to lie? Only you can answer those questions for yourself.