By: Donald Smith
Lately I have been asking myself, “Where is the balance?” The reason I ask this question is because whenever there are articles written about public relations the words “manipulative” or “liars” are attached. This leaves me confused because in all of my classes I have been taught to always be ethical, and that truth is the pinnacle.
There is a code of ethics for PR practitioners from the Public Relations Society of America. In it PRSA lists advocacy and honesty as its first two core values (PRSA, 2016). So, then I am left with the question, “How do we have a reputation for being manipulative and liars when we live by core values that oppose those notions?”
Understandably there are a few bad apples in every bunch. However, can a few bad apples ruin a whole profession’s integrity? So, there must be something larger going on. This brings me back to my junior year of college when I was taught that we must know how much information to give. This lesson I understood because in PR crises happen constantly, and statements are expected almost instantaneously. If someone were to give out everything they knew without confirmation from other sources it could lead to greater turmoil.
I think this is where it gets tricky, and why PR gets a bad reputation. When we withhold information people think we are being dishonest and manipulative in what the public gets to see and/or hear. Of course there will be some who withhold information for negative reasons, as seen in Bowen’s article where she talks to some practitioners at a conference who bluntly admit to lying (Bowen, 2015). As for those who do not withhold, where is the median? Where is the middle ground between staying honest and being an advocate to the public, but also doing your job of promoting your organization? What are we supposed to do if our organization’s goals and values hurt the public?
These questions almost lead me to believe that the problem resides in the code of ethics, mainly the core value of “loyalty.” The code states that we must be loyal to whom we represent, while maintaining our advocacy to the public (PRSA, 2016). I have learned the hard way that you cannot always play both sides of the coin. By us doing this we have appeared to be dishonest and manipulative. An example of this would be PR agency Edleman and the EPA Chief McCarthy. Edleman was trying to stay loyal to the coal industry while being an advocate to the public. However, in this article they were caught withholding information from the public and lying to the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the future of the coal industry. Others have noticed this problem, including Fellow PRSA Gerard F Corbett, who in his article confronts these notions. He states that PRSA needs to be more vigilant in calling out fellow practitioners when they commit these wrongs to regain integrity (Corbett, 2015). If we decide to keep playing both sides how do we make the coin land on its side to appease both organizations and the public? As of right now I do not see an answer, but it is important to start the discussion.
- Bowen, S. (2015, August 12). ‘We are professional manipulators’ – PR pros, are we lying to ourselves? Retrieved September 01, 2016, from http://www.prweek.com/article/1359922/we-professional-manipulators-pr-pros-lying-ourselves
- Coffee, P. (2012, October 12). Are PR Reps All Liars? Retrieved September 01, 2016, from http://www.adweek.com/prnewser/are-pr-reps-all-liars/48506
- Corbett, G. F. (2012, March 09). All public relations professionals are liars? – that is not the case in America. Retrieved September 01, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/mar/09/public-relations-liars-blog-ethics
- Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Member Code of Ethics. (n.d.). Retrieved September 01, 2016, from https://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/index.html#.V8iAOU0rLnB
- Nollau, L. E. (n.d.). [Unidentified man looking down away from camera, 1936]. Retrieved September 1, 2016, from http://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7prr1pgv6h_217_262 #262
- Milloy, S. (2015, December 11). Busted: EPA Chief, Largest PR Firm Caught Lying About Coal. Retrieved September 08, 2016, from http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/12/11/busted-epa-chief-largest-pr-firm-caught-lying-about-coal/