Ethics in public relations and communications

All things PR, Ethics, Personal Writing

Think about your set of ethics. Would you say that you always know what to do when confronted with right-versus-wrong scenarios? When dealing with the right thing to do, there should be one clear theory which you can apply to all situations, right? Well, that is not always the case because not everyone’s views of ethics are the same.

As a part of my final undergraduate semester at the Mayborn School of Journalism, I am studying media ethics, diversity and law in one of my capstone classes. I have learned of many different ethical theories that I, and other public relations professionals, can use to guide my decisions when I find myself in a clashing values situation. There are also two models I can use to help me make decisions when I’m in a questionably ethical situation: Ralph Potter’s Potter Box and the Navran Model.

Created by Ralph Potter of the Harvard Divinity School, the Potter Box forces the practitioner to prioritize the values and relationships of their organization in a particular situation. This decision-making model includes four steps:

  1. Define the situation
  2. Identify the values
  3. Select principles
  4. Choose loyalties

The Navran Model consists of a six-step plan that ensures that the practitioner considers a wider scope of ethical components in the decision-making process. These steps include:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Identify available alternatives
  3. Evaluate the alternatives
  4. Make the decision
  5. Implement the decision
  6. Evaluate the decision

Additionally with the Navran Model, the practitioner must apply four filters to steps 1, 3 and 6 to the process of making ethical decisions.  These are called “PLUS” filters and they call for considerations to:

  • (P) Policies – is the decision consistent with your organizational guidelines?
  • (L) Law – is it within the scope of the law?
  • (U) Universal – is it aligned with my organization’s values?
  • (S) Self – does it conform to your personal ethics and beliefs?

As I learned all this, I wondered how other public relations practitioners handled ethical situations and if their situations would have turned out differently if they had (or hadn’t) applied one of the two decision-making models mentioned above. Or are these models useless in the real world? The public relations profession has long had a stigma of unethical practices, especially since many professionals’ jobs are to manage their organization’s image and relationships and to do damage control when needed. Most PR professionals are just trying to do their job, yet the perception of spinning the truth and being liars still plagues the industry. So, what can PR professionals do to shed the reputation?

According to Mickie Kennedy, founder of the affordable press release company eReleases, the first step is for public relations professionals to personally maintain a high level of ethics.

“If the honest PR pros continue to uphold their ethics while denouncing PR pros that cross the line, then the industry can eventually shed its bad reputation,” Kennedy wrote.

On the other hand, Lord Tim Bell, head of the U.K.-based PR firm Bell Pottinger, asserts that the PR is a “lightning rod of mistrust” and that there is no solution to the industry’s challenges.

Shel Holtz, an accredited business profession and founder of Holtz Communications + Technology, calls for a public relations certification or licensing, like how public accountants must be certified, to create legal accountability for PR and communications professionals. According to Holtz, an accreditation is not enough for the reputation of industry professionals because it is not a requirement in the profession.

“Accreditation is great—I’m an Accredited Business Communicator and damn proud of it—but accreditation does not establish a legally defensible standard for an entire profession,” Holtz said.

I must agree with Mr. Holtz on this topic. Standards of ethics can become very subjective and do not enforce a high standard of ethics and behavior. Since the public relations and communications industries are still viewed as untrustworthy and biased, a certification or licensing requirement of all practitioners seems like the best step toward changing the current professional image into a positive one that all practitioners can be proud of and the public can trust.


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