Public Relations is all about building and maintaining trust, credibility and reputation. By its very nature PR is about ‘acting ethically’, by doing the right thing. But what is the ‘right thing’ in this profession?
Often, a PR professional is perceived as a manipulator, as somebody who distorts the reality and spins a persuasive message. The underlying statement is: ethics in public relations is an unreal possibility, making it a profession that is undergoing an identity crisis. This ‘perception’ of PR is farfetched from what we define as being ‘ethical’. But, is this true? Certainly not!
The historical development of PR depicts a positive inclination towards more self aware and ethical modes of communication. In fact, the earliest proponent of an ethical discourse in PR is John W. Hill, the co-founder of the globally recognised PR consultancy, Hill & Knowlton. He is known to have developed the philosophy of corporate responsibility and issue management and was an advocate of ethics in this profession. Indeed, ethical behaviour is intrinsically required within Public Relations. This will be clear if we delve into the diverse roles assigned to a PR professional.
First, a PR professional is an advocate for his/her client and is a reliable source of counsel. In this regard, the role of ethics in building trust is very important. This function of PR demands a professional to be loyal and ethical. In the due process, there are certain ethical obligations that stem out both towards the client and the public. When a professional fails to fulfil these ethical obligations, we see a damage to public trust.
Second, a PR professional strengthens media relations. When we think of ethical practices, it is important to maintain the integrity of relationships with the media and to advance the flow of accurate and truthful information that aids in informed decision making in a society. In addition, a PR professional should also preserve intellectual property rights as and when required.
Third, to foster a dynamic business environment, it is essential for PR professionals to promote and respect fair competition among each other, while at the same time keeping in mind the principle objective of serving the interests of the masses. A PR professional should avoid deceptive practices and be honest and accurate in all forms of communications. In a way, PR professionals are a voice of conscience and contribute to the good in society.
As we witness the evolution of the discipline of PR, we see numerous code of conducts emerging in major professional associations, such as the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) and the Public Relations Society of America, that deals with the values of honesty, loyalty, fairness and advocacy. However, at the same time, we should not assume that these codes of conduct are the ultimate guide to ethics in Public Relations. These are designed to help PR professional carry out their ethical obligations and are not static in any way!
To conclude, in a practice as dynamic as Public Relations, it is essential to commit to ethical practices. In this regard, it is essential for young professionals and students to be trained in ethical thinking, because PR can only be ethical when its practitioners are!
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