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Ethics:  Doing the Right Thing

March 14, 2012

It’s not easy being a Public Relations professional.  We’re called “flacks” and “spin doctors.”  In entertainment, we’re portrayed as empty-headed party planners, shallow publicists or even deadly cyborg traitors (any other Battlestar Galactica fans out there?).  Worse, everybody who can work a laser printer thinks they can do our job.

On the positive side, we’re not lawyers.

Unfortunately, there are examples nearly every week of someone using what they call Public Relations tactics unethically. Corporations and political candidates smear their competition.  Governments hide embarrassing information.  Celebrities lie.

So, if ,“everybody’s doing it,” what sets a true Public Relations professional apart from the unwashed pretenders?  A code of ethics.  Good thing we have one included for no extra charge with our PRSA membership.

The PRSA code of ethics is easy to read, easy to understand and easy to follow.  As a trained Public Relations professional, nothing in there surprised me the first time I saw it, or any time since.  In short, it tells us to act for the public good, to be honest; to show loyalty to our clients and to be transparent in our conduct.

Blinding flash of the obvious, right?  

I’ve found that ethics is not hard to learn or to internalize, but it is hard to explain to those who think that all’s fair in dealing with the media, in political campaigns or in business.  

If a client or boss has not asked you to do something unethical, you’ve probably not been in the business long.  It happens.  Usually, it’s unintentional.  It is your responsibility, as a professional, to conduct yourself ethically, even if it means telling the person who signs your paycheck “No.”

Now, I’m not advocating you fall on you iPhones and take up organic farming the moment you run into an ethical challenge.  Here’s a technique I’ve used when I know I’m being asked to do something I shouldn’t.

1.  Start with the end result:  Ignore, for the moment, the unethical tactic you’ve been asked to pursue.  Challenge the requester to tell you what outcome he’s looking for when everything plays out.

2.  Sell an ethical, practical alternative.  Find a way to get there without compromising your ethical standards and sell it as the more practical solution before you get all preachy.

3.  Dig in and push back.  If the first two steps don’t work, simply refuse to take the unethical route.  Unethical behavior is always, in the long run, bad for you, your organization and the public.  There is a good chance your boss will think more of you for it.  If not…do you really want to work for this clown anyway?


Mike Pierson, Pikes Peak PRSA Ethics Chair

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