Ethics in PR Matters—Especially Now

September 29, 2020By Tressa RobbinsAMEC, Burrelles, Communications, Content Marketing, General Information, Marketing, Media Industry, Media Measurement, Media Monitoring, Media Outreach, Media Relations, Mobile Media, News Coverage, Productivity, PRSA, PRSSA, Public Relations, Social Media, Technology 2 Comments

Trust and ethics go hand-in-glove, and in today’s disrupted environment, they aren’t just important; they are crucial.

So what exactly is “ethics”? The Merriam-Webster dictionary states, ethics plural in form but singular or plural in constructionthe discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. A set of moral principles: a theory or system of moral values. A guiding philosophy.

September is Ethics Month for two of the largest public relations member organizations — PRSA and PRCA. In full disclosure, I’m a member of both organizations.

Here in the U.S., you may be familiar with PRSA but not so much with PRCA as they are based in the U.K. The Public Relations and Communications Association is the world’s largest professional PR body with more than 35,000 PR professionals in 70 countries. All PRCA members are bound by a professional charter and codes of conduct. You can review the PRCA Professional Charter here, which includes a definition, rules of conduct, as well as arbitration and disciplinary procedures.

You can review the PRSA Code of Ethics here, which has recently been expanded to include guidance and examples of unethical situations. PRSA states, “Ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member.”

Nearly every professional PR and communications organization has a code of ethics — PRSA, PRCA, NSPRA, PR Council, IPRA, PRIA, Institute for PR, Global Alliance, ICCO, IABC, AMA, etc. Many other professional organizations also pledge to abide by a certain ethical standard. Even private companies, publicly-held corporations, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions have standards to which they hold their employees or members. Enforcing these values is essential.

Ethics and competence are the two distinct attributes to trust, according to the 2020 Trust Barometer Global Report. Of the two, ethics wins by far. The report showed that ethical drivers are a whopping three times more important to a company’s trust than competence.

The general public’s view of the PR industry, however, is not so rosy. The 2018 USC Annenberg Global Communications report on the Evolution of Ethics showed that in the U.S., 57% viewed PR as somewhat or very unethical—higher than the 44% internationally. On the plus side, 75% of students say ethics play a very or extremely important role in their choice of PR as a career.

Students and young professionals involved with PRSSA (the student affiliate of PRSA) believe ethics is the underlying principle upon which all great PR lessons are based, per a recent story in PR Daily.

Today, there is hyper-awareness of corporate, brand and organizational ethics — just spend a few minutes on Twitter to see!

Salesforce’s State of the Connected Customer Report says, “trust has always been foundational in customer relationships, but it’s a more nuanced subject in an era where customers expect transparency, authenticity, and ethics.” Seventy-three percent of customers say trust in companies matters more than it did a year ago, and yet 54 percent say it’s harder than ever for companies to earn their trust. As a matter of fact, nearly 70 percent of both consumers and business buyers say they won’t buy from companies with poor ethics. That in itself should tell you why this is so critical now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on the value of PR as people look to companies and organizations to communicate the current reality ethically. Even when the truth is somber and difficult, you must present the facts with a strong front — while being honest and empathetic.

Good ethics can’t be simply willed into existence; it must be practiced —and enforced. If you are disingenuous, it will come out, and you’ll find yourself and your organization neck-deep in controversy and speculation, and be forced into a reputational crisis communication situation.

As Martin Waxman said in a story for Spin Sucks, “If we want to build trust with audiences, transparency, truthfulness, and ethics are all we have.”

And last week, PR Council president, Kim Sample, said in an interview with PRNEWS, “Your reputation and commitment to ethics are the most important things you will carry with you in this field.”

In a time when fake news, disinformation (purposeful intent to mislead), misinformation, propaganda, and deep fakes are an everyday concern, ethics are paramount to earning trust. And, as the data reflected, trust has never been more important than now.

How does your organization approach PR ethics?  What is your decision-making process to ensure ethical communications?

Please feel free to share your experiences or thoughts with us in the comments section or on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn—we want to hear from you!

2 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing these insights, Tressa. The compliance piece is growing in importance, and PR industry associations that turn a blind eye to it do so at their peril. Kudos to the PRCA based in London for taking a leadership position and having an enforced ethics code! I’m also impressed by my PRSA Ethics Council colleague Kim Sample and her organization, the PR Council’s, Code.

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