Can PR ever be 100% ethical?

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released their 2018 Global Communications Report – aptly named “The Evolution of Ethics” where public relations students and professionals worldwide were surveyed about the role of ethics in public relations (PR).

Can PR ever be 100% ethical?

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released their 2018 Global Communications Report – aptly named “The Evolution of Ethics” where public relations students and professionals worldwide were surveyed about the role of ethics in public relations (PR).

Some interesting insights about the current public relations landscape were revealed which also reflects on how ethics will impact the future of the PR industry. Here is a findings snapshot:

  • 70% of professionals believed the PR industry is set for drastic changes over the next 5 years
  • Only 36% of these professionals think that their companies are ready for the change.

Driving forces of change in the PR industry

The top three drivers of the change in the next 5 years according to the survey are

  • Evolving Media Landscape– 64% of respondents said they are sure the average consumer isn’t equipped to distinguish between owned, paid, shared, and earned media exposure. 60% feel the average consumer won’t even care if these are distinguishable.
  • Technological Innovations– New technology has changed the media landscape. Therefore, the scope of services offered in public relations are expanding, and the skills needed to meet those service also need to multiply
  • Greater Access to data- the Internet has dissolved the boundaries and access to information for everyone. Public or the target consumers have sensitive data on their fingertips that can make or mar the image of a company. Anyone can sniff the bad news out. Nothing can remain hidden, especially in this wired age, where news — especially bad news — gushes in an instant. It has only made the job of a PR firm all the more challenging.

Why should PR focus on Ethics?

The most prominent ethical problems for the PR industry as per the respondents:

  • 92% think fake news is one of the most potential ethical problems
  • 91% feel that PR firms that purposefully distort the truth are being unethical
  • 88% consider defending the malicious behaviour of key decision-makers, and management of the company they are representing as unethical.
  • 81% feel not maintaining corporate transparency at the firm itself as one of the major ethical dilemmas.

The most significant factor that impacts ethics in PR is the ever-evolving media landscape flooded with fake news, branded content, and paid influencers.

…good relationships between an organization and its stakeholders are built on trust; trust is gained by acting ethically and lost by acting unethically; therefore, ethical decision-making is good public relations. And, good public relations are dependent on ethical decision –making.

Paul Holmes- In his book “The Case for Ethics.”

Ethics are vital for any business. More so for the PR industry. PR is perceived as something less than respectable, and public relations professionals are known as manipulators of the public mind, who use clever tactics to convince the public that what’s wrong is actually right.

As Wendell Potter, former PR executive and author of much talked- about book- “Deadly Spin” writes

“With PR so intricately woven into every major industry and movement in today’s mass media reality, the stakes of spin have become incredibly high. And ethics do slip. PR often crosses the line into misleading, withholding, or simply lying. And when it does, society suffers — sometimes tragically so.”

Therefore, to say that there is such a thing called “Public Relations Ethics” is not just a subject taught at communications schools. It is a reality, and PR industry should embrace PR ethics the way other industries have their own code of conduct.

Critical Skills needed for ethical PR today

Considering the drivers of change in the PR industry, these are the essential skills for PR firms to succeed in future

  • Strategic Planning– Organizations should sit down with their PR firms and work upon a strategy to formulate ethical boundaries. Most PR firms have the “cross the bridge when it comes” approach which is not a good strategy. In moments of crisis, it is difficult to take vital decisions which least are damaging both to the brand image as well as the public, and therefore, PR firms should sound out the alarms much before the crises hit. Strategic planning will be one of the most critical skills to develop in the future.
  • Leadership- The head of PR firms should realize that though it is easy to say that “you were not aware of the decisions taken by the accounts executive” or “you will look into it” – the damage to your reputation as a leader of the PR firm is already done. You must take full responsibility for all the decisions, big or small made on your behalf by the team. This includes the fundamental dilemmas related to integrity, honesty, and crisis management.
  • Written Communications- A PR firm has to sometimes deal with volatile situations where stakes are being revised every minute. Written communication between the company leadership and PR agency is extremely vital. If you can’t determine whether the course taken is ethical or not, at least you should be able to envision the fallout and work on scenarios. All the information should be duly shared with your clients and should be put on records.
  • Social Media & multimedia content development- Social media is here to stay, and a video literally speaks a thousand words. See our previous article: The Big Picture- Value of videos for brands- here. Therefore, today’s PR managers have to be well-versed in how to churn out engaging social media content that projects the values, brand, and image of the organization in the correct manner.

The role of today’s PR manager is continuously evolving, and today they are as much a part of management as any other function. Despite a lot of negative reputation of public relations, there is still potential for encouraging ethical communication.

Public relations professionals have long been labeled as “spin doctors,” and as a result, they are always a subject matter of critical scrutiny by journalists and the public. The only way to break this image is by adhering to the highest ethical standards to demonstrate their credibility as honest and trustworthy professionals.  As Madan Bahal, co-founder and MD of Adfactors PR, rightly puts it

“The evolved professional should not be limited by the idea of communications – which by definition itself is limiting. One school of thought says that public relations is 90% behaviour and 10% communications. Our jobs will involve advising client corporations on the right conduct in society so that they are not misaligned with stakeholder expectations. This, in my opinion, will drive the strategic relevance of PR professionals”

K2 Communications Pvt. Ltd. has been in the business of helping clients successfully embrace technology changes and the ever-changing media landscape by employing innovative tactics ethically and with integrity for the last 15 years.

We have the strategies and tools to help clients claim their positions as industry leaders. If you’re in healthcare, education, technology or any other industries, and need help with a PR, marketing or social media campaign, contact K2 Communications today!

About the author:

Shiv Shankar – He is the Executive Director & Founder of K2 Communications. Under his astute leadership, K2 Communications has developed into a frontrunner among PR agencies that incessantly delivers excellent regional and national PR support to clients belonging to various sectors including government, IT, education, consumer, and healthcare.

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